THE TWO GAUNT rich guys currently vying for the attention of a fat, broke electorate talk about “jobs” all the time, and their minions spin the latest unemployment numbers back and forth like sports talk radio callers parsing an on-base percentage. The candidates also speak frequently about “hard-working middle-class families” and employ a variety of euphemisms for the working class. But because running for president is an exercise in sentimental abstraction, the working lives of Americans rarely crack the surface of a campaign. It’s very difficult for candidates to talk with any meaningful precision about who’s working and who isn’t, what the work is like, and what kind of life it makes possible.
So Jeanne Marie Laskas’ new book, “Hidden America,” comes along at just the right moment to provide a useful perspective. Laskas examines the lives of coal miners, migrant fruit-pickers, air traffic controllers, oil rig workers, truckers, landfill workers, and others who do vital but often invisible labor. We want electricity when we flip the light switch, we want to order something online and have it show up on our doorstep soon after, we want to fly without incident. But on the rare occasions when consumers think about those whose labor makes such things possible, it’s usually because some of these workers died on the job, screwed up, or went on strike. “If the disconnect between us (the people who demand) and them (the people who supply) says anything about us, it’s probably not flattering,” writes Laskas.
Laskas works close up to her subjects, alert for resonant details and flashes of insight into the meaning of the work they do. The workers with whom she tags along oblige by writing excellent dialogue for themselves. “I think you’ll find there are no aesthetic choices, nor is there irony, in a coal mine,” a guy called Foot tells her when she mistakes white rock dust for a coat of whimsically chosen paint.
Laskas doesn’t step back much to give us the big picture, and there’s no neatly nuggetized takeaway of the sort that she could deliver in 20 seconds on NPR or Fox. Part of the point of the book is to strip away red-blue cant and bridge the technology-widened divide between the reader and some of the workers who make possible aspects of life that we all rely on. The migrant workers could really use a union; the air traffic controllers don’t really like theirs. Many oil rig workers make solid middle-class money; many truckers don’t. Like the bulldozer operators who derive deep satisfaction from expertly sculpting trash into titanic landforms in “the Rolls-Royce of landfills,” most of her subjects are sustained and grounded by craft pride. They’re truly not just in it for the paycheck. But they’re also aware of being on shaky ground, buffeted by changes visited on them by those who command the real money.
This is where big policy questions at issue in the election come into the picture. Laskas’s characters live the consequences of energy policy, the contested role of government in the labor market, tax policy, the pathetic non-debate about guns (there’s a chapter on gun store clerks), and immigration policy. But the debate about such policy questions goes on at a cozy remove from the work her subjects do. Candidates and voters alike seem to share a distaste for the messy details of that work, which threaten to undo cherished certainties.
We want electricity at the flip of a switch, we want to order something online and get it the next day, all with rarely a thought about those who do vital but often invisible labor.
She visits a blueberry festival in a small town in Maine that might serve as an apt figure of the presidential campaign. There’s all kinds of spectacle celebrating the town’s traditional identity, “a blueberry musical, a blueberry parade, a blueberry quilt exhibit, a tour of an actual working blueberry farm with a free shuttle.” But it all conveniently avoids mentioning the current facts of working life. Every single blueberry is picked not by residents of the town but by migrants from Mexico and Central America, who matter in this election only to the extent that a candidate’s pronouncements on “illegal aliens” might produce a bump in his poll numbers.