Harriet Krzykowski was a mental health assistant in the South Florida correctional facility, earning $12 an hour when she heard about the death of Darren Rainey. Rainey was mentally ill and was incarcerated in the prison in which she worked and guards at the prison were responsible for his death.
The details were especially shocking. The guards involved had locked Rainey in the shower and beat him with boiling water until he fell. The temperature was up to 180 degrees. When to Rainey’s autopsy report, he was suffering from burns that covered 90% of his body. The skin of Rainey, according to reports, would fall off when the skin was touched.
Krzykowski was tempted to quit her job after hearing about the incident in 2012. She was unable to afford it. She was among numerous American workers whose tales journalist Eyal Press recounts in his book Dirty Work essential jobs and the Untold Costs on Inequality within
America, published late last summer. Press has a feature that is published in The New York Times, the New Yorker, and The Guardian sheds light on the lives of immigrants who are not legally documented who work on the slaughter floors of slaughterhouses for poultry, Americans deputized to carry drone attacks in their nation’s name as well as others, like Krzykowski who are working in positions that the most powerful castes hand to those who are not educated and paid. The jobs they perform often enable the system that perpetuates and increases inequality of economic and social status and deprives people of their dignity in the process.
I had a conversation with Press about the people that American society expects to take on work that is “dirty work” to help others and our collective complicity in their misery. I also was interested in his opinions about the recent victories that were won by Amazon as well as Starbucks workers, as well as on how the current state of working conditions has been degraded within America. The United States. Are we able to bring it back to order? Do we really want to?
A slightly edited transcript of our conversation is provided below; an audio version that is more detailed will be available in May as an episode on the Vox Conversations podcast.
Let me know plain and easy: What do you mean by “dirty job”?
The concept of “dirty job” in my opinion is quite different from the common phrase that most people are familiar with. I believe that when most people hear the phrase they envision the unpleasant work that involves physically dirty, such as hauling garbage from the streets. However, in this case, “dirty work” refers to something else: illegal or morally troubling actions which society implicitly accepts and relies on but doesn’t really want to talk about. – Dirty, dangerous and demeaning
The book begins by quoting James Baldwin: “The powerless need to perform their own
dirty work. The powerful do it to themselves.” So do we speak here exclusively about the benefits for the powerful or are we speaking also about people who don’t necessarily wish to do certain things that keep society functioning?
Although I don’t believe that [Baldwin] refers to “dirty work” when I refer to it, he’s getting at something very fundamental. If you’re forced to clean your hands and have plenty of power to do it, you ask someone else to help you, isn’t it? You can remove yourself from this unattractive job.
And if you’re not in possession of power, you’ll often be the one who’s at the receiving end of this order to perform”the “dirty job.” As we talk of the prison system in America Who runs the system? Who are the people who work in this system? I’m not just talking about the guards. I also refer to mental health aids.
A large portion of my novel is set within the mental health unit of the prison, and America’s industrial slaughterhouses, killing floors in these slaughterhouses.
The Baldwin quote is a good starting point for the idea of “dirty work” through the lens of power. It’s through this lens that my personal exploration of the subject takes place.
You’ve spent a lot of time researching the lives and activities of the people who are unable to afford to leave their job, despite the petty abuse they’re experiencing and witnessing. Let me know a bit about the people who are.
They are generally people who work in jobs I would call the last option. They’re not the elite of society. They don’t have degrees from universities such as Stanford or Harvard. They are forced to work in work that is confined and geographically situated in areas that are less favored by the nation.
During the period of the prison boom in the United States, It’s not a surprise that there were a lot of prisons built in the rural regions of the country. They were seeing their factories and mills disappear and saw the construction of the prison system as a way to generate jobs for the economy. What happens is that the people who work in those positions are the least benefit.
It’s not like they’re not able to quit the work they do. They usually have very poor options in front of them which is why they are compelled to stay in the job for reasons of some kind or another.
In your epilogue, you mentioned that inequality is also a factor in the landscape that is a “dirty job” and who is accountable for the issue. When it comes to the kinds of jobs you discuss in your book, you’re not just about people who work in slaughterhouses, or inside prisons. But also people who conduct drone strikes. How does the inequality that we face in our country impact the geography of the country? What determines the location where a “dirty job” is carried out?
Dirty Work begins with the tale of a mentally-ill prison man in Florida known as Darren Rainey, who is literally brutally tortured to death. He’s encased in a scorching shower by a group of prison guards at a facility known as The Dade Correctional Institution. This is a terrible crime. Certainly, the guards responsible for the crime must be held accountable. However, it’s important to note that, unlike in the case of the Abu Ghraib incident, no person of a superior rank was held accountable for the death of Darren’s father.
In actual fact, lots of people in senior positions at the time were promoted or getting benefits. The head in Florida at that time was Rick Scott. As we all know, Rick Scott is now a US senator from Florida.
One way that inequality manifests in the tale that is the story of dirty working in our country is that in the few instances when the curtain is drawn back and we can observe this crime happening the blame falls on the people who are at the lowest, which is very beneficial for the society, isn’t it? It’s as if “Oh sure there were some savage guards. Wow. They did this awful thing.”
Why did this happen? It was because Florida like many states, has transformed its prisons into the largest mental health centers, don’t you think? Florida invests less than other states. When Rainey passing, they had the third-largest prison system in the nation. Where are the funds going? What kind of structures and institutional arrangements have been put in place to make the conditions for such abuses as the ones I have described — involving Darren Rainey as the victim and other people being the victims — these incidents are not shocking. These kinds of abuses are not surprising. They’re the ones on the bottom that we are able to blame but belong to a bigger system of dirty working that I believe that everyone is in some way accountable for.
It’s very easy, I think, for some people to be disengaged and say, “Well, there’s no change to our system.” Also, they’ve been taught only “the positive things” that the system is able to provide for them. So, we’re not concerned as a nation about those who you refer to as cogs in the system of suppression. People that, as you say are regarded as accomplices or enablers — but actually are more like prisoners. Can you explain what you’re trying to convey?
In the prison scenario, I have spoken of the Dade Correctional Institution and the mental health ward that was there. I examine and examine the mental health professionals that worked there.
They can certainly claim that they were involved in the events that occurred with Darren Rainey.
They knew exactly they knew what was happening. They were aware that guards in Dade were having fun, and that some of them were intentionally abusing mentally ill prisoners in the facility, and they were able to get off with it. You’re bound by the Hippocratic vow, aren’t you? You are required to make a report.
However, according to what I write in the text, they were mostly women working, whom I interviewed. They were employed in the mental health ward and also their own security, doing their job every day and conducting groups and moving from one area of the prison to the next area, they were accountable to the security guards of the institution in order to believe they could complete their job safely, without being intimidated, and without being left in the yard of the rec center like an aide to the department of mental health assistants was, and was threatened with assault.
What they soon learned that these mental health professionals have learned is that if they contest security guards, they will respond. Harriet Krzykowski raises some questions about what guards are doing since they’re not letting their men out in the yard on Sundays. The answer is that she’s been left by herself on the property.
I’m affected by a conversation that I had lady known as Lovita Richardson who worked in Dade the same prison where guards murdered Rainey. When she accepted the job the day before, she believed that she could do it with a lot of optimism. She believed she could aid those who were been able to dismiss as beyond the pale, abandoned to fight for these people their rights. She believed in the work she was doing and was hired and shortly after beginning her work when she observes guards beating an inmate bound to a chair and she is in complete stupor and dismay.
When she shared the tale a few years later, tears were streaming down her eyes when she was talking about it. She was determined to tell the story and wanted to make sure that the story was heard However, another lady who was working there told the reporter “Listen, Lovita. You can’t. You shouldn’t speak regarding this. You’ll just be attacked,” and so she did not say anything. These are the kinds of issues that people who do the dirty jobs in our society have to face and it’s everyone else in society who ought to think about the issues as we’re not completely isolated from this job.
What you’ve described happening to Lovita is an example of what you refer to as “moral injury” throughout the novel. What is your definition of moral injuries and what are other examples I suppose you could call insult or injury within the context of this book?
This is a major theme in my work: inequality doesn’t only about who gets massive salaries and massive bonuses are given to those who work on Wall Street. This is the physical aspect of inequality. But there’s an ethical aspect to inequality.
These hidden wounds are what people like Lovita endure while performing the dirty work of society and doing work that is not just demeaning as well as putting people in morally compromising situations. you must stand by your beliefs and make a statement, you could be fired. When you’re not placed in a situation where you could find an easy substitute for that job then what do you have to do?
What do you think that the push for unionization in companies such as Amazon and Starbucks can help people who are trapped in “dirty” work environments? Do you think that labor will trade some dirt away, or simply make sure that workers get paid more if they compromise their morals or dignity?
The most fundamental assumption that is implicit in your query is that these aspects are able to be changed. I’m not able to say if the industry of poultry that was the subject of my article will undergo an influx of unionization that will give people the power similar to those I mentioned who felt so abused and degraded. I’m not sure. The only thing I can say is that it will definitely have an impact if this occurred. In the chapter that deals with industrial slaughterhouses I discuss how we’ve reached a full circle since it was the time in Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle. It was, as I said it was an immigrant labor force that was brutally exploited, and the conditions shocking and horrified those who saw the conditions and read about them.
Things changed in the 1930s and into the 1940s and 1950s with the meatpacking industry. What changed? There were strong unions, and in particular, one union that was actually innovative not just in its empowerment of workers, but also in making union membership more inclusive and ensuring there was a common understanding between Black and white laborers working in the workplaces saw themselves as working for an equal cause. This increased wages, and it made the working conditions better. However, the situation reverted back when the business moved its plants out of major cities such as Chicago and then moved further afield to these areas of rurality and attracted immigrants that could profit more easily. Inline with what some experts in this field refer to as a low-wage approach that is to lower wages and then break the unions and then return in a way in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.
This actually leads me to think of an entirely different book. There’s a line at the conclusion of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. The narrator and title character declares, “Who knows, but that in the low frequencies I am speaking on behalf of your behalf?” What can we do to get back the sight of those who refuse to look at other people who remain in the same institutions these powerful individuals rely on?
Dirty work is strategically hidden from social life. It’s a term I derived from a social theorist called
Norbert Elias. He wrote a book titled “The Civilizing Process. Which sounds nice,” the Civilizing Process.” It’s a book that’s actually a book on manners and morals. It also explains how, as time passes the things we think of as undesirable, such as throwing your face at the table, you shouldn’t do it. You don’t do it in private. He discusses carving an animal. It’s performed inside the kitchen. It’s not something you can do in the dining room. You’re reading this book and you’re thinking, “Oh, this is an account of progress.” However, it’s not an account of progress, because the reason Elias is trying to argue in this volume is that process of civilization is focused on pushing these, what is described as disturbing events in the shadows of society. We keep them away from view and, in a way.
To return to your query I believe that this is one of the main reasons for the shady work we do within our culture. The fact is, it’s out there but we don’t observe it. How often do you observe what happens at the slaughterhouse’s kill floor? an animal slaughterhouse? What is the frequency of seeing footage of a drone strike? What is the most frequent time we’ve seen footage of people in the mental health wards in prisons? We rarely. We’re aware that it exists and it’s not unsolved for our eyes, however, it’s not abstract. There’s a huge distinction between abstract and specific or concrete.
I’ve been reading the book by Clint Smith “How the Word Is Passed” by Clint Smith. What the Word is Transmitted is a trip through his journey through the American land and the slave plantations. He begins with Jefferson and, at a certain point, there are two women who he meets. They’re aware Monticello is a plantation and they also know they know that Jefferson had slaves as well, however it’s abstract and doesn’t mean anything specific. The difference between abstract and concrete is huge.
What’s the opposite of dirty work? When I first read the title, I thought there was a variety of ways to describe the concept, but I’m certainly not only speaking about Steely Dan’s song. I’m talking about how white-collar workers carry out what we think of as dirty work, only in an entirely different way.
It’s funny because when I mentioned to my friends that I was working on this book and they didn’t have any idea concerning it. asked, “You mean corporate lobbyists? Do you mean Wall Street? The people who sell the fraudulent Wall Street products that destroyed the world economic system?” I had to laugh because I was thinking about
Big Oil, keep going.
Exactly. In no way, to doubt that many of the highest paid, most powerful positions that are available in American life, within American social life, are un moral and extremely lucrative. One can imagine those of the Sackler family, which is described in Patrick Radden Keefe’s enlightening book. It’s the real “dirty jobs,” you could argue however there’s a difference. I’m attracted by work that is dirty and makes a negative impression and stigmatizing for those who are doing it.
When we think about banks, we must remember that they were there even after the massive financial meltdown of 2008, which caused much suffering, numerous people lost their jobs, and the pain was immense in many communities. However, when Obama is able to speak out against Wall Street, there was immediate resistance. There’s outrage and indignation for him to even consider doing this. In my opinion, this outrage shows the power these industries possess. It’s not just economic power but also cultural and social power.
This isn’t something the people I profile in this book possess. They don’t generally have any platforms. They aren’t allowed to say to that the New York Times the president shouldn’t be talking about our industry in this way. What is he doing? The people who are poor don’t have the right to spend all that money on how they’re thought of and perceived by the public. When we consider things such as moral harm, stigma as well as shame, and stigma, we must see these as an aspect of power and also the people who have it and who don’t.
I’m trying to come up with what we can do to solve this. The solution may most likely require a politically motivated. I’m thinking of what President Biden did in January when he issued an executive decree that stated that 70,000 federal employees would immediately begin earning $15 per hour and that 300,000 workers of federal contractors were expected to be able to see an increase of $15 per hour. This will be reflected in their wages throughout the year. One of the issues that he mentioned was the dignity of employees. It’s not only about getting a paycheck. I’m wondering if that embracing dignity at work can help us progress toward achieving more equitable labor conditions or will it really have any impact?
Biden has made it a point to speak about the importance of labor as that goes beyond a paycheck. It’s about you, your position within the community, and it’s about respect. It’s about your pride, or at least it ought to be, in a society that is devoted to working. When it comes to fixing issues, there’s not much in my book that focuses on solutions. Partly, it’s because I’m not a specialist in policy. I don’t have the ability to offer some ideas which could be incorporated into policies that can alter this. Additionally, I’m actually of the opinion dirt work does not develop out of policies. It’s a part of the culture.
This is another reason why I didn’t get to the solution side of the equation too much because I think the only solution lies in an alteration of our identity. If we consider mass incarceration and want to alter this system of brutality and inhumane punishment, it is imperative that we must change our identity. We must change who we’re willing to become. Do we have it? I’m not sure.
I don’t think we’re far from it. When I read the things you’re saying, I think accountability is the demise of American individualism. If we take note of the various horrible things that have occurred during the period of gestation that it tried to hide from its own people, and then we grew accustomed to it as an infant becoming used to a specific environment. We grew accustomed to the same kind of America regardless of the advancements in technology or changes in our culture, we’ve kept the same kind of character in which we are viewed as wonderful when we keep a lid on the negative aspects.
It may be a good feeling in the short term but it’s not going to hinder the process from becoming broken in the United States in the same way it has been. Particularly with regards to dirty work can this be a solutional problem if we do not see the cultural revolution? If not, are there any specific aspects that we ought to be focusing on?
The little bit of optimism that I got from the cases I selected is that, on the side, I was feeling they’re deeply entrenched, much like mass isomerization. They’re deeply ingrained in the fabric that is a part of American life. However, there are certain aspects of our social environment that have seen significant numbers of individuals who’ve come together over the past few years to declare, “We cannot continue this.” For me, this isn’t like the dirty work is inviolable, and you can’t alter it. However, change isn’t easy, and the pace of change is slow.