Skip to main content

Pulitzer-Prize Winning Journalist David Shipler

His new book is The Working Poor: Invisible in America. Shipler is a former reporter for The New York Times. He's also written for The New Yorker, The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times. His book Arab and Jews: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land won the Pulitzer Prize.

14:57

Other segments from the episode on February 11, 2004

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 11, 2004: Interview with Jonathan Sheffer; Interview with David Shipler.

Transcript

DATE February 11, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Jonathan Sheffer discusses the Eos Orchestra's CDs of
past classical composers' works
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: That's the opening of George Gershwin's "2nd Rhapsody," for piano and

orchestra performed by the Eos Orchestra. Reviving neglected works by such
composers as Gershwin, Aaron Copland, Franz Schubert and Paul Bowles is one of
the missions of the orchestra. The group also prides itself on its innovating
programming and collaborations. Next month it will perform a new, scaled-down
adaptation of Wagner's opera "The Valkyrieo." My guest, Jonathan Sheffer,
is the founder and artistic director of the Eos Orchestra. Before starting
this New York-based orchestra in 1995, he composed and conducted scores for
movies.

The Eos Orchestra has several CDs and DVDs. The CD "Gershwin: Complete Works
for Piano & Orchestra" features a version of "Rhapsody In Blue" for a small
orchestra which had never been recorded before. It was arranged by Ferde
Grofe before he did the better-known, larger orchestral version. In a moment
we'll hear a passage featuring saxophone and banjo that shows off what's
unique about the scaled-down score. I asked Jonathan Sheffer to describe what
makes it special.

Mr. JONATHAN SHEFFER (Founder, Artistic Director, Eos Orchestra): This allows
you to hear the music exactly as it was meant to be heard, in a sense. I
think of the orchestral version as an accommodation to public taste, but I like
to think of Gershwin playing this version with a small orchestra in which
everybody can be heard. And certainly on this, you get a sense of that.

GROSS: And this version actually was written for him to perform.

Mr. SHEFFER: Yes. At the early parts of the piece's career, you might say,
he was the only person that played it. And Oscar Levant took it up, and it
was a while before other pianists really began to perform it.

GROSS: OK. Well, this is the Eos Orchestra's recording of "Rhapsody In
Blue."

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: That's the Eos Orchestra performing Gershwin's "Rhapsody In Blue" from
the Eos Orchestra's recording "Gershwin: Complete Works for Piano &
Orchestra." That was Michael Boriskin at the piano and my guest, Jonathan
Sheffer, conducting. He's the founder of the orchestra.

Let's hear some more music. You've played a lot of Aaron Copland over the
years with the Eos Orchestra, and you have two recordings of Aaron Copland
music. One of those recordings, the more recent one, is the music that he
wrote for films. But why did you want to do an entire recording of Copland's
music for film?

Mr. SHEFFER: Well, for several reasons. One is that it's much easier to sell
a recording that is focused in its repertoire and on one composer. Problem
with CDs are many, but one of them is that you just don't know where to hold
on to that if it isn't one composer's work. `Where should I put it on my
shelf? What does it mean to me?' Of course, the very idea of CDs is under
attack now. I happen to think that MP3 players are going to really decimate
this whole idea of buying CDs. They take up a lot of space as it is.
However, while people are still making CDs, we're going to keep making CDs.

This one represented some research that I did at the Library of Congress, and
I was very interested in Copland's film music. And I sensed that there was
this gap in his work that we didn't know about. How did he get from the
person that wrote "Billy the Kid" to the person that won an Oscar for "The
Heiress"? How did that happen? Nobody had really looked into that, and I
found in the Library of Congress all this work that he did for the World's
Fair of 1939, including a short film, a documentary, that led to his work in
Hollywood. And it became a project of love and of just total devotion to
Aaron Copland, and it was terribly rewarding for me.

GROSS: Why don't we hear something from that "Celluloid Copland" album that
the Eos Orchestra recorded? And this is from the music that he wrote for the
film "The City." Let's start with what the film is.

Mr. SHEFFER: The film was a documentary for the 1939 World's Fair, which was
commissioned by the Hall of Science and Industry. And it was put together
by a lot of very interesting, left-wing intellectuals, and Copland fit very
neatly into that group. And the film basically tried to describe a sort of a
green city of the future, which looks to us like a suburb now. But, of
course, in 1939, that wasn't really a concept that existed. And he provided,
with his first film score, very interesting and a wide range of different
kinds of accompaniments for this very interesting documentary.

GROSS: Well, why don't we hear an excerpt from his suite for the film "The
City"? And this part is called "Fire Engines at lunch hour." And listening to
it, it sounded to me almost like minimalism, like a form of prota-minimalism.

Mr. SHEFFER: Well, I think that every film composer has to do what Copland
did instinctively, which is to solve the problem of quick-cutting sequences.
And he took these sequences, which are all about traffic and get faster and
faster, and he provided a kind of motor that does sound a bit minimalistic now
to our ears. What's interesting to me is that this was abridged to
"Appalachian Spring," the great masterpiece of his life, which he wrote in
1943--this score is from 1939. And I think in it, he found a vocabulary that
he would then apply to dance going forward and really found its culmination in
"Appalachian Spring," mostly in the sections that he took out of the famous
suite. But he began to develop this sort of motor sound, which I don't think,
really, had existed in American music. So it's a terribly original kind of a
piece. And you have to listen to it with those ears as though it never had
existed before.

GROSS: OK. This is from Aaron Copland's score for "The City" from the
Eos Orchestra recording "Celluloid Copland."

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: That's the Eos Orchestra conducted by my guest, Jonathan Sheffer, from
the album "Celluloid Copland."

Well, that's just really interesting music. Did you know Aaron Copland?

Mr. SHEFFER: No. Unfortunately, I was not really conducting when he was
still alive. I really began conducting in 1991, and, of course, he died in
1990. And prior to that, I was working in films and in the theater.

GROSS: Well, we'll get to that in a moment. You did study with Leonard
Bernstein. What was his attitude toward repertoire for his concert
performances, things that you picked up on that have influenced your thinking
when preparing repertoire?

Mr. SHEFFER: It's interesting. He was a very bold programmer in the sense
that when he was at the New York Philharmonic, he looked at an institution
with an august history, and I think he said to himself, `What can we do to
make this more interesting to the audience?' He was a great populist. He was
a great educator. He was a great communicator. And he wanted the public to
have a passion for classical music as much as he did. I don't think that was
humanly possible. I mean, he was a man of superhuman appetites and intellect
and enthusiasm. So he changed the format. He talked to the audience.
There's a recording that's currently available. The Philharmonic issued a
150th anniversary CD, in which he talked to the audience about a piece that he
was going to play by Boulez and explained to them why it was interesting. And
I always found it interesting that Leonard Bernstein would conduct Boulez, but
Pierre Boulez would never conduct Leonard Bernstein. He had a great ability
to listen to all kinds of music and to try to find whatever interest was in it
and communicate that to his audience.

GROSS: What are some of the things that--now I know when you studied with him
you were at Harvard. It was before you were a conductor, and I think at that
time you were aspiring to be a composer, perhaps for Broadway.

Mr. SHEFFER: Correct.

GROSS: But did you, nevertheless, learn things from him about conducting?

Mr. SHEFFER: I don't like to say in too bold letters that I studied with him.
I had a lot of access to him. When he was at Harvard, he taught a weekly
analysis class, and some of us were invited to sit with him once a week and to
talk about whatever he wanted to talk about. And it was really not about
conducting. At that time two projects loomed very large in my mind: One was
his production of "Carmen" at the Metropolitan Opera, and the other was
his composition of "The Dybbuk." And he had just finished the pencil score of
"The Dybbuk," and he came into class and he was so excited. And he probably
had been up all night finishing it. And he grabbed one of the graduate
students, and they went up to two pianos and read through it, an experience I
will never forget.

Also, his analysis of "Carmen" was so profound, it was so theatrical, it was
so interesting to me that I think that that has sort of worked into my musical
DNA, and it will be with me forever. So, in a sense, he really was teaching
conducting, although he was talking about the analysis of opera arias.

GROSS: Can you share something memorable from that analysis that would
translate to us without hearing the score?

Mr. SHEFFER: Yes, I can, in fact. He talked about "The Flower"(ph) aria in
Act II, and he played a little bit of it at the piano. And he said to the
class, `What is unusual about this aria?' And, of course, we all sat there in
silence. Nobody could articulate what it was. And he began to play through
the entire piece, and he got to a certain point and he said, `It doesn't
repeat once. There is not one phrase of music that's played twice. This is
an unfolding of unrehearsed passion, and the composer understood that.' I
mean, that's a revelation. You need to be around somebody who can point out
things like that to you in your life, and I feel fortunate that I was able to
be around him.

GROSS: My guest is Jonathan Sheffer, a founder, conductor and artistic
director of the Eos Orchestra. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH
AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Jonathan Sheffer, the founder, conductor and artistic
director of the Eos Orchestra, which specializes in innovative programming and
the revival of neglected works.

You have a CD of the music of Paul Bowles, who's really much better known as a
writer--for instance, as the writer of "The Sheltering Sky." Why did you want
to go back, rediscover his music?

Mr. SHEFFER: Because it's good. Because it's fascinating to me that someone
could be so good at two things. It's hard enough to be good at one thing in
life. And we live in a very specialized society now. Our arts, particularly,
are so ghettoized from each other that you can't even be a composer or
performer with a lot of success because people will think, `Well, if he's a
good conductor, he couldn't be a very good composer. He's a good actor, he
couldn't be a very good director.' There's a lot of prejudice against people
doing more than one thing. Paul Bowles didn't really care about that.

What he did, he started as a composer, and he eventually found that literature
had more potential for him to really express something deep in his soul. And
I think he left the United States, he left New York, he left the atmosphere of
Broadway, where he wrote music for a lot of plays, and the avante-garde
musical world that he was living in, and he became the novelist that most of
us know. So I found it fascinating. And the more I knew some of his music
and the more I uncovered it, the more quality I found. It was quite a
staggering process for me.

GROSS: You want to play his greatest hit for us, greatest hit judging from
the reaction you get at concerts?

Mr. SHEFFER: I would play--the third movement of the "Suite for Small
Orchestra" is a very interesting combination of clashing sounds and ends in
a very, very funny way. So I think that's a good thing to listen to.

GROSS: OK. So why don't we hear the end of Paul Bowles' "Suite for Small
Orchestra"?

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: That's the Eos Orchestra conducted by my guest, Jonathan Sheffer, who
founded the group, from their CD "The Music of Paul Bowles."

Did you get to know Paul Bowles when you were putting his music together?

Mr. SHEFFER: I did, fortunately. When I was planning the birth of the Eos
Orchestra, I got groups of friends together, and one of the people that came
to one of those evenings was John Corigliano, the composer. And he said, `If
you want to really make a splash, you have to get Paul to come over here to
New York.' And that was a very important thing to hear. And I had been
communicating with him, and I said, `I'm going to come over to Tangier and
try to talk to you about this.' And I went over for a week and spent a lot of
time with him smoking kif and laughing and had an amazing experience with
him, and then it sort of sealed it. And he got very interested in coming.
And when we had the festival in September of '95, he came to New York, and I
think that was a real experience for everyone.

GROSS: Did he offer any insights that helped you interpret his music?

Mr. SHEFFER: Very few, but he did have a few phrasing things; that we
realized that his notation wasn't always as clear as it might have been. And
I would look at it and play exactly what I thought I was seeing, and then he
would sing to me what he really intended. And it was amazing to me that he
remembered pieces he had written 50 years earlier that he maybe had never
heard played. And so I was very interested in his reactions to having this
festival built entirely around his music.

GROSS: Can you sing the difference between what you thought the score said
and what he meant it to say?

Mr. SHEFFER: Yeah. He wrote his triplets with a curving line over them,
which, you know, if the curving line is in the wrong place, it looks like it
should be (singing) da, da, da, de, da, da, da, de, da, da, da, da, da, da.
And we were recording it. We were at a recording session, and he sort of
motioned me over and he said, `It's a pastorale. It's supposed to be
(sings) ba, ba, ba, ba, be, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba. I mean, that changes
the character of the music totally.

GROSS: That's certainly one of the real benefits of working with living
composers, isn't it?

Mr. SHEFFER: It's the benefit because there's no right way except what they
say.

GROSS: (Laughs) Does the right way that they say ever not--is it ever not the
way you want to play it?

Mr. SHEFFER: Well, it's interesting. You may have a strong feeling about
something, and you can propose it to a composer. Being a composer myself, I
would welcome somebody saying, `I really feel this should be phrased this way.
I really think you should change this orchestra. I think you ought to take
out these four bars.' You know, all of that is interesting. I orchestrated a
piece that Stephen Sondheim wrote in college as his senior thesis, and he's
a good friend of mine, and I felt I could make suggestions to him. I did so
with care and with the greatest respect, which I have for his music, but he
seemed very open to changing phrases and putting something earlier and later,
and that was a very interesting collaboration. Bernstein, who we were
speaking about, very often used to call up composers and explain to them what
they had written, and that was very interesting. He was...

GROSS: What do you mean by that?

Mr. SHEFFER: Oh, he was constantly switching the order of the movements of
their symphonies or telling them that a certain section of the development
really wasn't very convincing. And he had a great idea; maybe if they just
sort of, you know, took out three minutes of the piece, it would be a lot more
successful. That took a lot of balls, but he was able to do that.

GROSS: Jonathan Sheffer is the founder, conductor and artistic director of
the Eos Orchestra. They have several CDs and DVDs. Sheffer will be back in
the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

(Announcements)

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up, we continue our conversation with Jonathan Sheffer, founder
and artistic director of the Eos Orchestra; also, the lives of undocumented
workers in the US. We talk with David Shipler, author of "The Working Poor:
Invisible in America."

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Jonathan Sheffer, the
founder, conductor and artistic director of the Eos Orchestra. It specializes
in innovating programming and the revival of neglected works. Their
recordings feature works by such composers as George Gershwin, Aaron Copland,
John Cage and Paul Bowles. When Sheffer was starting his career, he hoped to
write for Broadway. When that didn't work out, he moved into television
composing for the PBS series "American Playhouse." That led him to LA, where
he started writing and conducting film scores. I asked him to name a few
movies he worked on.

Mr. SHEFFER: Every bad movie you never saw...

GROSS: (Laughs)

Mr. SHEFFER: ...which is really the way that one sort of climbs up the
Hollywood ladder. I mean, the last few ones I did: "Encino Man," "Omen IV."
I did a wonderful movie that Madonna was in that nobody saw called
"Bloodhounds of Broadway." And I'm very proud of these scores. I wrote a
score for a film for "American Playhouse" called "In a Shallow Grave," which
was based on a James Purdy novel, and I just premiered a suite from that at
Carnegie Hall at our last concert. And that was a sort of nice turning of the
wheel for me because I always felt the music to that was quite good.

GROSS: So even though you didn't like the movies, you liked writing the
music.

Mr. SHEFFER: Yes. The problem when you score a bad movie is that nobody
really can give any credence to the music. Only in really good movies do we
even begin to pay attention to the music. And I felt that I was wasting my
talent, although I was learning a lot. I learned how to orchestrate. I began
conducting in Hollywood with the greatest musicians in the world, and they
certainly are the people to play in the studio orchestras. But I felt that
that wasn't the best use of my passion. For me, it was more important to find
a way to combine everything that I love--theater, movies, classical music,
intellectual ideas, you know, why are we at a concert--and then to put all of
those things into one effort.

GROSS: Now, you know, I sometimes think that composers are able to write
pretty almost experimental music for movies because you can use that for
effect. What might sound very avant-garde in a concert hall might sound like
an eerie effect or a suspenseful effect in a movie.

Mr. SHEFFER: What is avant-garde in a concert hall is old hat in Hollywood.
When you realize how technically advanced they are in California or wherever
good film music is being written, how they take for granted every technique of
contemporary music and certainly every technological innovation--they were
using computers long before anybody was using them. It's laughable when you
think still about these efforts to use tape and to use computers to react to
live performances. What they're doing in the studios in California makes that
look like grade-school stuff.

The fact is that film music is concerned with surface, with what you just
said: with sound, something sounding scary. It's all about how it sounds.
It's the difference between the surface of the art and the interior of the
art. I make the opposite case for concert music, where listening to a piece
of music for 20 minutes is an experience of following the architecture of the
composer's thought. So while the surface may gleam much more brightly in a
film, it is the depth that we look for in a concert. So the two really cannot
be compared. They eye each other, I think, with a certain envy because the
concert music always wants to sound as interesting as the film score, but the
film score will never be as deeply interesting as the symphony of Beethoven.
Never.

GROSS: Well, the film scores are so fragmented because you're writing for
short scenes or for moments within scenes. And sometimes the music is, like,
20 seconds and...

Mr. SHEFFER: That's true, but a symphony is nothing more than a succession
of 20-second blocks. The question is: What is that succession? Beethoven
worked in units of three seconds. The motif of the 5th Symphony is as short
as a melody as was ever written, but look what he did with it. A good film
score can proceed in short blocks to be a totality. Very few composers have
been able to do it. John Corigliano has done it, Aaron Copland has done it.
Philip Glass does it. These people write in a way that is consistent for
their style as concert composers, yet works in a film.

GROSS: So you learned to conduct while conducting for the movies. Are there
certain special techniques that you needed to learn for the movies that you
really don't need to know on stage but are useful to know anyway and that
you've learned from?

Mr. SHEFFER: Yes, many. And there are many that I did not learn, which I
had to learn when I began to conduct only concerts. But from conducting
films, I learned to be clear in my beat, to be simple in my instruction to the
players. And, also, I learned how to be consistent because when we work
without a click track, then you have to be able to reproduce a performance to
the tenth of a second. And to be able to catch an action in a film, it
teaches you tremendous flexibility, which you can then apply to something like
opera because that in another medium where flexibility of that type is
required. What conducting for films does not teach you is performance
tradition and the experience of conducting a long work. And that requires an
emotional maturity, and it requires a kind of vision that has nothing to do
with the technical aspects of conducting.

GROSS: And concentration probably, too.

Mr. SHEFFER: Yes. Actually when we did "The Rhinegold," which was my first
really long opera, I found it exhausting. And that's the shortest of Wagner's
operas. I mean, this is something that requires physical and emotional
stamina. And we're going to do "The Valkyries" this year, and I'm already,
you know, going to the gym just to get ready for that.

GROSS: (Laughs) Really? You have to pump up for the conducting?

Mr. SHEFFER: It's not sort of pumping up muscles as much as it is, really,
having the stamina emotionally and physically. And I was exhausted from "The
Rhinegold."

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Well, let's talk a little bit about these productions of
Wagner that you're doing. Certainly for "The Rhinegold," you updated it. You
made it more contemporary. Are you doing that for "The Valkyries," too?

Mr. SHEFFER: We did it in the staging, but the musical approach is very
unique. It's based on a production that was done in England in the early '90s
reduced for 18 players, which sounds absurd when we tell this to people. But
composer Jonathan Dove has very cleverly retained every soloistic aspect of
the opera's orchestration and added an organ, which creates this very deep and
interesting sound. For the staging, it's completely contemporary. And my
partner in this project is Christopher Alden, a marvelous stage director, and
he believes, as I do, that opera staging needs to provoke, and it needs to be
spoken in a contemporary vernacular because I've really come to the feeling
that conservative productions of opera do nothing for the art of opera. They
can be very pleasing to watch. But ultimately we're living in a time in which
flattering the conservative taste of the audience really doesn't do much for
the art form.

GROSS: So what's the difference in the way the music is sung? Is the singing
any different than it would have been in a more traditional approach?

Mr. SHEFFER: Well, Wagner can only be performed in large opera houses
because of the size of the orchestra and, therefore, has traditionally been
the domain of singers with enormously loud voices with great stamina. This
approach is slightly different. The theater we'll be in is the new theater at
NYU. It's about 800 seats, I think. With a smaller orchestra, it allows us
to sing in a way that isn't quite as grand as required in most Wagner singing.
We have Sanford Sylvan, a great baritone, who's going to be singing Wotan.
This is not a role he could do in any other production in the world, and
there's a great deal of interest in this production because of that; because
of his taking that role and all of the other singers we've cast.

GROSS: You know, Wagner has all these political implications: Hitler really
liked Wagner. So is that something that affects your choice in doing Wagner
and your approach to doing Wagner?

Mr. SHEFFER: I'm really a fan of doing Wagner in the way that we do it
because of the very thing I said earlier, which is that conventional stagings
of Wagner tend to be a throwback to a time in which Wagner was more
contentious, which was closer to the time of Nazi Germany. And I get a little
creeped out when people in tuxedos in Germany applaud singers dressed in the
way that they did at the time of Hitler. I don't enjoy it.

In fact, one of my most interesting experiences with Wagner was last year. I
went to the Bavarian State Opera in Munich and saw a new production of
"Siegfried" by Christopher Alden's twin brother, David Alden, who is also an
opera director, and they work in a very similar style. And here you have the
seat of Naziism, and I was sitting in the box in the first ring in the center.
And you know who liked to sit there. And this production was so interesting
and so modern and so frightening to this audience, the boos, probably from a
minority of the audience but extremely loud, were thrilling to me because I
thought, `This is a way that opera can actually provoke.' Wagner has the power
to do that.

I happen to feel that Wagner ought to be played in Israel. I think that
education has to accompany that act. But I think that to not play Wagner in
Israel is to give Naziism dominion. It continues to do that. I'm not in that
debate. I'm not in a position to perform there or to say more than I'm saying
right now, but I feel very passionately that we repossess artists by the way
that we interpret their work. And the best thing that we can do in the world
is to say, `We acknowledge, you know, the anti-Semitism of Wagner. We don't
want to dwell on that. Let's play the music, and let's have it on our terms.'
And that, to me, is the victory over history.

GROSS: Well, Jonathan Sheffer, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. SHEFFER: It's been a pleasure.

GROSS: Jonathan Sheffer is the founder, conductor and artistic director of
the Eos Orchestra. Their recordings include neglected works by Aaron Copland,
George Gershwin and Paul Bowles. The Eos production of "The Valkyries" will
be performed March 18th and 20th at NYU. Here's an excerpt of their
production of Wagner's "The Rhinegold" featuring Wendy Hill, Beth Clayton and
Linda Pavelka as the Rhine maidens.

(Soundbite of "The Rhinegold")

GROSS: Coming up, journalist David Shipler talks about his new book, "The
Working Poor: Invisible in America." This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: David Shipler discusses his new book, "The Working
Poor: Invisible in America"
TERRY GROSS, host:

In his new book "The Working Poor: Invisible in America," David Shipler
writes about the people he describes as `living at the bottom of the working
world, the people who serve you Big Macs, help you find merchandise in
Wal-Mart, harvest your food, clean your offices and sew your clothes.' Shipler
reported for The New York Times from 1966 to 1988. He won a Pulitzer Prize
for his book "Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land." He spent
over five years researching his new book on the working poor.

President Bush has proposed giving renewable visas to illegal immigrants.
Would you explain his proposal?

Mr. DAVID SHIPLER (Author, "The Working Poor: Invisible in America"): Well,
I think the details of this proposal have yet to be outlined sufficiently to
know how helpful it will be. I think the idea is good in the sense that it
seems to reconcile both the human interest and the American economic interest.
I mean, I remember a few years ago I was in Maine in the summer and hearing
two news reports on the radio back to back. The first extolled the wonders of
the current blueberry crop. It's a big deal in Maine, and it was a great year
for blueberries. The second reported on roadblocks that had been set up by
the Immigration officials and state police on the Maine Turnpike to intercept
undocumented workers who were coming to pick the blueberry crop. It was a
perfect example of the country working at cross-purposes with itself. We need
the labor, and yet, you know, we make life very difficult for people who try
to fulfill those roles.

So I think that the basic concept of legalizing immigrants who are here to
work is a good one. The question is whether it can be done without making
them beholden to certain employers because that will create an exploitative
relationship that exists already economically, but it will simply formalize it
through government. I think also--because, you know, most immigrants who are
here in an undocumented status move from job to job. I mean, they don't stay
in one job very long. Many of the jobs are seasonal, you know, migrant
workers especially. But even in Los Angeles, where I spent some time in the
garment district, there are lots of fly-by-night sewing shops, often called
sweatshops, where people are also paid on a piecework basis. And sometimes
these companies will evaporate overnight or over the weekend, and the workers
will come in Monday morning and find nobody there, and they are still owed a
week's pay. And then the companies will reconstitute themselves, you know,
down the block under a different name and that sort of thing.

So if this visa idea relies on some kind of permanent or long-term
employer-employee relationship, it won't work. And people on both sides--that
is, employers and employees--will simply evade it.

GROSS: You visited the Garment District in Los Angeles. What are some of
the working conditions that you found there?

Mr. SHIPLER: The working conditions in the Garment District in Los Angeles
vary from decent to outrageous. The decent places are, by and large, the
designers who pay their people a bit better, who cut the pieces of the
clothing, and then they send those pieces in stacks to the sewing contractors.
And the sewing contractors also vary, but many of them are very, very poor
places. There are these, you know, 10-, 12-story buildings in LA. Some of
them are poorly ventilated. People are crowded together. They get paid very
often on a piecework basis: you know, this little amount per fly that they
sew into a pair of trousers. And they have to sew X number in order to get
the minimum wage, and the minimum wage is not always attainable at that rate.

Three are no benefits. They are paid only when they are at work. So if there
isn't work by that company, they are simply told not to bother to come in,
which means that they're not, basically, working a full day or a full week.
So even if they made the minimum wage, it doesn't come out to a living wage
for sure. I mean, minimum wage wouldn't anyway. But, you know, it doesn't
come out to anything close to what you would imagine was needed to support a
family.

GROSS: What populations were working in these factories?

Mr. SHIPLER: In the factories in LA, you saw a lot of Latinos and Asians,
primarily, people from Korea, Hong Kong, Mexico, Guatemala. There were also
some European Americans but not very many. Most of the people I saw who were
workers were minorities and mostly immigrants.

GROSS: Would you guess that this represents any kind of change in American
working conditions? Would you guess that there have always been sweatshops
that garment workers have to work in, but the population of the people in
those sweatshops have changed? Or do you think that the working conditions
have gotten different?

Mr. SHIPLER: I think there's always been one particular sector of the garment
industry like this. But what's happened in the last 20 years is that so many
of these sewing jobs have gone overseas that most of the clothing that we wear
in the United States, my guess is, has been assembled abroad. The garment
district in LA handles clothing where designers don't want to wait the time it
takes to send their design or even their material overseas and then have it
shipped back. They're a little more sensitive to fads and fashions, and they
need the clothing produced more quickly. So those are, I think, mainly the
kind of garment factories that you find in LA.

I would add that the decline of unions in the United States has had an impact
in the garment industry and other industries. There are garment workers,
especially in New York, who are unionized. There are some in LA who are
unionized and other parts of the country. But increasingly there's been a
development of these very small sewing factories, often run by immigrants
themselves, that appear and then disappear after a few months. And the
workers in those are not members of any labor union, so they don't get any
kind of union wage or benefits.

GROSS: Did you talk to any of the employers who own the sweatshops that you
visited in Los Angeles?

Mr. SHIPLER: I talked to--well, employers who owned the sweatshops would not
talk to me. But I did talk to a couple who owned better places, and they
railed against the sweatshops, by the way, who didn't like the sweatshops
because they undercut them in terms of costs. In other words, if you want to
pay your workers decently, you're going to have to charge a bit more per item
of clothing. And it's very hard to compete with the sweatshops that are
exploiting workers, just down the hall sometimes.

GROSS: So these employers were in a bind about whether to pay a better wage
and maybe go out of business because they couldn't be competitive, or stay
competitive and feel that they're exploiting their workers.

Mr. SHIPLER: They were in a bind in a way. One fellow struck me
particularly. He was an immigrant from some 20, 30 years ago from Beirut,
Lebanon, and he had a small sewing company that did very high-end evening
gowns and so forth. And he paid--he had a pretty stable work force, all
women, who were very good sewers, highly skilled. And he was paying them a
little bit better. He was paying them, I think, $8 to $10 an hour. That's
pretty high for garment workers. But, as a result, he had to--labor was a
huge percentage of his cost, and therefore he had to charge more to the
designers who, you know, wanted him to put together their garments. And it
was very hard to compete with the people down the hall. I mean, he told me he
used to hire undocumented workers, and now he hires only documented workers.
And he hates the competitors who hire undocumented workers because they pay
less, and they can undercut him. However, he has carved out a little bit of a
niche for himself in that he does very elaborate and high-quality work,
whereas some of those less-expensive places throw things together pretty
quickly.

GROSS: My guest is David Shipler, author of "The Working Poor: Invisible in
America." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is David Shipler. And his new
book is called "The Working Poor: Invisible in America."

One accusation against the immigrant work force, particularly the undocumented
work force, is that some workers and, I think, some unions would say that it
keeps wages down. What were your thoughts about that issue after having
investigated so many facets of the working poor?

Mr. SHIPLER: I'll tell you my thought about that. My thought is that wages
are always going to be very low at a certain unskilled level of the economy.
And the key issue here is to open pathways to advancement and improvement and
education and training. There's no way that American workers can compete
globally if they are doing very menial work because you have to have a fairly
high income in the United States to live decently, and you don't in Cambodia
or Sri Lanka. And, therefore, if the same jobs are being done here as in
Cambodia, the American worker's always going to be at a disadvantage. So the
answer is really not, you know, preventing jobs from going overseas because,
you know, jobs are like water; they flow to the cheapest level.

The answer is to make sure that we have a work force in this country that has
opportunity and training so people can advance. Our educational system really
doesn't provide for that now. We've decimated our vocational school structure
because we have this idea that everyone ought to go to college. Well, that
sounds great, but if everyone goes to college, then, A, we're not going to
have anybody to do the menial jobs that also need to be done, but beyond that,
not everybody does go to college. And if the high schools prepare people only
for college and people then don't go, if they either graduate from high school
and go into the job force or if they drop out of high school or even if they
go to college for a year or two and drop out, which many do, you have a whole
population of unskilled folks, basically, who really can't make their way in
the workplace and have no educational structure to move back into and advance
through, except some job-training programs, which are good but need more
federal funding.

GROSS: We're in a presidential election year. You point out in your book
that, `Nobody needs the government more than the poor, yet no population is as
underrepresented in the vote as the poor.'

Mr. SHIPLER: I think it's fair to say. I mean, you know, if all those under
10,000 a year or, say, under 25,000, let's say, voted at the same rate as
those who are wealthier, you'd have more than six million additional voters.
If they voted according to their interests, political candidates would really
have to take notice of this problem or this whole set of problems and address
them because they'd have to appeal to these folks because they have--they're
the swing voters, in effect. They're the silent voters who could make or
break a particular candidate. There's almost no state where a candidate for
president wins with more than 5 percent of the vote. So these folks, if they
voted in a bloc according to their own interests, would really make a
difference.

But why don't they vote? Well, I think there are lots of different reasons.
I asked everybody. I just talked to a fellow in New Hampshire, Tom King, who
I've followed for many, many years--his family--and he didn't vote in the New
Hampshire primary. And I said, `How come?' He said, `I was looking for a
job.' He got laid off three weeks ago from a boot factory, and he doesn't have
any work. Now I'm sure Tom could have found, you know, a half-an-hour to go
to the polling place and vote during that day, but he's never felt that
politics makes any difference to him. He can't make a connection between who
gets elected and how his life is going to change. And I think that's pretty
common for lots of people in this situation. They don't feel that their vote,
really, is going to have an impact on the way they live.

GROSS: David Shipler, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. SHIPLER: It was a pleasure to be with you, Terry.

GROSS: David Shipler's new book is called "The Working Poor: Invisible in
America."

(Soundbite of music)

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

08:21

Dive Into 'Luca' And 'Undine,' 2 Under-The-Sea Films To Treasure

By curious coincidence, two of the lovelier movies I've seen so far this summer — the family-friendly animated fable Luca and the German art-house fairy tale Undine — tell stories about mythic sea creatures making contact with the human world.

21:09

Daniel Ellsberg On The Pentagon Papers

Fifty years ago this week, The New York Times published the first in a series of articles based on a classified Defense Department study that was leaked to the paper by Daniel Ellsberg.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.

Playing

Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue