In the book Nickel and Dimed, author and journalist Barbara Ehrenreich documents three consecutive episodes of her life when she gave up the comfy, financially secure middle class life and worked difficult, “dirty” jobs that she could barely eke out a living on.
She starts out the book in Key West, Florida, where she stays in a poor-conditioned trailer and works two jobs: as a waitress at the Hearthside, a generic diner, and as a maid at a hotel named Jerry’s. Throughout the duration, Ehrenreich gives us many grueling descriptions of the rough, toilsome lives of both herself and those who work around her: the unenthusiastic interviews by employers, the ennui, as well as face-paced confusion and disorientation, of working as a waitress and juggling many different orders, tasks, and large parties of touristy customers, the short breaks for her to eat lunch and dinner at both jobs, and the feelings employees have of being “controlled” by their managers. In one particular passage, Ehrenreich mentions asking a fellow employee how she could work so long without eating, and that employee replies with the question to Barbara on how she could go so long without a cigarette.
She then writes about working in Portland, Maine as both a nursing home aide and a housemaid, mentioning that she chose this particular location for its “whiteness” (a sociological/demographic observation that Barbara makes, and reasons from such the relative ease she’ll have penetrating the low-wage workforce). As a nursing home aide, Barbara talks about the various interactions she would have with the enfeebled, elderly residents, and how they would often joke about her being Barbara Bush. As a housemaid, Barbara talks about how the ultimate goal of her job was to give the “appearance” of a clean house and not actually a fully cleaned one. She also discusses how homeowners would oftentimes view maids as second-class citizens (setting up hidden cameras to attempt catching them stealing, setting up hidden piles of dust to test how hard they work, telling them to “work on their hands and knees,” etc.), and not thank or acknowledge them for their work. Barbara talks about this vexing truth, and speculates on why maids who work so hard and break their backs (oftentimes literally) to clean homes come off as being viewed by society as inferior, unimportant, and/or even invisible. Barbara talks about her boss who would tell workers unsympathetically and unapologetically to “work through” any detrimental physical pains they may have (including migraines, which he says to suppress with Excedrin). This becomes a particular problem when one of the maids, Holly, sprains her ankle and Barbara angrily refuses to let her work through such an injury (a situation which leads to animosity between Barbara and the other workers).
In Minnesota, Barbara lives in a Motel 6 room and works as a Wal-Mart associate. In this chapter, Barbara describes, among many other things, how rigid, bureaucratic, and dehumanizing such a job as a Wal-Mart employee was: how the store would always hound potential workers for drug tests (specifically targeting marijuana users), use long, dry personality tests to examine the integrity of potential workers, and constantly emphasize to employees their intolerance for the formations of unions among workers (subsequently, Barbara talks about how unions in places like the large, faceless corporations of Wal-Mart would give “invisible” workers a voice they normally couldn’t have). Barbara also discusses the issue of “time theft,” which many employers would watch out for among workers, and also how she grew to view the Wal-Mart milieu as “her own” during long shifts, a mindset which she attributes to the dull, irksome nature of this kind of work and the “aggressive hospitality” (which she mentions turns into “aggressive hostility”) she is forced to show to customers.
During our class discussion on the Tuesday before spring break, we watched a promotional Wal-Mart video that was concerned with the issue of unions and how they were highly discouraged, as well as a commercial for a housecleaning maid service. On the former, our class talked about why unions would be formed at places such as Wal-Mart (to get higher wages and better benefits, as well as more recognition), as well as how promotional videos at huge retailers are contrived, and often portray an unrealistic racial, etc. diversity of workers. On the latter, we discussed how housecleaning maid services are not as bright and fun as they were shown in the commercial. In reality, as Ehrenreich discusses in her book, cleaning houses is a painful, virtually unrewarding, burdensome task which takes a tiring, physical and mental toll on workers. Women (a majority of the maids) work through bad backs, sprains, headaches, and sometimes even pregnancies. Also, we discussed how, unlike what was shown in the video (and similar to what Ehrenreich describes in her book), houses (as well as hotel rooms, etc.) are usually just polished and not cleaned.
During our class discussion, we posed various important questions: should those who work tirelessly and sacrifice their time and energy on rough, minimum wage jobs be “rewarded” with abject poverty and starvation? How should the system of welfare work to benefit those who toil through such taxing jobs, and are the formations of unions (which strive to attain fair higher wages, benefits, etc.) a positive or negative thing? We also discussed the racially and socially driven issue of employers trying to drive out those who use drugs (i.e. pot), as well as them viewing workers as expendable “numbers” when they work for huge conglomerates such as Wal-Mart.
I think one of the most important points driven home in our discussions was that the hardest working individuals of society are not shown any fairness or true gratuity for their work, and that those who struggle and work so hard (oftentimes simply just to survive) should be rewarded with more leniency and acknowledgement.
By Peter H. Smeallie IV