The Secret World of Day Laborers

For a year, journalist Dick Reavis reported to a labor hall each morning hoping to “catch out,” or get job assignments. ‘Catching Out’ describes Reavis’s job at a factory, as a construction and demolition worker, landscaper, road crew flagman, auto-auction driver and warehouseman, and several days spent sorting artifacts in a deceased packrat’s apartment.

Author: Dick J. Reavis
Publisher: Simon & Shuster, 203pp.
ISBN: 978-1-4391-5479-3
Date: 2010

Catching OutAlmost every day across the United States, between 800,000 and 2 million individuals, mostly men, show up at labor halls, hoping to snag an eight-hour work assignment sometimes paying as little as $6 an hour. For a while, Dick Reavis became part of that legion.

A veteran Texas journalist at age 63, Reavis immersed himself in the day- labor world he once inhabited as a young man, and the experience yields some interesting anecdotes and memorable insights. This is a place of supercilious supervisors, sketchy underlings, crafty corporations and — maybe — the nature of capitalism.

“Day laborers believe in the irrational,” Reavis writes. Their “world is a jungle regulated only by luck. All that counts is what’s ahead today, what’s near at hand, this job site, that supervisor, the nearness of break time.”

Reavis enrolls at an agency and takes a lot of notes after each shift. He is assigned to paint culverts to retard rust, drive vehicles across the lot during an auction, clean up a commercial construction site and set up the interior of a clothing store before its grand opening.

Each chapter of “Catching Out: The Secret World of Day Laborers” describes a different job and a different crew. Reavis disguises the location of the labor hall, the names of fellow workers, their bosses and the employment-agency personnel, an unfortunate decision in an era of shaky journalistic credibility.

Despite the falsified names, Reavis brings his real-life characters to life. The tensions between the day laborers and their supervisors dominate the text, but camaraderie — sometimes based on shared misery — shines through, too.

The details are plentiful, and the scenes are vivid. Reavis introduces “Little Carrie,” a rare woman in the ranks: “Blue-eyed and in her late fifties, [she] couldn’t have weighed more than 95 pounds. Perhaps because we were close in age or because both of us were white, she often took a seat next to me.

“She rented a room a block from the hall. I occasionally ran into her on my way to report, and on weekends I’d sometimes come upon her walking a fluffy 15-pound white dog on a rope, not a leash. Little Carrie was chinless, and on the street it was obvious that she walked with a stiff gait, due to arthritis, she said.”

Through the labor hall, Little Carrie cleaned offices, unloaded trucks and unpacked opened boxes for retail stores. She earned about $250 per month, to go along with food stamps. That combination seemed to suffice, if only barely.

As the national economy tanked, some of the laborers took jobs they would rather have rejected. Although “accustomed to living on the edge,” these people, Reavis writes, were vulnerable. He worries this recession would shove many “off a precipice, into a chasm with no safety net. Even they were not prepared for that.”

Dick J. Reavis

Dick J. Reavis is an award-winning journalist, educator, and author. He was active in the civil rights movement in the South and with SDS at the University of Texas in Austin.

Part of the desperation, unsurprisingly, revolves around the lack of health insurance for day laborers. Throughout the book, Reavis focuses on those who show up each morning in organized labor halls, people who seem to have the proper papers.

But he also wisely considers street-corner day laborers, who suffer maximum exploitation providing short-term muscle for dangerous tasks. The scenes are not pretty — accounts of inhumanity rarely are.

With “Catching Out,” Reavis has written an eye-opener, a welcome change from books that celebrate tycoons and technocrats.

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Posted by on Oct 25 2010. Filed under Recommended Books. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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