⇒ Read an excerpt from Reavis' new book, Catching Out: The Secret World of Day Laborers
Independent Weekly: How do you think society's views and values have changed regarding blue-collar work?
Dick Reavis: I think it's gone backwards. I think that the manual worker today has far less status than he did 40 years ago and that his prospects for living a fairly decent life have been reduced. People don't make as much money, and more than that, I think they've come to be despised. Forty years ago, your neighbor might have been a manual worker and you understood something about him. Today white-collar people regard manual workers as superior to beasts of burden, but not by much.
Why do you think that is?
It's because we ship most of our work overseas and the emphasis on a university education is a reflex of that. So people say 'If you're smart you'll go to college,' whereas in the late '60s, an auto worker made more than most college graduates. At least more than public school teachers. You had a choice in those days: Did you want to work with your hands or did you want to work supposedly with your brains?
In the book you discuss the work-centeredness of American life, describing it as having a social as well as an economic bond. Toward the end of the book you depict a scene in which your colleagues show concern for your well-being. You seemed surprised. Why?
I was quite surprised. I always assumed I could drop dead out there and nobody would give a damn. I'm sure had one of them dropped dead it wouldn't have disturbed me. There hearts were bigger than mine.
I think as you go down the class scale you're going to find people are less competitive, which means more accepting of each other. But when people start to compete with each other, they start disliking each other and ranking everybody.
Tell us about the pecking order of the day labor halls.
I'm not sure there is a hierarchy among day laborers, but there is vis a vis the industry. If you have a car, you have double the chances of getting a job as a guy who doesn't. But they'll have to pay you $5 a day to drive you to the job both of you're going to.
Anybody who has a regular job—who's doing day labor part-time, weekends—has a little more status with the company than the regular day labor guy does. Because the people with full-time jobs tend to be more disciplined, more polite. They have more labor discipline than the rest of us. If there's any hierarchy, it's how well you do the work? The expectation is that everybody will carry his or her own load. The second is how much you drink. The more you drink, the more popular you are.
The workforce is male-dominated and women seem openly discriminated against. Why do you think Gladys was able to break through? What qualities did she possess that the other women did not?
I don't think it's fair to say women aren't given the best jobs. The companies that do the hiring sometimes discriminate against women but the labor hall I went to defended them. What the hall did was try—when there were easier jobs at least when it came to physical exertion—to give those to women.
The men believe everybody needs a job. I saw them one time essentially threaten a foreman who was going to fire a woman worker, because everybody needs a job. They formed a circle around that foreman and he could see if he fired that lady he was in trouble.
Gladys shows up and the first thing I noticed about her is she's sleeping outside the labor hall. On morning, she's out there washing up at the faucet. She has a bedroll she hides behind some bushes. And she wore jeans—some of the women would show up in their Sunday best. She looked like a real day worker as far as her dress. asked the men, 'How she's doing?' and they say 'She's outworking us.' They spoke quite respectfully of her. Anyone would have been glad to be assigned a job with her because she's going to carry the heavy end of the load.
You describe scenes that illustrate the underlying racial tension at the day labor halls. Did you ever see it boil over? How is that managed as a community?
The place where I worked was about 80 percent black. There were one or two Latinos, but almost none. The rest of us were white. I don't think I ever saw blacks and whites have any trouble. Although we had one white guy nobody liked and that was because he was your Confederate flag type. He was otherwise egotistical and acted superior.
The friction was between the Latinos on the job where we worked and our crews that were black. It never came to a point of friction but it was clear the black workers felt that they had been displaced. Because I speak Spanish I was always talking to the Latinos and it became clear to me that after six months in this country, their attitudes towards were the blacks were the same as that of whites towards blacks. Which is unfortunate. It never came to blows but there was always this sense of superiority from the Latinos who had been here a while. And the blacks it seemed to me their view of it was all our lives it's been something. Now it's the Latinos; that's why we can't find work.
Why the change when the Latinos got here? Was it a matter of their assimilation? In some Latino countries darker-skinned people are also discriminated against.
When they get here Latinos don't know what to think of American blacks. They learn either from whites or from being treated superior to blacks by white foremen and so on. Because the plain facts of the matter are most of the employers of day laborers prefer Latino workers because they're more docile. They're scared to death of being deported Meaning because most don't have papers they can't afford to give the boss any lip. Whereas the black and white American workers will do that.
The bossman is not depicted very sympathetically and for good reason. What did it require, temperamentally, to manage day labor workers, some of whom may not be willing to work? Is there a good reason for the bossmen to behave the way they did?
We saw different kinds of bosses. The worst were the mom and pop bosses, the independent operators of a small firm. Those guys and a few construction foreman will do rednecking—they're on top of you all the time, correcting it telling you to work faster and so on. The mangers of corporations were much different. They would tip us hours—meaning they'd write on our tickets more hours than we did. They would see that we had food at lunch give us drinks they were generally courteous. They either felt sorry for us or understood what our lives were like. He probably hates his boss and much as you hate yours.
These jobs can be very dangerous, yet no health benefits. The people who work day labor would not be able to afford lawyers if they wanted to sue. What becomes of the injured worker?
of the work is dangerous—about half of it. There is no health insurance coverage. If you become injured you're going to go through the workmen's comp system—it's a state law—which exists to keep workers from suing their employers. It's a racket from the start. I never knew anyone who was disabled during the time I was there by what we did. The more common thing is you get hurt in a way that costs you a day, two, three days on the job. Your back gets hurt. You get cut. And when you do, the labor hall's going to offer you medical care. I guess they've been civilized. But if you can't come to work, that's your hard luck, whereas on a permanent job your salary would continue.
These jobs are often thankless and punishing—and necessary. But there seems to be a general lack of awareness among many middle-class and upper-class Americans about this work and the people who do it. Why is there such a disconnect? Has it become more pronounced over the years?
I thought about that a lot. Today most middle-class, white-collar Americans think that day labor is like mowing the lawn. That doesn't take a lot of skill. But most of the day labor out of halls isn't like that. When you're using a pick, you can't take your mind off it or you're going to stick yourself in the foot. And it's varied enough you're learning a new physical skill every day.
I think the problem is people don't know what it is. Garbage men in the suburbs often work for day labor halls. If you're working as a garbage man, you have to jump down and lift the garbage can about 500 times a day. It will exhaust you. And every garbage can weighs different so you never know what to expect. People just don't think about it and that it's not worth much money. You couldn't pay me enough to have a career on a garbage crew. It's one of the worst jobs in the world.
If you were to pay people on the value to society, the garbage worker should be among the highest-paid people.
If you paid people according to what it would take to hire you to do their job, we'd have a much different wage scale. Because sitting at a desk is a lot easier than picking up garbage, coal mining, construction work. But our wage scale isn't based on our sense of aversion. It's based on how many people are unemployed in those categories.