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Bristle Why You Work

A Conversation with Barbara Ehrenreich

Barbara Ehrenreich is the best-selling author of 11 books, including Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America. The book challenges welfare reform's premise that a steady job ensures financial independence. Spending a year working in Florida, Maine and Minnesota at such low-wage jobs as house cleaner, waitress and Wal-Mart clerk, Ehrenreich documents -- with precision, outrage and humor -- the substandard workplaces and palpable desperation of the working poor.


Primarily a social critic and essayist, Nickel and Dimed was Ehrenreich's first foray into reportage and narrative journalism, but not her last. "Welcome to Cancerland: A Mammogram Leads to a Cult of Pink Kitsch," appeared in Harper's Magazine in 2001. Ehrenreich's breast-cancer diagnosis propels her to the disease's shop-for-a-cure merchandising, Web sites and races. She rails against the "infantilizing" of the disease with cute teddy bears and pink ribbons, the "relentless brightsiding" that cancer is a character-builder and being angry a waste of energy, and the sponsorship of Breast Cancer Awareness month by major polluters who gloss over the role that carcinogens may play in cancer. The article was subsequently featured in two books, Best Essays of 2002 and the Best Science Writing of 2002.


Ehrenreich is a frequent contributor to Time, The New Republic, The Progressive and The New York Times Magazine. She will appear in Pittsburgh as part of the Drue Heinz Lectures series on Mon., March 29.


How did your Nickel and Dimed jobs cause you to describe the American workplace as generally a "dictatorship?"

It's the strange rules that you have to put up with. In one of my jobs you couldn't talk to your fellow workers. Of course you could say, "Where did you put that cart that I had such and such in?" But you were never to be caught saying, "How was your weekend?" or "Is your headache better?" I found that to be astonishing. I imagine they would say that it's efficiency, that you can't ever be doing anything that isn't work. But I think another part of it must be to prevent people from sharing their complaints and beginning to talk about how to make changes.


It's really hard for people to agitate. You agitate for one second and you're fired. If American workers don't have a union contract, they can be fired "at will" -- at the will of the employer. There's a palpable inhibition against speaking up.


What I found particularly disturbing was Marc Linder and Ingrid Nygaard's Void Where Prohibited, which you cite.

They write about people on cash registers or assembly lines who wear adult diapers to work because they're never going to get a chance to pee. And he talks about the health effects of not being able to go to the bathroom when you need to.


What bothered you about having to take a drug test for one of your jobs?

I just don't think drug testing is justified. It's been interesting to hear the talk about [drug testing for] professional athletes recently. All the lawyers for the athletes are saying, "Look, this is presuming guilt, there's no cause for those drug-test thing. What do they think is going on in this country?" They're acting so righteous and chagrined, as well they should be. It's just that this has been the rule -- you know there's no cause, there's no reason for suspicion across the board.


What made you decide that your breast-cancer diagnosis was journalistic fodder?

Almost the moment after I finished Nickel and Dimed, I was hit with this diagnosis. And I learn from the book that you can get through some pretty hard things if you are writing about them, if you can create the detachment from being an observer, a writer.


Was there much response to that piece?

Yes. I still get letters from people saying it really helped them get through their cancer experience. Not only breast-cancer people: I just got one from a woman who had been treated for some kind of lymphoma and she said there was the same sort of cult of false cheerfulness going on there. And also it has influenced some of the breast-cancer activists. My favorite group, Breast Cancer Action in San Francisco, has launched a campaign, "Think Before You Pink," attacking all these races and walks and other things for being sort of a corporate PR effort and beside the point.


You've remarked on conformity among journalists, which is perhaps similar to the "cult" you write about in "Cancerland." Can you explain your contention that newspapers that subject writers to drug testing are less interesting than those that don't?

Maybe newspapers should have pre-employment drug testing for journalists and anybody who would agree to submit to it should not be hired. Because, as far as I'm concerned, they'd lack the independence of mind to be a real journalist.

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