What is Seattle today? It's now a bona fide tech city. It has 60,000 programmers. It draws millions of tourists. And a good number of its restaurants have world-class reputations. The city also can't stop building new office buildings and luxury apartments. Now, that is one side of the city—the happy and prosperous one.
Here is the other Seattle: 25 percent of its total labor force makes just minimum wage, which is $12 per hour. And a huge number of these impoverished workers (shop attendants, bartenders, waiters, dishwashers, janitors) provide services to the rich in the tech sector.
Alex Gallo-Brown's new, superbly written book, Variations of Labor, is a collection of poems, essays, and short stories devoted to this other city, the minimum-wage city, the one that has men and women making espressos and cappuccinos for NIMBY millionaires or caring for the children of programmers. Class tension is found at every level of labor in Gallo-Brown's Seattle, which is definitely sad (it has no illusions). The workers tend to hate the techies, and the techies tend to abuse the workers.
In one of the best stories in the collection, "The Job at the Technology Company Cafe," the narrator describes a typical (but nevertheless soul-draining) incident in a fancy cafeteria that provides free food to tech workers. After a buffet, a tech worker approaches two cooks, Lorenzo and Jose, assigned to prepare a dish of steamed broccoli with oyster sauce, and says: "Hey... that sign says oyster sauce on the side. Next time the sign says, 'oyster sauce on the side,' put the oyster sauce on the side!" The tech worker then turns and leaves in a huff. Lorenzo gives him the middle finger. That middle finger is spotted by the boss. Lorenzo loses his job.
In Gallo-Brown's world, workers can't afford to strike or loudly demand higher wages. They instead engage in micro-resistance, like doing some job slowly or slightly wrong. True, unionizing is the thing to do, but open resistance is likely to get you fired, and finding another lousy, low-paying job is just not worth the trouble. It's better to resist without being heard or seen or detected.
Gallo-Brown's book also has stories and short essays that explore existential dread, everyday racism, the rise of white nationalism in the United States, and the crazy crimes people commit to make ends meet. The pieces about labor dominate the first half of the book, and those about cultural issues fill the second half.
But almost every work in Variations of Labor reads like Gallo-Brown is talking to you in a low voice, as if he doesn't want others to hear the subversive things he is considering or planning. Think of someone who is secretly trying to unionize an office or who is criticizing the boss to a fellow worker. This is the mode of Gallo-Brown's prose and poems.
"Le dije a el que tenga cuidado con esos ricos idiotas," a cafeteria worker, Maria, says near the end of the short story "The Job at the Technology Company Cafe" (she is speaking in a low voice to the other cooks during a lunch break). "What'd she say?" asks Andrew, a white cook. "She told [us] to be careful with all these rich... guys," the cook Jose whispers to Andrew.