Home > 2000, 21st Century, American Literature, Corporate Life, Levison Iain, Memoirs, Opinion > A glimpse in the world of poor workers in America

A glimpse in the world of poor workers in America

December 29, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

A Working Stiff’s Manifesto by Iain Levison. 2002. French title: Tribulations d’un précaire.

In the last ten years, I’ve had forty-two jobs in six states. I’ve quit thirty of them, been fired from nine, and as for the other three, the line was a little blurry. Sometimes it’s hard to tell exactly what happened, you just know it wouldn’t be right for you to show up anymore.

I have become, without realizing it, an itinerant worker, a modern-day Tom Joad. There are differences, though. If you asked Tom Joad what he did for a living, he would say, “I’m a farmworker.” Me, I have no idea. The other difference is that Tom Joad didn’t blow $40,000 getting an English degree.

And the more I travel and look around for work, the more I realize that I am not alone. There are thousands of itinerant workers out there, many of them wearing business suits, many doing construction, many waiting tables or cooking in your favorite restaurants. They are the people who were laid off from companies that promised them a lifetime of security and then changed their minds, the people who walked out of commencement with a $40,000 fly swatter in their hands and got rejected from twenty interviews in a row, then gave up. They’re the people who thought, I’ll just take this temporary assignment/bartending job/parking lot attendant position/pizza delivery boy job until something better comes up, but something better never does, and life becomes a daily chore of dragging yourself into work and waiting for a paycheck, which you can barely use to survice. Then you listen in fear for the sound of a cracking in your knee, which means a $5,000 medical bill, or a grinding in your car’s engine, which means a $2,000 mechanic’s bill, and you know then that it’s all over, you lose. New car loans, health insurance, and mortgages are out of the question. Wives and children are unimaginable. It’s surviving, but surviving sounds dramatic, and this life lacks drama. It’s scrapping by.

Levison_FrenchI know it’s a long quote but it’s the perfect introduction to Ian Levison’s Working Stiff’s Manifesto. I picked this book on a whim in my favorite bookstore. They know what they put on the shelves and it’s even recommended by Le Monde and La Tribune. It is a terrifying journey into the working conditions in contemporary America. The language of the quote gives away the century the book was written in otherwise, you could think it was an excerpt from The Odd Women by Gissing. It reminded me of Mr Bullivant who would like a wife but doesn’t earn enough money to settle down. The big difference now is that women can work as well, at least if there is appropriate and affordable day care for children.

This is a memoir where Levison relates his experiences as a worker. He has a degree in English but can’t find a job in his field. He describes his job applications, and the various experiences he has in small jobs in different states.

The longest section of the book is dedicated to his experience in Alaska where he works on ships and with fish. Due to its harsh climate and its appalling Sarah, I can’t say Alaska was on my list of the 1001 places to see before I die. After reading about Levison’s working conditions there, it’s almost an act of rebellion to avoid the place. If I ever want to try on extreme cold living conditions, I’ll stick to Quebec where they even speak French with a lovely accent and charming words. Levison is first hired on a ship to prepare crabs to be exported to Japan. They work in shifts of 16 hours, sleep in bunk in a room with at least 10cm of water on the floor and are basically wet all the time. It’s cold and wet, so it’s not the same conditions as in California but it still reminded me of Bandini’s time in the can factory in The Road to Los Angeles. Fante also did odd jobs and I’m sure that Bandini’s experience stems from his own. It’s depressing to write that Levison’s working conditions bring me back to novels from the late 19th century and pre-WWII 20th century.

All along the book, details about the lack of laws to protect workers shocked me. I knew that regulations are less strict than in France, I hear enough of foreigners complaining about French working laws. I never thought it was that different. I suppose there’s a big difference between people working in large corporations and people working in shops and small companies. The problem lays in what the law imposes as minimum rights. You don’t live well in France with the minimum wages and the one million of persons who applied to the Restaurants du Coeur (charity like Salvation Army) won’t deny it. Young people have trouble finding a steady job. At work we’ve had several maternity leaves in a row and we repeatedly hired the same young woman as a replacement. We were happy to have her again each time because she wasgood but we were sorry for her that she was still on the job market. But still, there are minimum rules and of course, free health care and financial help for rent.

levison_EnglishI don’t want to play down Levison’s suffering but I also have mixed feelings about this book. Part of me is outraged by the working conditions Iain Levison encountered in his various jobs and I agree with him that this is more surviving than living. Part of me is also irritated by his behavior. I have nothing about not accepting the rules of the society we live in. I totally respect alternative ways of living as long as people don’t complain that the outside world doesn’t adjust to their vision of life. Yes you have to accept corporate crap when you work for a company. Granted, there seem to be more corporate crap in the US than in France. By corporate crap I mean things like the employee of the month, the smiling obligation or whichever upbeat behavior is covered by client satisfaction or management concepts.

And what job did he expect when he started his English degree? If you don’t want to be a teacher or work in the academic world (where the number of positions is limited), what can you do? Be a PA? Find a job where the company will invest on training you? Sorry if what I write seems a bit provocative, but there are so many graduates out there with a degree that leads to no concrete jobs. I see some at work. When you start a university degree, don’t you need to be a bit practical? If I had picked the subjects I enjoyed most in high-school, I’d be a history or English graduate now. And then what? I can’t be a teacher, I don’t have the patience. How could I apply to jobs that require specific technical skills beside writing without spelling and grammar mistakes?

Our working world is far from perfect and there is no excuse for what Iain Levison describes: impossible cadences for truck drivers, total disrespect for the safety of workers and no control of companies that employ workers in difficult conditions. Levison isn’t afraid to work hard as his various experiences show it. It’s really good that he stood up and talked for the army of poor workers who have no voice. It’s 10 years later now and I hope things turned out well for him, beside his writing career. The book is written in a journalistic tone with a wry sense of humor, it’s easy to read and enlightening.

PS: I have a question. Somewhere in the book, Levison mentions that the working week starts on Sundays. I had already seen on American calendars that the week starts on Sundays instead of Mondays like in here. My question is why? According to the Bible, God made the world in six days and had a rest on the seventh day. I suppose it explains why the last day of the week is Sunday for us. Why is it different in America?

  1. December 29, 2013 at 1:35 am

    I beg to differ on “the working week starts on Sundays” concept advanced by Levison. My ancestors came to America in 1621 and I live close to where they settled in the state of Massachusetts. Sunday was and is a day of rest. For my contemporaries around here, the beginning of the week is Monday, the first working day, and the end of the week is Sunday, the last day of the weekend-off (for most).


    • December 29, 2013 at 9:14 pm

      That’s what I had in mind and that’s why calendars puzzle me.


  2. December 29, 2013 at 3:17 am

    Hi, Merry Christmas!

    Our week begins on Sunday in the US – why? good question! – but not the working week, no way. Maybe that is for some specific job? We even have the concept, celebrated in a great Fats Domino song, of the Blue Monday, when you call in sick because you do not want the weekend to end.

    Schools are closed on Sunday, public offices are all closed. Shops and restaurants are usually open.

    Anyway, I had not heard of this book but it sounds worthwhile. It is a little bit strange that the author has been fired nine (or twelve) times. That seems to be a little bit on the high side for the kinds of jobs he describes, unless there is something else going on.

    How odd (I just looked him up) – the author is actually an immigrant.


    • December 29, 2013 at 9:23 pm

      Hi masked Amateur Reader! 🙂 Will you change into New Year Reader at midnight on the 31st of December?

      I had noticed the weeks began on Sundays on calendars.
      I know that offices are closed on Saturdays and Sundays (TGIF and all that) and that there’s on school on Sundays except in churches.

      What caught my attention is a passage where Levison is working for a small company. It’s Friday night. His boss wants him to work the morrow. Levison is drained, he asks if he can have a day off on Saturday and work on Sunday instead. The boss says yes but points out that if he works on Saturday, he will get paid overtime and if he works on Sunday he won’t because it’s the begginning of a new working week.
      Is it an “administrative” notion of the week, good for calendars and payroll rules?

      He has been fired of one third of his odd jobs. He tends to quit when the management notices him and wants him to take more responsabilities. This is why his tone irritated me a bit. I’m sure that what he describes is true but sometimes I thought he was a bit responsible for his own misery.

      He came from the UK, no? One thought that crossed my mind was “why didn’t you just move back to Europe?”


  3. December 29, 2013 at 11:00 am

    I find the different views of degrees in the UK to France and the US really interesting. I have an English degree and yes, I’m a teacher, but I wasn’t expected to be one. In the UK we believe that the skills you learn during a degree are transferable so my English degree could have taken me into a whole range of jobs in a variety of areas.


    • December 29, 2013 at 9:33 pm

      Hi Naomi,

      Thanks for visiting and for commenting.

      You’re right and that’s exactly what I meant by “finding a company that will train you”. A degree is anything gives you transferable skills to learn a job. Only you won’t use the technical skills of your degree. If you have a degree in accounting, you’ll find a job as an accountant and use what you learnt in university on a daily basis. If you go for a degree in 18thC literature and want to find a job where you’ll use that knowledge daily, good luck with that.

      I have a friend who has a degree in geography. Now she operates a fast food. She enjoys her job, she’s been doing it for a few years now and she’s happy with it, even if she never uses any of the geography she learnt in university. She’s not bitter, she has found a career that satisfies her.

      What bothered me in that book is that Levison complains of having a useless degree in English. If he expected to use his knowledge of Shakespeare or 19thC literature in the corporate world, he was totally delusional. Jobs in the publishing industry are scarce and most of companies have no use of knowledge in Modernism or whatever. What they want are skills like the ones you mention that help you to adapt to the job they need to be done. I thought he wasn’t willing to adapt and that bothered me.


  4. December 29, 2013 at 11:49 am

    While many people are having a terribly difficult time in the USA through no fault of their own, I agree to what you are alluding to, it sounds like Levinson is mostly a product of his choices. I would also add that there are plenty of opportunities in the business world for folks with degrees like English and History, it is just a more difficult road.

    I agree with the issue of working conditions and abuses. Employers get away with all sorts of ethical and safety abuses with little repercussions. Though I hate to bring up politics, I would argue that an extreme laisser-faire attitude, combined with enormous power held by businesses, reflected in all levels of our politics and government is mostly to blame.

    I agree with David and Tom, I have never heard of a work week beginning on Sundays.


    • December 29, 2013 at 9:39 pm

      Like I said to Naomi, there are opportunities for English or History graduates but rarely in their area of expertise. The road is more difficult here too and people aren’t always at peace with what they do compared to what they studied.

      Here there are abuses too but the law is probably more strict. (It lacks flexibility sometimes, I have to say)

      So, you have no clue either why calendars have weeks beginning on Sunday?


  5. December 29, 2013 at 9:07 pm

    I think it’s the type of job which dictates that the working week starts on Sunday. Many corps schedule with Sunday as the first day. I’m talking about retail. White collar jobs are different. The work place here has gone down the toilet since the crash. I know many people trying to hobble together a living with 2, 3 or even 4 jobs. Exploitation is the name of the game. I know drivers (freight) who have to sit in a call centre and hope they are called for work. Just drive to any McDs and see the construction/homeless people milling around hoping for odd jobs.

    Anyway, I’m going to read this.

    The employer/employee relationship is fraught w/landmines.


    • December 29, 2013 at 9:51 pm

      So it’s more about the kind of job you’re doing. I suppose Levison has worked in retail, for moving companies,…
      People start to have several jobs here too but it’s still rare. There is help from the State when you have a small income. (subsidies to pay for rent, totally free health care, subsidies for children if you have some living with you…)
      Here the worst is in retail: they call you if there’s a rush and you’d better be home to answer the phone. And the schedules are odd, like working in the morning and then at the end of the day.

      It’s an interesting read for the working condition side. I sympathised with him for how he was treated but sometimes I thought he was not quitting for valid reasons. I’m highly interested in your take on this book. For me, it’s another world but you’ll be able to tell if what he reports is accurate.

      The employer / employee relationship is not an equal one. This acknowledgment is the basis of the law here. The law is done to balance the power employers have over employees.


      • December 30, 2013 at 7:41 am

        English degrees are tough–there’s a lot you can do with them but there are many people out there with BAs in English spinning their wheels not knowing what to do. It’s a lot of fun getting the degree, but it’s not as though you graduate with a trade.

        I think retail always sucks no matter where you are.


  6. December 29, 2013 at 10:32 pm

    re: Alaska. I have religious fundamentalist neighbours who sent one of their sons to work on an Alaskan fishing trawler when he showed signs of rebelling. The idea was that he’d come back with a whole new attitude. It worked. He ran away!


    • December 29, 2013 at 10:34 pm

      I get it: that’s the freezing version of military camp?
      Poor boy. How old was he?


      • December 30, 2013 at 7:38 am

        15 or 16


        • December 30, 2013 at 11:03 pm

          It’s younger than what I expected. Isn’t school mandatory until at least 16?


          • December 31, 2013 at 9:18 pm

            Home schoolers.
            Thinking about it, he must have been a bit older.. 17 perhaps.


            • January 1, 2014 at 10:27 am

              Still. It’s young.


  7. December 31, 2013 at 7:19 pm

    The appalling Sarah 🙂 Thanks for raising a smile. The story in the book doesn’t sound very happy, though. I was lucky that in America I always worked in executive positions – there was certainly a lot of ‘corporate crap’ but it was easier to handle when you were being paid properly to pretend to believe in it. I can see it would be quite hard when you’re in a low-wage position.

    I remember in journalism school, we had to write a story based on the OSHA database, which was basically a list of people who’d been hurt at work. There were literally thousands to choose from. I wrote about a guy who lost his hand in a machine in a box factory. People in the UK complain endlessly about “health & safety” regulations, which admittedly are ridiculous sometimes, but they should see what it’s like in a country that has so little regulation. From a strictly “free market” perspective, it’s cheaper just to replace a mangled worker than to invest in safety equipment.

    By the way, here in Greece the word for Monday is “2nd”, Tuesday is “3rd”, and so on. So I guess they follow the same system as the U.S. The mystery deepens…


    • January 1, 2014 at 10:40 am

      Here there’s a “tax” about accident on the workplace. It’s a % of the gross wages the employer pay. The rate depends on the company’s history with accidents. (Like you and me for car insurance) it’s a bit of an incentive to keep the number and gravity of accidents as low as possible. Of course, it increases the personnel costs.

      You’re right from a strictly market point of view, it’s cheaper to consider workers as a disposable resource. (At least if they make enough babies to replace the ones who aren’t fit anymore) That’s what Zola describes in Germinal. Do we want to go back there in Europe?
      In France, if I remember correctly, the first laws to protect workers were voted because young men with bad health due to poor working conditions made weak soldiers…The State needed fit people in case of a war. Not the most laudable motive, but it worked.


  8. Vishy
    January 2, 2014 at 4:08 pm

    Wonderful review, Emma! I read the first passage you have quoted from the book and immediately thought – “I should read this book.” It is nice to know that the book shows the working person’s life realistically, though you weren’t happy with some of the things in the book. It was interesting to read your thoughts and others’ thoughts on learning a marketable technical skill while pursuing one’s education. It is a big question while one is a student – should one study things that one likes or should one study things and acquire skills that will get one a job? I think there is no right and wrong answer to this and we probably have to balance our passions for certain areas and subjects with a bit of common sense and practicality. In my place, when I was growing up, there was the extreme situation where students generally opted only for courses which got them jobs. I was no exception. I did what I had to do to get a good job, and then later I pursued my education in things which I was passionate about – literature, languages, science (not from a practical perspective), poetry – most of the time by self-learning and sometimes by pursuing formal courses. I am not sure whether pursuing a job-oriented education in an extreme way is the right thing to do all the time, though it is definitely a practical thing to do.

    It was interesting to read Brian’s thoughts on the laissez-faire attitude being responsible for many of the ills today and I would somewhat agree with him. It was also interesting to read your thoughts and Guy’s thoughts on the employer-employee relationship. I think in many countries, employee’s rights are well protected in traditional industries like manufacturing, but in the service industry and in new technology areas, they aren’t, because here the jobs are high-paying. If an employee complains about extra working hours or about other things, the company is ready to replace the employee with a new one and so most people don’t complain even if they have real problems.

    It was interesting to read your thoughts and others’ thoughts on the first day of the week. Here, we have always been taught that the first day of the week was Sunday 🙂 Though we were also told that the first day of the week is a holiday and our working week started only on the second day, that is Monday. When I lived in China though, I discovered that Monday is called ‘First Day’ like in Greece, as Andrew has said. In Russian also it is roughly similar – Monday is called ‘Day after No Work Day’ and Tuesday is called ‘Second Day’. So it looks to me that in some parts of the world Sunday is regarded as the first day of the week (not necessarily the first working day, but the first day), while in other parts Monday is regarded as the first day of the week. I remember in school (I studied in a Christian school) we were taught that God made the world in six days and on the seventh day, that is Saturday, he took rest. Which was different from what you said 🙂 So, I thought I will do some research on it. It looks like Saturday as the seventh day of the week came from Jewish tradition where Saturday is still regarded as the seventh day of the week. This later changed in Christian tradition to Sunday, though some of the early Christians continued to treat Saturday as the seventh day of the week and Sunday as the first day of a new week. Across time, it looks like Sunday has been accepted as the last day of the week and Monday as the first day, by the majority of people, though there are still people who follow the early Christian tradition. (Things are different in the Middle East though, where Saturday is the first day of the week.) There is an interesting passage in Wikipedia, which goes like this : “The international standard ISO 8601 sets Saturday as the sixth day of the week. The three Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) regard Saturday as the seventh day of the week. As a result, many refused the ISO 8601 standards and continue to use Saturday as their seventh day. This is concordant with the European pagan tradition, which named the days of the week after the seven Classical planets (in order Sun, Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, Saturn), naming the first day of the week for the Sun, perceived as most important, and moving to those perceived as lesser.” Thanks to you, I learnt some new things today 🙂

    Thanks for this beautiful review, Emma. I hope to read this book sometime.


    • January 2, 2014 at 9:12 pm

      Vishy, I made the same choice as you: I chose to study something practical that would allow me to find a job. I enjoy what I’m doing and I’m pleased to have literature as a hobby and to improve my English through books and discussions. No need to struggle on the job market and be bitter later. I’d love to take classes in art but I don’t have time.
      That said, I understand that one decides to study what they enjoy. They just need to be ready to adjust to the job market and maybe end up with a profession that has nothing to do with their first love.

      About the beginning of the week.
      The mystery is solved, thanks Vishy. It’s interesting to read about all the different vision of the week. It seems mundane but it refers to a country’s cultural background. Fascinating.


      • January 3, 2014 at 5:34 am

        Nice to know that, Emma. It is nice that we live in an era where we can work in one area and find time to indulge in our interests in another. Art classes are so much fun. Hope you are able to find time to take art classes.

        Nice to know that you enjoyed reading about the different versions of the week 🙂


  9. January 16, 2014 at 3:40 am

    I was in the supermarket and asked one of the employees if their work schedule starts on Sunday as day 1 and he said yes, and that that is normal for a 7 day a week business.


    • January 17, 2014 at 9:27 pm

      So, that’s what you said. The week starts on Sundays in retail. Thanks for asking.


  10. January 20, 2014 at 5:22 pm

    It sounds interesting, but perhaps the same flaw as Non-Stop Inertia which I reviewed at mine and which to an extent covers similar ground. What it describes is appalling, but equally there’s an element of what did they expect would happen? I don’t think people should be punished for life for naivety, for thinking that the world will reward a degree lacking a clear vocation or exit to work, but the fact remains that the days when a general degree was a passport to employment are simply gone.

    I think doing a degree in English today would be quite brave.

    For a brief while our societies aspired to fairness. For a few decades during the last century. Before that a liberal arts degree was a luxury for the already well-off. It is again. We’re misled by thinking our recent past was normal, forgetting that through most history for most people demographics (class, money) is destiny.

    Have you read Barbra Ehrenreich’s Nickeled and Dimed in America? That’s very good.


    • January 20, 2014 at 10:08 pm

      Exactly my thoughts. Indulging in a degree with no clear job prospects is a luxury most of us can’t afford.
      I don’t know the book you mention , I’ll check it out, thanks.


      • January 21, 2014 at 2:33 pm

        There’s a review at mine. Ivor Southwood.


        • January 21, 2014 at 2:33 pm

          Oops, you meant the Ehrenreich. There isn’t a review of that at mine – pre-blog. It is good though.


          • January 21, 2014 at 10:45 pm

            Yes, I meant the Ehrenreigh.


  1. October 22, 2014 at 10:45 am
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