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Dirty Work: Eyal Press on Essential Jobs and the Hidden Toll of Inequality in America

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Ahead of Labor Day, we speak with journalist and sociologist Eyal Press about his new book, “Dirty Work: Essential Jobs and the Hidden Toll of Inequality in America.” Press profiles workers like prison guards and oil workers — people who make their livelihoods by doing “unethical activity that society depends on and tacitly condones but doesn’t want to hear too much” about, he says. “This work is largely hidden, and we rarely hear from the people on the frontlines who are delegated to do it,” Press tells Democracy Now! “The powerful and the privileged really don’t do the dirty work in America — they not only don’t do it, they don’t see it.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

This Monday is Labor Day. Today, we spend the rest of the hour looking at Dirty Work: Essential Jobs and the Hidden Toll of Inequality in America. It’s the title of a new book by New Yorker writer Eyal Press. He profiles workers like prison guards and oil workers, and two people we’ll speak to in a minute: a drone operator and the daughter of poultry plant workers.

We begin with Eyal Press, who also has a new opinion piece in The New York Times headlined “America Runs on 'Dirty Work' and Moral Inequality.” Eyal is joining us from Buffalo, New York.

Eyal, welcome back to Democracy Now! You begin your book, Eyal, with a quote from the great writer James Baldwin, who said, “The powerless must do their own dirty work. The powerful have it done for them.” Talk about what that means and what you mean by “dirty work.”

EYAL PRESS: So, I don’t mean the common colloquial expression, which I think leads people to just think of, say, garbage truck workers, who do something that’s physically dirty. Dirty work, in my book, means unethical activity that society depends on and tacitly condones but doesn’t want to hear too much. So, it is work that’s sort of in the shadows, if we think of the work of conducting targeted assassinations in the drone program or the work of running the mental health wards in America’s jails and prisons, which, by the way, are the largest mental health institutions in this country, or the work of manning the kill floors in industrial slaughterhouses. All of those things, I argue in the book, are pretty essential to our existing social order, to the American way of life. You really can’t imagine fast food, the American industrial food system, without the slaughterhouses I write about. You can’t imagine the never-ending wars without the drone program.

But we very rarely hear from — this work is largely hidden, and we rarely hear from the people on the frontlines who are delegated to do it. And to go back to the Baldwin quote, the book is about inequality, because the powerful and the privileged really don’t do the dirty work in America — they not only don’t do it, they don’t see it. And so I’m particularly honored to be on this show, because you’ve invited some of the people I’ve written about to tell their stories. We don’t hear those stories enough, and also the family members of people who do this work.

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