Former RSF Visiting Journalist Eyal Press Discusses His Book: Dirty Work

March 1, 2023

Eyal Press is an author and journalist who contributes to The New Yorker, the New York Times, and other publications. He was an RSF visiting journalist in spring 2016. In a new interview with the foundation, Press discusses his latest book, Dirty Work: Essential Jobs and the Hidden Toll of Inequality in America. Dirty Work won the 2022 Hillman Prize for Book Journalism, was named a New York Times Notable Book of 2021, and was listed as one of the “10 Best Books of the Year” in 2021 by both Publishers Weekly and the Chicago Tribune. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q. What motivated you to write Dirty Work? What is “dirty work,” and why is it important to examine?

I’ve always been fascinated by two questions that I think all of my writing is about. One of these questions is inequality. I’ve written about economic inequality, racial inequality, and social inequality in various articles and books, and I knew I wanted to make that a central theme of my third book. The other issue that I’ve been circling around throughout my career is how individuals navigate morally treacherous situations. And Dirty Work is kind of a fusion of those two concerns.

So, what is dirty work? I think used as the common colloquial expression, dirty work is generally thought of as work that is physically distasteful, like hauling garbage off the streets. But in my book, dirty work refers to morally troubling activity that society depends on and tacitly condones but doesn’t want to hear too much about. I didn’t invent this idea, I borrowed it from a sociologist named Everett Hughes. In my view, Hughes was a fascinating, brilliant sociologist whose work has been unduly neglected. He wrote an essay called “Good People and Dirty Work,” and the dirty work he refers to in that essay is, as he put it, the most colossal and hideous example of dirty work one can imagine. It was the dirty work of rounding up the Jews in the Nazi era.

Hughes had been in Germany before the war and returned for a semester in 1948, and he was very interested in going back and talking to the people he’d known about what had happened. These people were not committed Nazis. They were what he called, in the essay, “good people.” They were respectable professionals – intellectuals, journalists, teachers, and so forth. People who you would expect, when asked, “What do you make of what happened under the Nazis?” would say, “Oh, it was awful and I’m ashamed of it.” And of course, he did hear that during his semester abroad. But one evening at an architect’s house, Hughes heard the architect say, on the one hand, “I’m ashamed of what was done to the Jews,” and, on the other hand, “Well, you know, the Jews, they really were a problem, and something had to be done about this problem.” They would say things like, “They were taking all the good jobs” and “They were gathering in these filthy ghettos.” So, it was sort of this on the one hand and on the other hand idea.

In his essay, Hughes has the brilliant insight that these two things are related: that good people and dirty work are not as separated as we think. That, actually, the people carrying out the dirty work in Nazi Germany are what he called “agents of the good people.” They operate at a distance, and they do things that the good people wouldn’t necessarily say, “Oh, we agree to that.” But, in a sense, they don’t have to say that, because they’re comfortably removed from the issue and the “problem” is being taken care of by someone else.

I was really fascinated by this essay. And the thing that fascinated me most about it is thinking about it, not in terms of what it says about Nazi Germany, but what it says about the United States and contemporary America. I actually think Hughes’ theory has more relevance in a society like ours than it does to Nazi Germany. In the United States, we, at least to some extent, have a say over what is done in our name. This doesn’t really apply in a totalitarian country like Nazi Germany, where, if you disagree with what the government says they can – and they did – imprison you or they banned other parties, and so forth. Of course, our democracy is flawed, broken, and imperfect in so many ways. We have a history of slavery; we have a recent history of mass incarceration. You can point to one hundred ways in which we’re really not very democratic when it comes right down to it. But I do believe that respectable professionals, like architects, journalists, teachers, and so forth, do have a say over what gets done in their name. So, I took that idea and decided that I’ll apply it to contemporary America and look at the forms of dirty work that go on here with the tacit consent and approval of “good people.”

Hughes was actually criticized by some people for his essay. There were people who said that he didn’t know much about Germany and was misunderstanding Nazism. And Hughes said that he wasn’t writing this essay with Germans in mind. He was actually writing it with America in mind. This was in 1963, and he wanted to call attention to racial brutality, police violence, torture, and all the ways in which Americans tolerated, what he thought of as, morally troubling things that got tucked away. So, to me, this was a great subject for a longer exploration.

Q. What groups of people typically do dirty work? What circumstances lead to them taking dirty jobs?

My book opens with an epigraph from James Baldwin, where he writes something to the effect of “the powerless must do their own dirty work, the powerful have it done for them.” And that, in a nutshell, is what I try to add to Everett Hughes’ theory. It’s not only that good people and dirty work are related, but that there are class dynamics, racial dynamics, all kinds of power dynamics, that shape who gets stuck doing this work and who doesn’t do it. So, if we look at the section of the book on the meat that comes from industrial slaughterhouses – who does that work? Who works on the disassembly line where the animals go around on these conveyor belts and the workers basically turn animals into packaged poultry or beef or pork? This work is done overwhelmingly in this country by immigrants, undocumented people, refugees, people of color, and women. Why? Well, the owners of those factories like to have a docile workforce. Some of these slaughterhouses, which I note in the book, have a turnover rate of over 100 percent every year. So, they’re churning through the bodies of these workers who are suffering not only physical injuries but who are also suffering moral and emotional injuries. Because they do a form of work that is stigmatized and looked down upon and people question, “Who would work there?” Of course, not people who consume all the meat. So that is part of the dynamic I try to explore.

Q. Can you talk a bit more about some of the emotional consequences of doing this kind of work?

A big aim of my book is to get readers to think about inequality as something that isn’t just about money or wealth. We’ve had a lot of books that have shown that and, of course, that’s important. We live in a society where without material resources you are more likely to be exposed to violence, you’re more likely to be exposed to health risks, you’re more likely to have poor nutrition, and all the other things that follow from that. But I think there’s another form of inequality, which is moral inequality. And I tried to develop that idea in the book. The moral and emotional burdens of doing this work fall disproportionately on the least advantaged. And that mirrors and reinforces the other kinds of inequalities that we have.

To go back to the workers in the slaughterhouse. The biggest source of distress among workers that I interviewed at the poultry plant was not their wages. It wasn’t about their healthcare, though the healthcare was terrible. It wasn’t about the long hours they worked. It wasn’t even about the physical injuries they suffered, though a number of them did talk about that. What really made them look broken and what got them crying in my presence was the mistreatment they suffered when they were denied bathroom breaks. This was a mostly female workforce. And because the company wanted maximum production on each shift, they didn’t like it when bathroom breaks were taken. When people stopped working, it slows the disassembly line. The profit margins are thin, and they want to maximize them.

So, at this plant, there was a lunch break that was 30 minutes long, but everybody needed to use the bathroom and not everybody can in 30 minutes. What if you wanted to use the bathroom later? Well, these female workers would get yelled at. They’d get scolded and told they couldn’t go to the bathroom. Some of them, I learned, would show up to work with an extra pair of pants. Just imagine the humiliation. They’re really enduring a blow to the spirit. And of course, these are people who may be undocumented. So, they fear not only getting fired if they speak up, they fear being deported. So those moral and emotional burdens are central to the book. It’s an idea that I didn’t invent, but that I borrowed from a famous book by Jonathan Cobb and Richard Sennett called The Hidden Injuries of Class. And Dirty Work is a book about hidden injuries.

Q. Not all dirty work is done by members of disenfranchised or vulnerable groups. Can you talk about dirty workers in elite, white-collar professions? How do their circumstances differ from the people who generally end up doing dirty work?

At the end of the book, I talk about bankers and high-tech workers at Google who find themselves doing things that they themselves come to see as morally troubling or even reprehensible. And I went into that because when I was writing this book and telling people about dirty work, people would ask, “Oh do you mean corporate lobbyists?” “Do you mean like industrial polluters?” “Do you mean hedge fund managers who stole everyone’s money during the run-up to the financial crash?” So, I knew I had to address this in some form.

There certainly is plenty of morally troubling activity that elites carry out. I would even say, the most damaging activity, the really devastating effects, come from elites’ actions. But I don’t think that the wounds, those hidden injuries, are at all the same for these more privileged and elite professionals. For one thing, they make a lot of money. And money in our society is a signifier of success and is often correlated with virtue. There’s a whole literature about how money may not be able to buy you love but it certainly buys you a lot of prestige in this society. On top of that, these professionals have choices that the low-wage, dirty workers that I look at and wrote about don’t have. They have advanced degrees and financial resources, which enables them to back out of a situation they may feel uncomfortable in. They can say, “Well, do I really want to do this? I was just given a nice bonus and I don’t need this.” They can talk back to their bosses, as indeed the Google worker that I wrote about did. He said, “I’m not going to do this if it makes me feel sullied.” And that’s a privilege to be able to do that. So, it doesn’t have the same ramifications for the people who do that kind of work.

Q. We are all complicit in the systems that allow for dirty work and the mistreatment of dirty workers. Can you talk more about that? How do dirty workers act as agents for the rest of us?

I got pushback when the book came out. Some reviewers disagreed that there is a tacit approval or consent for all of these things. They’d argue that half of the country or large portions of the country think mass incarceration is terrible, so how can I say everybody’s complicit in that? Or they’d say that they’re vegetarian and that they don’t partake in the industrial food system. Certainly, you could find people who would say that they don’t approve of any of the case studies that I look at. So, I acknowledge that I paint with broad brush strokes. That said, the system of mass incarceration in our country took decades to put in place. It didn’t happen overnight. It also didn’t happen because one party seized power. It was bipartisan. It was Democrats and Republicans, together, deciding that there’s no way you could run for office and be perceived as being soft on crime. And if someone paid the price for that, too bad. In addition to that, the lack of investment in services for the mentally ill is a major, major problem in New York City right now. That too is not the fault of one party, it’s a societal failure. And so that’s what I mean by we are all complicit. Later in the book, I look at examples that involve our complicity by virtue of the lifestyles we lead, the consumption habits we have. I include myself in this by the way. I fly on airplanes. During the pandemic, I got a car. It’s not a hybrid, it’s not an electric vehicle. So I’m complicit in the system of fossil fuel extraction that dirties the planet, but in ways that don’t make the people who rely on fossil fuels in so many ways feel tainted. I do think the book is a provocation in that sense. I’m trying to get people to think about how they’re complicit. I don’t talk a lot in the book about change, but I do think that these things can change, but only if we collectively work together; not if one person stops eating meat.

Q. It can feel as though dirty work and the systems that these jobs operate in are necessary for our society to function. Is this true? What can “good people” do to address these systems and help dirty workers?

I think that they are necessary to the existing social order. The good thing about a social order is that we can change the social order. Martin Luther King Day was earlier this week; America’s social order shifted significantly. Maybe not enough, and maybe just in form or on the surface, but nevertheless, these things can change. And all the forms of dirty work that I look at in the book are things where public attitudes have shifted. When I started out as a journalist, nobody talked about mass incarceration. There didn’t seem to be another way. Then Michelle Alexander publishes her book The New Jim Crow and a whole literature develops, movements develop, and communities start organizing. Now there’s a bipartisan consensus that mass incarceration is a bad thing. To me, the most striking moment that showed that was in the 2020 presidential election. Donald Trump, of all people, criticized Biden for signing the crime bill when he was in the Senate. And, I’m thinking, “Wow, a right-wing Republican is going after a Democrat because he was too hard on crime and because he okayed policies that were too punitive.” That’s a big shift. And I think with the food system, with fossil fuels, all these things are changing.

Q. How did your time as a visiting journalist at the Russell Sage Foundation inform Dirty Work?

Very positively. First of all, just being around these brilliant people and social scientists who came from across the country and who were doing amazing work in so many different fields was inspiring. Everybody was here and we were eating lunch together every day back then, so there were a lot of interactions. I made some friends and learned a lot from other people’s presentations. In terms of research, all of the occupational health literature that I describe and write about in the chapter about prison guards as well as a lot of other research was collected and gathered with the help of Russell Sage staff while I was here. The book is a hybrid between journalism and social science, and I hope that’s reflected in how it reads. There are a lot of sources that I found and questions that I started pursuing while I was at RSF.


RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences is a peer-reviewed, open-access journal of original empirical research articles by both established and emerging scholars.


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