Author Eyal Press on America’s “dirty work”

Part of the Future of Work issue of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world. Harriet Krzykowski was a mental health aide in a South Florida correctional facility, making $12 per hour, when she learned of the death of Darren Rainey. Rainey was a mentally ill […]

Part of the Future of Work issue of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world.

Harriet Krzykowski was a mental health aide in a South Florida correctional facility, making $12 per hour, when she learned of the death of Darren Rainey. Rainey was a mentally ill man who had been incarcerated at the prison where she worked, and prison guards had killed him.

The details were particularly horrifying. The guards responsible had trapped Rainey in a shower and tortured him with scalding water until he collapsed. The temperature had reached as high as 180 degrees. By the time of Rainey’s autopsy, he had burns on 90 percent of his body. Rainey’s skin, reportedly, would fall off if touched.

Krzykowski wanted to quit her job upon hearing of the 2012 incident. She couldn’t afford to. She was one of the many American workers whose stories journalist Eyal Press tells in his book, Dirty Work: Essential Jobs and the Hidden Toll of Inequality in America, published late last summer. Press, whose feature reporting appears in the New York Times, the New Yorker, and the Guardian, shines light upon the lives of undocumented immigrants working on the kill floors of poultry slaughterhouses, Americans deputized to carry out drone warfare in their country’s name, and others, such as Krzykowski, who have been toiling in jobs that the most powerful castes pass on to the poorly educated and compensated. Those jobs often serve to empower the very system that maintains and exacerbates social and economic inequity — and robs workers of their dignity along the way.

I spoke with Press about the people who American society demands do the “dirty work” for others, and the complicity of us all in their plight. I also wanted to know his views on the recent labor victories won by Amazon and Starbucks employees, and how the state of work has been broken in the United States. Can we put it back together? Do we really want to?

A lightly edited transcript of our discussion follows; a more in-depth audio version will air in May as an episode of the Vox Conversations podcast.

Tell me just plain and simple: What is “dirty work”?

Well, “dirty work” in my book is a little different from the colloquial expression most people know. I think when most people hear that phrase, they think of an unpleasant job that is physically dirtying, like hauling the garbage off the streets. But here, “dirty work” refers to something different: unethical or morally troubling activities that society tacitly condones and depends upon, but generally doesn’t want to hear too much about.

You start off the book with a quotation from James Baldwin: “The powerless must do their own dirty work. The powerful have it done for them.” So, are we speaking here strictly in terms of what benefits the powerful, or are we talking also about folks who don’t necessarily want to do a particular thing that keeps society running?

Even though I don’t think [Baldwin] is referring to “dirty work” as I’m referring to it, he’s capturing there something that’s very basic. When you have to dirty your hands and you have a lot of power, you get someone else to do it for you, right? You have the luxury to kind of disassociate yourself from this kind of unpleasant activity.

And if you don’t have power, you often find yourself being the person who’s on the receiving end of that order to do the “dirty work.” When we think about America’s prison system, who runs that system? Who works in that system? I don’t just mean the guards. I also mean the mental health aides.

A lot of my book takes place in the mental health ward of a prison [and] America’s industrial slaughterhouses — the kill floors of those slaughterhouses.

That Baldwin quote sets us up for thinking about “dirty work” through the prism of power. It really is through that prism that my own exploration of it takes place.

You’ve spent years researching the lives and the work of these people who cannot afford to quit their jobs, despite the indignities that they’re suffering and witnessing. Tell me a little bit about who these people are.

Who they are is generally folks who take what I call jobs of last resort. They’re not society’s elites. They don’t have advanced degrees from places like Stanford and Harvard. They end up doing a job that is concentrated and geographically located in less advantaged parts of the country.

During the prison boom in this country, it’s no accident that so many prisons were built in more depressed rural areas of the country that had kind of seen their mills and factories go, and saw building a prison as a way to create jobs for the economy. But what ends up happening is the people who fill those jobs are the least advantaged.

And it’s not that they can’t leave the jobs. They often have very bad choices in front of them, so they feel compelled to stay for one reason or another.

You mentioned in your epilogue that inequality also shapes the geography of “dirty work” and who is held responsible for it. In terms of the jobs that you cover in this book, you’re talking not just about folks who work in slaughterhouses or in prisons, but also folks who are operating drone strikes. How does the inequity we experience in this country shape the geography? How does it determine where that “dirty work” is done?

Dirty Work opens with the story of a mentally ill incarcerated man in Florida named Darren Rainey, who is literally tortured to death. He’s locked in a scalding shower by a group of prison guards in a prison called the Dade Correctional Institution. It’s a horrible crime. Certainly the guards who were involved in that crime should be held accountable, but it’s notable that, as in the Abu Ghraib story, no one of higher rank was held accountable for Darren Rainey’s death.

In fact, a lot of people who were in high-ranking positions at that time got promoted or ended up benefiting. In fact, the governor of Florida at the time was Rick Scott. And as we know, Rick Scott is now a US senator from Florida.

One of the ways that inequality plays out in the story of dirty work in this country is that on the rare occasions when the curtain is pulled back and we see this dirty work going on, the blame goes to the lowest-ranking people at the bottom, and that’s very convenient for society, right? It’s like, “Oh yeah, there were these awful guards. Wow. They did this horrible thing.”

But why did this happen? Well, it happened because Florida, like so many states, has turned its prisons into its largest mental health institutions, right? Florida spends just about less than any other state. At the time of Rainey’s death, they had the third-largest prison system in the country. So where are the resources going? And what kind of institutional and structural arrangements have been made to, in effect, create the conditions so that abuses like the ones I describe — both with Darren Rainey as the victim and many other people as the victim — these abuses are not surprising. These abuses are predictable. And it’s the folks at the bottom who we can conveniently blame, but who are part of a much larger system of dirty work that I think all of us are to some extent accountable for.

It’s easy, I think, for some people to disengage, saying, “Well, there’s no changing the system.” And also they’ve been shown only “the good things” that the system can do for them. And thus, we’re not worried as a society about the people who you describe as these cogs in the suppressive system. And folks who, as you note, could be considered enablers or accomplices — but are actually more like captives. Could you describe what you’re trying to get at?

To go back to the prison example, I talked about the Dade Correctional Institution and the mental health ward there. I look at and I interview the mental health aides who worked there and someone could certainly say they were complicit in what happened to Darren Rainey. Why?

Because they knew what was going on. They knew that the guards at Dade were having fun, some of them were deliberately abusing mentally ill incarcerated men in this facility and getting away with it. You have a Hippocratic oath, right? You have a duty to report.

On the other hand, as I say in the book, these were mostly women who were working, who I interviewed. Working in the mental health ward, and their own security, just going to work every day and running group sessions and getting from one wing of the prison into another wing, they were beholden to the security guards at this institution to make them feel they could do their jobs safely without being threatened, without being left alone in the rec yard as one of the mental health aides was, and she was nearly assaulted.

What they quickly learned, these mental health aides, is that if you challenge the guards in any way, they would retaliate. Harriet Krzykowski raises some questions about what the guards are doing because they’re not letting the guys out into the yard on Sundays. The response to that is that she’s suddenly left alone in the yard.

I’m particularly haunted by a conversation I had with a woman named Lovita Richardson who worked at Dade, the same prison where guards killed Rainey. When she took the job that day, she really was idealistic about it. She thought she could help people who society had kind of considered beyond the pale, thrown away, stand up for these folks’ rights. She really believed in what she was doing, and she gets the job and not long after she starts working there, she sees a group of guards pummel an incarcerated man who is tied to a chair, and she is in terrible shock and distress.

When she told me the story years later, tears filled her eyes as she’s talking about this. She wanted to report it and she wanted to get the story out, but another woman who worked there told her, “Listen, Lovita. You can’t. You can’t say anything about this. You’re just going to be retaliated against,” and so she didn’t say anything. It’s those kinds of dilemmas that the folks who do the dirty work in our society face, and it’s the rest of society that should think about those dilemmas, because we are not disconnected from this work.

What you describe happening to Lovita is a reminder of what you call “moral injuries” throughout the book. How would you define those, and what are some other examples of that being, I guess you could say, injury to insult within this context?

That’s a central idea in my book: that inequality isn’t just about who earns a huge paycheck and grotesquely large bonuses that go out to folks on Wall Street. That’s the material side of inequality, but there’s also a moral dimension to inequality.

It’s these hidden wounds that folks like Lovita sustain doing society’s dirty work, doing jobs that are not only demeaning, but that puts you in ethical situations where if you stand by what you believe and you say something, you may lose your job. If you’re not in a position where you can find an easy replacement for that job, what are you going to do?

How exactly do you think that the drive toward unionization at places like Amazon and Starbucks will help those who are stuck in these “dirty” jobs? Will labor bargain some of that dirtiness away, or just make sure that people are paid more for compromising their dignity or morals?

The most important basic fact that’s implicit in your question is that these things can be altered. I can’t say whether the poultry industry that I wrote about will experience a wave of unionization that really empowers the folks like the ones I wrote about who felt so exploited and abused. I don’t know. What I can say is that it would certainly make a difference if that happened. In fact, in the section of the book on the industrial slaughterhouses, I talk about how we’ve kind of come full circle, because back 100 years ago was the days of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. And there, again, it was an immigrant workforce that was brutally exploited and the conditions shocked and appalled those who witnessed them and read about them.

Things changed in the ’30s and ’40s and ’50s in meat packing. Why did they change? Well, there were powerful unions; in particular, a union that actually was progressive not just in empowering workers, but in integrating the union membership and making sure that Black and white workers in the plants saw each other as fighting for a common cause. That raised wages, it improved conditions. But then it reverted back when the industry responded by relocating plants outside of cities like Chicago, going, again, far afield to these rural areas and recruiting an immigrant workforce that they could exploit more easily. And going with what some of the scholars of this industry call a low-wage strategy: Bring the wages down, bust up the unions, and bring it back, in a sense, to Upton Sinclair’s Jungle.

That actually makes me think of a different book. There’s a quote at the end of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. The title character and narrator says, “Who knows, but that on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?” How do we restore the vision of those who just refuse to see other people, many of whom are maintaining the institutions that those powerful people rely upon?

Dirty work is intentionally placed behind the scenes of social life. That’s a phrase that I take from a social theorist named Norbert Elias. He wrote this big book called The Civilizing Process. And it sounds really nice, “the civilizing process.” It’s this thing where it’s actually a book about morals and manners and how, over time, things that we consider unpleasant, like blowing your nose at the table, you don’t do that. You do that in private. He talks about carving an animal, that’s done in the kitchen. It’s not done at the table. You’re reading this book and thinking, “Oh, this is a story of progress.” But it’s not a story of progress because what Elias is arguing in that book is that the civilizing process is about pushing these, what he calls disturbing events, behind the scenes of social life. We push them out of sight, in a sense.

To get back to your question, I think that that is very fundamental to dirty work in our society. It’s there, but we don’t actually see it. How often do you actually see what goes on on the kill floor of a slaughterhouse? How often do we see the footage of a drone strike? How often do we see inside the mental health ward of a prison? We don’t very often. We know it’s there, it’s not that it’s a mystery to us, but it’s abstract. There’s such a big difference between the abstract and the particular and the concrete.

I’ve been reading Clint Smith’s book [How the Word Is Passed], a tour of the American landscape and slave plantations. He starts with Jefferson and at one point he meets these two women. They kind of know Monticello was a plantation, and they know that Jefferson owned slaves, but it’s abstract and it’s not particular. That difference between the abstract and the particular is enormous.

What is the opposite of dirty work? When I saw the title, I’m thinking, there’s any number of ways you can describe this, and I’m not just talking about the Steely Dan song. I’m talking about how white-collar workers do what we might regard to be dirty work, just in a different sense.

It’s funny, because when I was telling some friends that I was writing this book, and they didn’t know anything about it, they were like, “You mean corporate lobbyists? You mean Wall Street? People who sell those shady Wall Street products that destroyed the whole global economy?” I had to laugh, because I was thinking —

Big Oil, keep going.

Exactly. I don’t, in any way, deny that some of the highest paying, most powerful jobs in American life, in American society, are deeply unethical and extremely profitable. We can think of the Sackler family, described in Patrick Radden Keefe’s great book. This is the real “dirty work,” you could argue, but there is a big difference. I’m interested in work that feels dirtying and stigmatizing and sullying and demeaning for the people who do it.

If we think about bankers, even after the great financial meltdown in 2008 that caused so much suffering, and so many people lost their livelihoods and there was so much pain in so many communities. Yet when Obama dares to criticize Wall Street, there’s immediate pushback. There’s indignation and outrage that he dares to do this. To me, that indignation reflects the power that these industries have. Not just the financial power, but the social and cultural power.

That is not something that the folks I write about in this book have. Generally speaking, they don’t have platforms. They don’t get to tell the New York Times the president should not be talking about our industry that way. How dare he? They don’t get to spend all this money influencing how they are seen and perceived by society. Fundamentally, when we think about things like stigma, moral injury, and shame, we have to think about them as a function of power, and who has it and who doesn’t in our society.

I’m trying to think about how we fix this. Part of the solution will probably have to be political. I’m thinking about what President Biden did just this past January, issuing an executive order declaring that 70,000 federal workers were going to immediately start earning $15 per hour, and that 300,000 employees of federal contractors were going to see a raise to $15 per hour reflected in their paychecks over the course of the year. One of the things he brought up was dignity. It’s not just about a paycheck. I’m wondering how you think embracing dignity in the workplace might help get us further toward labor equity, or will it have that much of an effect at all?

Biden has made a point of talking about labor as something more than just a paycheck. It is about you, your place in the community, it is about dignity. It is about your pride, or it should be, in a society that values work. In terms of fixing, there’s not a lot in my book on solutions; partly, that’s because I’m not a policy expert. I can’t claim to deliver a set of proposals that could be translated into policy that will change this. And also because, I actually think that dirty work doesn’t just grow out of policy. It grows out of culture.

That’s another reason I didn’t go into the solution side of it too much, because I feel like the real solution is a transformation of who we are. If we think about mass incarceration, to really change this immense system of cruelty and punishment, we have to change who we are. We have to change what we’re willing to be. Are we there? I don’t know.

I don’t think we’re even close. I look at what you’re saying, and to me, accountability is the death of American exceptionalism. If we actually take account of all of these various horrors that, through this country’s gestational period, it sought to hide from itself, and we got used to that, like an infant getting used to a particular environment. We got used to being this type of America, and no matter the technological advances or the cultural evolutions, it’s maintained that same character, where we can view ourselves as great as long as we hide the bad stuff.

That may feel good in the short term, but it doesn’t stop work from becoming broken in this country, as it has been. Specifically with regard to dirty work, though, is this a fixable problem if we don’t get that cultural revolution? And if not wholly, are there any particular parts that we should be targeting?

The little bit of hope that I took from the examples I chose is, on the one hand, I felt they’re incredibly entrenched, like mass incarceration. These are incredibly entrenched parts of American life. On the other hand, there are also aspects of our social world where there has been a critical mass of people who have risen in the last decade or two to say, “We cannot continue this.” To me, it’s not that dirty work is immutable, that you can’t change it. But change is hard, and change is slow.

Jamil Smith is a senior correspondent for Vox.

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