I would like to thank WRH for delivering this to my attention:
"‘Nobody Asked a Worker!’
Janine Jackson interviewed Aviva Chomsky about the Boston Globe‘s delivery debacle and immigrant labor for the February 12, 2016, CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.
Janine Jackson: The Boston Globe’s decision to contract
out its subscriber delivery service to a new company that said they
could do it cheaper was the kind of business call made every day. And
media usually treat such events as just that: business news, for the
business page. But those decisions have human impacts, too, sometimes
huge ones. It’s just that the lives they change, generally speaking,
aren’t the ones that make the paper.
Something different happened at the Globe, though, at least for a little while. Our next guest tells the story in an article for TomDispatch
called “All The News That’s Fit to Print.” Aviva Chomsky is professor
of history and coordinator of Latin American studies at Salem State
University in Massachusetts. She’s author of the book Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal, and also They Take Our Jobs! and 20 Other Myths About Immigration. She joins us now by phone from Massachusetts. Welcome to CounterSpin, Aviva Chomsky.
Aviva Chomsky: Thanks. Thanks for having me on the show.
JJ: The story you tell in the article is emblematic of a number of things, so let’s just start in. The Boston Globe changes their delivery contractor, and what happens?
AC: In a way, not to be too historical, but I think we have to
start before they changed delivery carriers, with how newspapers are
delivered at all in today’s United States. Because I think a lot of
people still have in mind that newspapers are delivered by 12-year-olds
on their bicycles, and that’s not how it is at all anymore. Newspaper
delivery has become big business, and it’s done through an elaborate
system of subcontracting. And the people who deliver the newspapers are
adults, they do it by car, and their routes are far longer and more
complex than what the kids in the neighborhoods used to do.
So newspaper delivery is a job that’s done through subcontracting.
It’s a 365-day-a-year job, it has to be done in the middle of the night
from about 2 a.m. until 6 a.m., no matter what the weather, what the
conditions. And it’s a job that’s extremely poorly paid; that is, you
have to have your own car, your own insurance, you have to drive
hundreds of miles a week.
But you’re not considered an employee, you’re considered an
independent contractor. And therefore the employer, which is the
subcontractor who is contracted by the newspaper, doesn’t have any of
the responsibilities that an employer has. They don’t have to pay you
minimum wage, they don’t have to give you unemployment insurance,
worker’s compensation, Social Security. They get out of all their
responsibilities as an employer.
AC: And, not surprisingly, this is an area of the economy where a lot of the people who work there are immigrants, and a significant number are also undocumented. Because it’s designed to be sort of a hidden, underground piece of the economy. So that’s how it’s been.
But then the Boston Globe decided they wanted to make it even
cheaper for themselves, and they contracted out to a new delivery
company that promised to give them a lower rate. And basically the only
way to get a lower rate is to pay your workers even less.
JJ: What we would call “cutting labor costs” in the mainstream media, which means—
AC: Yes, exactly.
JJ: —paying workers less who are already relatively very low-paid or underpaid.
AC: And there is something just a little bit ironic about this
whole situation, that this is the newspaper, this is the people who are
supposed to be doing the investigation and bringing the news, and that
they’re relying on this very hidden system of distribution.
JJ: It’s actually kind of core to the story. I wanted to point
out earlier for those folks who think, “Well, but nobody gets a print
paper anyway,” that 56 percent of Americans still read the newspaper in
the hard copy. So let’s move away from the idea that everybody’s just
reading it online. And then, yes, this is a business that you think is
about transparency and about uncovering, and yet a core part of the
industry itself is largely unseen.
Well, the story that you write is actually about the broaching of
that division. Because what happens is that when the contract changes,
workers are laid off, the new workers are not just getting paid less but
facing worse conditions. And there’s actually a disruption in delivery;
is that right?
AC: A huge disruption in delivery, so that tens of thousands of the Boston Globe‘s couple of hundred thousand subscribers are not getting the Globe,
day after day after day, week after week. It was a full month of
delivery disruption. And this is really the first time that the
newspaper itself, and the newspaper reporters, acknowledged that they
had no idea how the paper ever got to its subscribers.
JJ: Well, that’s what’s fascinating. The Globe now, for
whatever reasons, they have the idea to have the reporters and other
staff deliver the Sunday paper. And this is an event; the New York Times and NPR
do kind of fish-out-of-water stories about reporters delivering the
paper. My mother-in-law, Kathleen Naureckas, who worked in journalism
for many years, has a saying, partly humorous, that news is what happens
to or near an editor.
JJ: Here we have a story, it’s under the nose of reporters,
but, as you found, for the most part, at least initially, the way they
approached this story, once they were kind of confronted with it and
needed to report on it, the way they reported on it was more of a
reflection on them than on their ostensible subjects.
AC: Yeah. And here it’s not just the Boston Globe reporters, but this story was picked up nationally. So it was in the New York Times, the fact that Boston Globe reporters spent one night doing what immigrant workers do 365 days a year, that suddenly made national news. So NPR, as you said, the New York Times, Columbia Journalism Review;
it was popping up everywhere, this amazing fact that newspaper
reporters spent a night delivering the paper. And I’m surprised that no
one was sort of embarrassed to acknowledge just how big this divide is,
and how unlikely and shocking it was that something like this could
happen, that newspaper reporters could actually see how the paper gets
JJ: And what its implication is, of course, for the way that
lack of experience impacts their reporting. I mean, part of what you
found was reporters saying, ‘wow, this is very eye-opening, you know—
JJ: —the conditions that they’re working in.’ That’s
dispiriting in its own way. But what you also found was, despite the
confrontation with the reality and the difficulty of the job, there
still was a kind of lack of interest, really, in digging into what that
life was like.
AC: Well, there were a couple of Globe reporters who
really did try to get under the surface, and I have to especially give a
shout-out to Marcela Garcia, who’s one of the few Globe reporters who actually speaks Spanish, which helped a lot, who actually interviewed some of the workers there.
But most of the Boston Globe’s reporting and the national-level reporting ignored the workers completely. That is, it told the story about how the Boston Globe
workers went out, but the emphasis was that the whole problem was
software, that is, that the new company had inadequate software. So it
tried to go from one extreme, of the reality of the grittiness and the
exploitation involved in this actual physical labor, and turn it into
something technological and computerized, further invisibilizing the
workers who actually do the work. So article after article said the
problem was the software, the problem was the software.
JJ: Yeah, it’s a technological fix to the difficulties. It
wasn’t even as if — I mean, it’s an interesting thing that happened.
First of all, I want to underscore: You cite one article that says, you
know, “Whatever they’re paying these people, it’s not enough. Now that
I’ve done this job, I see that it’s very hard.” And that idea of, well,
“whatever they’re paying them”—the fact that a reporter writing on this
crisis labor situation would not have looked into it enough to see, what
are they paying them, you know? What are the actual facts at hand here, what is the pay rate that these workers are objecting to?
AC: And some of the reporting went even further, that is, they asked the Boston Globe
and they asked ACI, the new carrier, and PCF, the old carrier, what
they were paying, and none of those official sources were willing to
tell them. But nobody asked a worker! Like, it’s so easy to find out
what they’re paying, but they just went to the official sources, and
then they wrote that none of the official sources would tell them.
JJ: So that’s a big piece of this story, is that disconnect
between the reporters—some of whom, of course, are writing about labor,
some of whom are writing about immigration and immigrant communities—not
having this basic knowledge. But then, what you wind up with about how,
after some good reporting, the Globe itself seemed to come away with a kind of tech fix: What we needed was more sensible paper routes.
This gets to a bigger point that you make about how we manage to
disassociate—or maybe don’t just manage, but work hard to
disassociate—our shiny clean virtual lives from the material-world
conditions and relationships that make them possible. And I take it that
you see that attitude as reflected in, not just media coverage, but
also in policy, that we rely on these immigrant workers but we don’t
AC: And that’s something that’s almost built into our DNA as a
country. And, you know, I teach history, so I’m always really shocked
to see the extent to which students still, in 2016, are coming into the
classroom with these sort of sanitized, racially whitened versions of
American history, where inequality, exploitation, people of color,
extermination of Native Americans, taking of lands are just whitewashed
JJ: Well, let me just pull you into that. Election season, of
course, is high tide for empty rhetoric, and one of the lines that we
will hear and have heard is “America is a nation of immigrants.”
JJ: I’ve heard you speak about this before. When you hear
that, “Oh, we’re a nation of immigrants,” what should we be bearing in
mind when we hear that evoked?
AC: Oh, well, thank you for asking me that question, because
it’s a phrase that we are hearing every single day now, and it just
makes my skin crawl. Because when we use that kind of language, “We’re a
nation of immigrants,” we’re adopting what I would call a white
supremacist version of US history. That is, there’s a hidden word in
that, which is, “We are a nation of white immigrants.”
And the reason I say that word is hidden there is that for most of US
history, to be an immigrant, you had to be white. That is, only white
people were allowed to be immigrants, that is, people who could become
citizens. People of color who either were forcibly transported to the
territory or who already lived in the territory were not considered
immigrants; they were not eligible to citizenship. So when we talk about
Ellis Island and welcoming immigrants, we’re talking about white immigrants. Because only white people were allowed to immigrate during so much of US history.
JJ: A lack of historicity is a chronic problem with media.
It’s a way that coverage can work against understanding, even without
being false at the level of the sentence. And continuing that historical
theme, I wonder if you can talk about the historical creation of
illegality. Because this is something that we hear all the time, that
people don’t oppose immigrants or immigration per se, it’s the illegality of it. And I think there’s a sense that that is a platonic understanding, when in fact it’s a historical creation.
AC: And it goes back to what I was just talking about. That
is, if only white people could be considered immigrants, people of color
were welcomed into the country, but not as immigrants. That is, people
from Africa were forced to come to the country, but not as immigrants;
they weren’t considered immigrants.
And until, really, the 1960s, Mexicans were welcomed into the
country, also not as immigrants but as workers, and as specifically
deportable workers. Because they could not be citizens, not being white,
they were never considered immigrants. And there were a series of
different legal regimes, from the early 20th century through 1965, that
over and over again reiterated the fact that Mexicans were absolutely
necessary as a labor force, but they had to be deported when their labor
was not needed, and that they would not be considered immigrants or
And it’s really in the civil rights climate of the 1960s that the
deportability of Mexicans solely because of their racial/national
categorization as Mexicans started to become problematic. And the legal
system for deporting people just for being Mexican started to be
So that in 1965, when there’s an immigration quota put on Mexico for
the first time, that’s acknowledging Mexicans as immigrants for the
first time, but turning most of the Mexicans, who are still being
brought here as workers, into illegal workers. It’s a new way of
enforcing deportability on Mexicans after it becomes un-politically
correct to say, “Well, of course they’re deportable, because they’re
Mexican.” Now it becomes, “They’re deportable because they’re illegal.”
JJ: And that seems so crucial and so often papered over, this
idea of status, in this case immigration status, as being caste. Because
it allows people to say we’re not discriminating.
JJ: Because it’s not about race, it’s just about criminality.
And I understand that you see a connection between that status as caste,
and the legal disabilities that come along with it—that has other
analogues in American society right now that are relevant.
AC: Absolutely. And a lot of my thinking on this was really shaped by reading Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow, and looking at how new legal regimes enforce the same kinds of status under new language on African-Americans.
JJ: Right. So you have African-Americans disproportionately
impacted by the criminal justice system who, once you have a criminal
record, you can’t vote, you can’t serve on a jury; there are other
things, benefits of citizenship, that don’t accrue to you. But it
becomes difficult, or more difficult, somehow or ostensibly, to trace it
to race, because it’s not about race, it’s about criminal status.
AC: Although they’re the very same rights that African-Americans were deprived of on the basis of race until the 1960s.
JJ: Right. Well, again it brings us back to the way that we
talk about these things, and what and who is missing from that
conversation. So to just kind of bring it back around to the Boston Globe
story, what we had there was a moment to include immigrant workers in
the conversation about their own lives. Would you say it was a missed
opportunity? I mean, what do you ultimately take away from that story
that you wrote about?
AC: Well, in terms of the news coverage, I would say there were a couple of Boston Globe reporters who tried really valiantly to highlight the labor issue, to make that be the focus of the discussion.
AC: But I would say the newspaper as a whole, the management
of the newspaper and the national level of coverage, just absolutely
refused to acknowledge that.
JJ: And with that, I mean, a lot of what you’re talking about
is making invisible — you know, we’re not talking about issues, we’re
talking about human beings. And a lot relies on not seeing the lives and
the experiences of these people whose labor in fact impacts virtually
every aspect of our lives. So it actually is kind of an effort to make
us not see them, in a way.
AC: And I would really say that this is just one tiny example
of how our immigration system, our foreign policy, our global economic
system, allows privileged people in the First World to enjoy the
benefits of exploited Third World labor without ever having to see it.
And that the privilege of getting to enjoy the material fruits of it is
compounded by the privilege of not having to know it’s happening.
JJ: And I can’t help but add that helping us know things are
happening that maybe we don’t want to know about really should be part
of journalists’ core work, I would hope.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with Aviva Chomsky. Her most recent book is Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal. Aviva Chomsky, thank you so much for speaking with us this week on CounterSpin.
AC: Oh, you’re very welcome. Thanks for having me.
Obviously, I don't agree with all the implications in the article or the positions taken as such, particularly playing to the division that perpetuates the entire $y$tem itself; however, it confirms what I've been saying, and we all know the Globe's position on this matter.
I wonder if the reporters are still delivering the paper because I haven't seen a story in weeks if not longer.