Monthly Archives: November 2009

Something Rotten in Park Slope

Last week, New York State’s Department of Labor issued a press release announcing the findings of a recent investigation of restaurants in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Park Slope. From the release:

In April 29, 2009, sixteen Department of Labor investigators paid surprise visits to 25 restaurants and coffee shops along Fifth and Seventh Avenues, from late afternoon to ten o’clock at night. Only two of the restaurants were found in compliance, while 23 had minimum wage, overtime, and other basic wage violations. After inspecting the 25 in Park Slope, the Department expanded the cases to include two jointly owned restaurants in adjacent neighborhoods. In total, 207 workers were underpaid more than $910,000. Some of the worst violations were for delivery employees working 60 to seventy hours per week and paid a salary of $210.00 to 275.00 per week. At one restaurant, workers were paid as little as $2.75 per hour.

First of all, how fun must that day have been for DOL investigators? I would have gladly paid $100 for the opportunity to tag along and watch the faces of bosses drop as the government demanded that they open their books and interview their workers.

The story has gotten good coverage in the media, certainly helped by the fact that the sweatshop conditions were found in Park Slope. For non-New Yorkers, Park Slope has become one of those neighborhoods that is so easy to make fun of that it’s not worth the trouble. Stereotypes of residents include: progressive to the point of parody; chalk full of artists/writers/people-who-hang-out-in-coffee-shops-at-11 am; and lots of parents obsessed with the latest in child rearing techniques. In a very diverse borough, it’s also noticeably not. It’s worth mentioning that many of the most ardent critics of Park Slope are suspiciously Park Slopeish themselves. For example, I’m noticeably not diverse and before getting a real job spent a decent amount of time fighting over table space for my laptop in coffee shops.

What might get lost in the story, and in my digression into the complicated psychology that can go into Park Slope bashing, is that the problem isn’t Park Slope. The DOL could have selected restaurants on the Upper East Side, Chelsea, Chinatown or Brooklyn Heights and found similar abuses. It’s not a Park Slope problem: the problem is the endemic abuse of dishwashers and delivery workers within the restaurant industry.

Last summer I wrote a piece about income inequality, which included contrasting the lives of a delivery worker with a hedge fund manager. The delivery worker was paid less than $2 an hour, and much to the DOL’s credit, they gave me a call after reading the piece and asked if they could help. I put them in touch with the worker but don’t know what came of it.

Later in the year, for my book, I delivered food in the Manhattan neighborhoods of the West and East Village, Chelsea, Murray Hill, Gramercy, and the Flatiron District. Here’s a section about some of the folks I met and the wages they earned:

One Mexican man delivers for an Indian restaurant, and is paid
twenty-five dollars in cash for a twelve-hour shift, which he works
six days a week. On a good day he makes $50 in tips. Another,
who cooks and delivers for a pizza joint, gets four dollars an hour
in cash and takes home between $30 and $40 in tips. He also
works twelve-hour shifts, six days a week. A nineteen-year-old
Ecuadorian I meet while locking up my bike just started at a Thai
restaurant; at the end of each day he’s given $20 in cash, and earns
an additional $40 or so from tips. When I ask how they’re able to
survive on their income, the answer is always the same: They live
in a small apartment with many others.

It quickly becomes obvious that I don’t need to “investigate”
the prevalence of illegal wages in the food delivery business: that’s
all there is. Over the two months that I deliver food, I speak to perhaps fifty deliverymen about wages, and never meet another person who matches my princely wage of $4.60 an hour

I would suggest that after this first successful operation, the DOL spend a month doing swat-style swoop-ins of restaurants throughout the city. Target twenty per neighborhood. Hit them hard. Move on to the next neighborhood. Hit them hard. And if they need any help, I’d love to serve as a volunteer.

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Salad Days in Yuma

Before relocating to the Arizona city of Yuma, the only thing I knew about the area was that it was both where Cesar Chavez was born and died. And, in fact, on my very first day in the lettuce fields I joined my new crew just west of a street named after Chavez. But aside from the Chavez connection, Yuma was a mystery. Only later, when doing research, did I learn that it happened to be the “winter lettuce capital” of the world. Not exactly the punchiest phrase, and certainly not likely to catch on in popular culture if they advertise the motto on items like this:

(Although, in retrospect, maybe mesh caps are in again–I can’t keep track of fashion trends. In which case, Yuma knows exactly what it’s doing.)

My two months in Yuma were spent cutting lettuce, sleeping, eating, and soaking in a tub to try and deal with the continuing deterioration of my body. Hands, feet, back, face, legs–you name it, it hurt. It took me several weeks of recuperation before I felt comfortable shaking someone’s hand, and a few more for one of my fingers to stop popping when I straightened it.

But I also have very fond memories of my time in Yuma. The crew members were great, the foreman was actually pretty cool, and each day I learned something new. Midway through my time, I purchased a weird looking one-time-use video camera from CVS for $30 or so. In the fields, many crew members saw the camera and said, “That’s just so you’ll have proof that you were here–or else your friends won’t believe you.” Basically, they were right. Sometime last year, with the editing help of my partner/wife Daniella, we put a short piece together of the footage, which I’ve posted below. Soon I’ll also be posting video from the other jobs. Hope you enjoy!

Have a good weekend, don’t get into any fistfights with anti-immigrant teabaggers, and if you happen to eat a salad, take a moment to give thanks to the mighty hands that cut it.

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Columbus Go Home

So it turns out that the idiotic brawl I wrote about yesterday in Florida occurred within the context of a national campaign by teabaggers who were targeting pro-alien forces or some such threat to our way of life. In Minnesota, the tea sippers listened to the following speech and got appropriately riled up.

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Lou Dobbs Says Goodbye: ‘I Won’t Rest Until All of Us – Not Just the Illegals – Have the Opportunity to Sell Oranges Along the Side of the Highway’

Being an old fart, I wasn’t able to stay up last night to watch Lou Dobbs on the Daily Show, but I’m going to imagine it went something like this:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

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New Trends! And a Sidewalk Brawl!

Earlier, I discussed a trend that could very well not be a trend–Anglos showing up at day labor pickup sites for work. Well, I recently came across another trend piece that seems suspicious as well.

The article, found here, is about the growth of reverse remittances, or money sent from Mexico to the US to help struggling family members who are unable to find work. A few families are interviewed to bolster the case, which I don’t find convincing: I remember seeing people sending small amounts of money from a southern Mexico town to New York in 2005–and that was with a booming economy. You could find such exceptions at any time, if that’s what you were looking for.

The one institution that is quoted is a bank, whose representative states that customers actually did send more money to the US than received it at home:

“I’d say every month 50,000 pesos are sent from here to there,” said Edith Ramírez Gonzalez, a sales executive at Banco Azteca in San Cristóbal de las Casas. “And from there, we’d receive about 30,000 pesos.” Fifty thousand pesos is $3,840.

First of all, it seems like it would be pretty easy to get someone at the bank to provide figures–as it’s written, this is just a guess by one of the employees. Secondly, as the estimate makes obvious, the bank does virtually no remittances, in either direction, which is not surprising, because money transfer companies like Western Union dominate the industry. It would be much easier to judge the growth of reverse remittances by, for example, inquiring at wire transfer companies either in Mexico or the US.

But I’m guessing that such a study would undercut the thrust of the article. I’m not saying that reverse remittances don’t exist, or even that the article’s main factual claim is inaccurate. After all, the reporter is simply stating that “a transaction that was rarely noticed before appears to be on the rise.” Another way of saying this is that a transaction that was rarely noticed before is now being noticed. But I would need to see a lot more evidence before I agreed with the reporter’s conclusion that the results he had discovered were “startling.”

I bring all this up because it demonstrates how slippery the “trend” style of reporting can be, where a conclusion is dreamed up in an editorial office and then a journalist is sent out to find evidence, however flimsy, that supports the conclusion. I also remember coming across a number of pieces about the exodus of Mexicans from the US, caused by the economic downturn. In each, a journalist was sent to the border to find out-of-work Mexicans who were returning home.

Of course, it turned out that there hadn’t been any exodus. At any given moment, people are coming and going between countries. Surprise! In fact, I was working with immigrants at a restaurant in Manhattan when many of these pieces were coming out. In the kitchen, a handful of the workers had just arrived in the US. I also spoke with a friend who works with immigrants, and he told me that he knew of a few people who had recently crossed the border and were now living in Brooklyn. With this information I could have just as easily written an article about what “appears to be a dramatic surge of Latino immigrants in New York City, based on recent interviews and anecdotal evidence.”

Okay, enough about trendy reporting. Moving on to something more fun…

In Florida, competing rallies around immigration were held between ANSWER and the tea party people. I actually don’t know exactly who the tea party folks are–something about Glenn Beck, right?–and the video below obviously provides captions from their perspective. I did notice that the ANSWER chant was “Anarchy yes, racists no!” Being an anarchist myself–of the pacific variety–and also someone who thinks racism is bad, I was initially rooting for their side. But I couldn’t help notice that once the fighting broke out, one of the ANSWER folks calls his opponent a “faggot” and says that he “hits like a girl.” It’s like I’ve always said: if you’re a militant left-wing radical but have to resort to homophobic and sexist jeers in the heat of a pointless sidewalk brawl, well, don’t get into pointless sidewalk brawls.

If anyone cares, here’s the response from ANSWER.

Let’s just hope that the upcoming fight over immigration reform remains figurative, and has a better outcome.

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Friday Photos

For this Friday I’ve included a photo from each job location–New York, Arizona, and Alabama. Have a good weekend! Hope to have some new video up next week…

ANYONE HUNGRY?

DW

One of the interesting aspects of restaurant work is the hierarchies between various kitchen employees. Waiters are upper-class: they receive the most tips and actually don’t serve all that much food. The folks who do the serving are called “runners”; they bring out the food and do a lot of the heavy lifting. Runners are middle-class, as they make a decent amount of tips and generally have been at the job for some time. Delivery workers are lower-middle class. Delivery could suck, especially when having to bike in the rain and snow, but at least we receive tips. Dishwashers are at the bottom. I think we went through four dishwashers while I was at the restaurant, who all made just above minimum wage and never saw any tips. They also have, by far, the hardest and least pleasant work, spending hours in very humid conditions and covered in leftovers. If I were a restaurant manager, I would create a special tip line for the dishwashers.

¡EJERCICIOS!

Although this isn’t exactly the best photo I’ve ever taken, if you look closely you can see that the lettuce cutters are swinging their arms around. One of the favorite parts of my day was our morning exercise routine. First of all: who knew that farm workers did calisthenics? It was really fun on the drive to work to pass so many crews of men and women warming up in the fields. The calisthenics also gave us a chance to gossip and complain about whatever there was to complain about. In this photo, the man with the hairnet is leading the group. After arms swings, we usually moved into squats.


MI TRAILER

I was lucky to arrive in Alabama and get hooked up with a cheap place to stay within the week. This was to be my home for two months. Coming from New York City, it actually felt quite large. One of the best aspects of living in it was that I had no TV, or radio, or internet. For the first few days I was totally bored, but eventually my brain started slowing down. By the end, I found that I loved the feeling of being totally disconnected from the rest of the world. I would wake up, make coffee, and drink the coffee without doing anything else but drinking coffee. I also watched a number of flies get caught in spider webs, and spiders wrap those flies up into web cocoons, and finally sink their spider teeth–if that’s what spiders have–into the flies. One of the less pleasurable aspects was the lack of a fridge, which meant that I ate a lot of Clif Bars and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

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The Demise of Lou Dobbs

In April of 2005, I spent a week on the US-Mexico border to report on the Minuteman Project. If you’re lucky enough to have forgotten the ragtag group, they came to the border because, in the words of their founder, Jim Gilchrist, our country was being “devoured and plundered by the menace of tens of millions of invading illegal aliens.”

Gilchrist was able to attract about 100 people, an impressive achievement considering many of the volunteers came from far away and had to cover their own expenses. Much of this was, no doubt, due to Gilchrist’s natural charisma, square jaw, and frequently exposed shoulders.

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But Gilchrist wasn’t just a physical specimen with hairy forearms. The retired accountant had earned a degree in journalism, and used his locution skills to rally the troops, as in this early manifesto:

“Future generations will inherit this mutated form of the United States of America, consisting of 100 different sub-nations, speaking 100 different languages, and promoting 100 different cultural agendas…It will be tantamount to a sack of marbles, with each marble colliding with the other marbles, as each culture scrambles for dominance of its culture over all others.”

As should be obvious, with mutated marbles scrambling around on their little marble feet in the struggle for dominance in the sack that has become the United States of America…well, clarity was never Gilchrist’s strong suit.

*

ON MY FIRST day in Arizona, I arrived at Minutemen headquarters–a desolate bible college about ten miles from the border–and passed a man wearing extremely thick glasses who was screaming into his cell phone about the lack of “perimeter security.” On the back of his jacket was a large red cross; he told me that he was the Medical Operations Officer.

Later that evening, a young man named Mike, standing 6’ 6” and wearing a bullet proof vest over camouflage fatigues, came into the room I had reserved (I was one of two “embedded” journalists). He offered me his second bulletproof vest. I declined.

“There are Mexicans crossing the border right now,” he said. I agreed, but stated that I was nonetheless going to type up notes without body armor, as was my habit. He nodded and told me that beer wasn’t permitted on headquarters, then grabbed the bottle I offered and drank it quickly. Before leaving, he remarked that “this here is the elite group of Minutemen.”

Eventually, the second member of the media showed up, a friendly photojournalist recently returned from six weeks in Iraq. He couldn’t figure out why so many people were walking around with body armor. “In Iraq, I only wore a vest one day,” he told me. “What are these guys expecting—incoming?”

Over the next two days I visited both sides of the border, chatting with Minutemen and migrants. When not exploring, I hung out at the bible college, listening to the volunteers talk about the AR-15’s and armor piercing bullets they had brought along for the occasion. On the third night, I ran into Mike in the bathroom. He was wearing two side arms and the vest. “You want a gun?”

“Why would I want a gun?”

“They’re hitting us tonight.”

“Who?”

“Who knows? Mexicans. The MS-13 gang. It’s fucking credible. A shoot-out is on the way. We’re on high alert!”

I followed Mike into the hallway, where the Medical Operations Officer was engaged in an animated conversation with a portly member of the John Birch Society. Mike interrupted, jabbering about the Mexican threat and a shootout and the need to join the other dozen folks who were already heading to the border. I expected the Medic to tell Mike to calm the fuck down. Instead, he pushed up his glasses and squinted. “Get me a gun and body armor, and let’s roll.”

Five minutes later, most members of the elite group had taken off. Thankfully, I learned the next morning that they hadn’t encountered anyone at the border. In retrospect, it seems obvious that I should have alerted the police. What if they had come across a group of a dozen migrants in the dark, armed only with bottles of water and backpacks? It’s pretty easy to imagine a scenario in which they heard some twigs snapping underfoot and opened fire. It’s remarkable that the Minutemen didn’t end up slaughtering each other.

*

WHICH BRINGS ME to Lou Dobbs, and yesterday’s news of his departure from CNN. For months he had been the target of the Basta Dobbs campaign to oust him from the network for his inaccurate reporting about immigrants. Recently, with the campaign picking up momentum, Dobbs reported that someone had fired a shot at his house in New Jersey. He placed blame on “fringe ethnocentric groups” who had “created an atmosphere and been unrelenting in their propaganda,” leading to, of all things, anger, hate, and vitriol. (Yes, those are Dobbs’ exact words.)

More likely, it was a hunter. But hearing Dobbs’ complain about an atmosphere of hate that could lead to the shooting caused me to think back on the Minuteman experiment. Here is Dobbs on Gilchrist and his crew of weapons-obsessed yahoos:

“I support the Minuteman Project and the fine Americans who make it up in all they’ve accomplished, fully, relentlessly, and proudly.”

Indeed, Dobbs was a folk hero to many of the people I interviewed in Arizona–including the men who went screaming into the desert with guns a-blazing. But what we’ve now learned is that while Dobbs can dish out a lot of hateful and inaccurate propaganda against undocumented immigrants, he’s not so good at taking it. After years of spreading false information and serving as a sort of prophet to groups like the Minutemen, he’s folded under the pressure created by a group of articulate and engaged immigrants and their allies. The timing is perfect, too, as the debate around immigration reform is sure to heat up in the coming months. With Dobbs out at CNN, that debate promises to be more rational, compassionate, and–above all–based on facts.

I’ll end with words straight from Dobbs himself:

“If anybody thinks that we’re not engaged in a battle for the soul of this country right now, you’re sorely mistaken.”

He’s right, and the soul of our country just got cleaned up a bit.

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