Law Religion Culture Review

Exploring the intersections of law, religion and culture. Copyright by Richard J. Radcliffe. All rights reserved.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Book Review: Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich.

After describing a coworker's lament about wasting her employer's money by wasting time on the job, author Barbara Ehrenreich writes: "To me, this anger seems badly mis-aimed." (180.)

Pot, meet kettle.

Ehrenreich's book Nickel and Dimed is an extended exercise in misdirected anger.

Holding a Ph.D. in biology and enjoying a career as a writer of several books, Ehrenreich took jobs as a waitress, hotel maid, house cleaner, nursing home aide, and retail clerk to expose the dispiriting working conditions endured in these travails.

Surprisingly, Ehrenreich mixes in rants about customers or clients who have nothing to do with setting these employment conditions. In a particularly shocking example during her stint as a house cleaner for a company, Ehrenreich seethes:

"[I]n a huge, gorgeous country house with hand-painted walls, I encounter a shelf full of arrogant and, under the circumstances, personally insulting neoconservative encomiums to the status quo and consider using germ warfare against the (house) owners, the weapons for which are within my apron pockets. All I would have to do is take one of the E. coli-rich rags that's been used on the toilets and use it to 'clean' the kitchen counters--a plan that entertains me for an hour or more." (109.)

Why is Ehrenreich directing her anger to the customer (besides class envy)? After all, the house owner did nothing to set any of the working conditions about which Ehrenreich complains. I'm quite confident the home owner did not set her hourly wage, set her schedule, dictate breaks (or lack thereof), or anything else about Ehrenreich's working conditions. Moreover, without the home owner contracting with Ehrenreich's employer for her services, there would be no wages flowing to Ehrenreich whatsoever. So, again, it appears the rage is misdirected.

Ehrenreich does expose, however, some appalling aspects of employment in such positions of unequal bargaining power. She describes scenarios of checks being withheld, breaks ignored, hours shaved (i.e. uncompensated) and other indignities or injustices.

Nickel and Dimed has birthed other immersion journalism books, including 2010's Working in the Shadows by Gabriel Thompson and Scratch Beginnings by Adam Shepard (reviewed here on March 8, 2010, and October 29, 2008, respectively). Both books expressly noted their inspiration in Ehrenreich's book. Even without the express acknowledgement, it was evident that Thompson's book bears a strong resemblance to Ehrenreich's, as if they share the same DNA. Their political perspectives, especially strong advocacy for unions, are nearly identical. However, Thompson's book mostly lets the conditions speak for themselves, while Ehrenreich colors her narrative with screeds. In the end, these diatribes, often off-topic, detract from the stories that can stand on their own without these immaterial attempts at enhancement.

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