“A Working Stiff’s Manifesto”, by Iain Levison (Chapter 4, Part 4/4)

Crab fishing…not for the faint of heart.

Today we’re gonna finish up chapter four and we start off this sixteen page journey with Levison commenting on how William quit. As if he’s surprised that yelling, lecturing and generally treating poorly someone who doesn’t want to be there anyways would result in anything much less. The ideal thing would have been for Levison to let William to work at his own pace. Sure, it would have slowed things down but now Levison is out of a worker and that’s gonna take a bit more effort then just going with William’s (slow) flow.

Well, that isn’t really that difficult in this case since the workers are fairly interchangeable so the supervisor just rolls their eyes and says they’ll send someone else.

He also lets Levison know to not make this one either get their head smashed or have them quit.

Helpful advice.

This next part is really interesting though.

The new worker is “Little Jimmy” who is a “…hyperactive, energetic non-stop-talker who is everything William was not.” (p. 123) and at first seems to suggest that he’s just going to use all of the money on a gamble, “double or nothing, baby”.

Levison cringes at this and pleads with him not to do something like that. After all, Little Jimmy is doing a lot of work to make this cash, right? He shouldn’t just play the odds and either way it mostly seems to be just so he can get more cocaine for himself and not much else.

Jimmy asks what Levison is going to do and Levison (probably confidently) says that he’s gonna get a nice apartment. Jimmy seems indifferent to Levison’s idea and still wants to do his own thing and proceeds to call what he said earlier “a plan”.

But here is where it gets good:

“That’s not a plan, you idiot.”

“Hey, fuck you. What’re you, my mother?”

“You’re just kiling yourself to give your money away to casino owners.”

And you’re giving it to landlords.” (emphasis added, p. 123)

This is such a beautiful rebuttal. Because what is Levison really doing with his money? He’s not keeping a good portion of it due to taxes and landlords. A lot of the money he’s gonna make isn’t actually going to go to him to begin with. It’s going to go to upkeep of his “nice” apartment, paying rent, paying taxes, paying transportation costs to getting to his “nice” job and so on and so forth.

He’s pissing away his money too but he’s just doing it in a much less pronounced way than Little Jimmy is.

Jimmy seems to understand this and says that when you know how to eat shit, life isn’t so bad. Levison tries to get him to build something better but he knows Jimmy doesn’t care. Jimmy may be a better and more active worker but in Levison’s eyes he’s just going to end up like William who is doing nothing but reading comic books until the job is over.

…Shit, can I be like William too?

Of course Williams also has to deal with an abusive father so then again I think I’ll pass.

And then the next best part of the conversation:

“You can’t throw it all away at roulette… That’s stupid.”

“Not if I win.”

“If you win you’ll just play again until you lose.”

“Right on. Now you understand.” (p. 124)

Jimmy just isn’t interested in winning. For Jimmy, that’s not what life is about. Life is about the gamble, the pursuit and then the inevitable failure. It isn’t about the building up of something so much as the tearing down of the things you’ve already done. Why? I’m not sure and I’m not saying anyone should adopt this philosophy.

But it is preferable to Levison’s obsession with trying to always “build” something and move up in the world and get to another place. Jimmy might be self-sabotaging himself but at least he understands that moving ahead in the world isn’t everything.

That insight seems to be lost on Levison.

Despite my criticisms of Levison it’s worth noting that the job sucks and it’s hard not to be bitter, mean and whatever else towards anyone and anything. So while I dislike his interactions with William and the way he’s acting towards others at times in retrospect it’s hard to blame him. Sure, we’ve all gotta keep ourselves under control to some extent but the conditions he’s living in, the work he’s doing and the time he’s spending doing all of this just to get by shouldn’t really surprise me when it causes Levison to be a bit of a dick to other people. It’s unfortunate and I think it shouldn’t happen as much as it has but it makes an unfortunate bit of sense all the same. I can’t deny that.

Levison starts this section by explaining just how shitty it is. How your muscles are almost always tense, how the lack of sleep wears on you, how the grueling routine even gets to the more hyper workers like Jimmy. And there’s only so much you can do before you start messing up.

First Levison misses a “lock” or the fifth row of the boxes which must face a different direction so the whole thing can be more stable. And then he misses another. And then he puts a lock on the fourth row.

At this point Jimmy is getting pissed and a fight is about to happen when a miracle happens.

The conveyor belt shuts off which means – break time!

Levison revels in this for the four hours he gets and then they’re told they’re gonna have to work extra hard. But who cares? They got a break. And that is what counts.

And then…after all that, after all that work. After all of the struggle, the poor working conditions, the awful routines, the weeks and weeks spent on this one job, guess what happens?

Levison isn’t getting his plane ticket paid for.

Seeing how he wasn’t flown up there for the specific company he just worked nine weeks for they have no legal obligation to pay for his or anyone else’s ride back who was in the same situation as him.

So Levison’s five grand goes to thirty-five hundred in a matter of seconds.

And guess what Levison and co. can do about it?


That’s the beauty of capitalism, everybody.

But there are small moments that can make these BS moments a bit more manageable.

Like seeing a gigantic whale off the side of the ship and seeing Dutch Harbor realizing your close to going “home”.

For Levison’s hands though, there’s no rest.

He’s offered a job on a boat called the Killoran which handles crab fishing and will net him (no pun intended) five grand for two weeks.

Levison is accepting the job before he really knows what’s he’s doing.

Here’s hoping he gets that plane ticket…

The job sucks? Check.

The pay is via a percentage of crabs caught? Check.

You can’t quit and simply sit in the cabin? Check.

As Levison says,

“I’ve been royally fucked”. (p. 130)

But hey, on the bright side, there are plenty of ways for Levison to die while working on the ship.

He could fall overboard, the steel crab posts can fall on workers, the pot can whip around and smash into you via strong winds, you can go overboard with the pot or get tangled up in a buoy string. And even better is that if Levison does fall under water he’d probably be dead within a minute.

According to Borris (the fisherman that hired Levison) all of the people who died were new…and they didn’t listen.

So Levison makes sure to keep his eyes and ears open in a crappy job, for a crappy pay in a really shitty situation.

The skipper isn’t as interested in pleasantries and prefers to scream at the workers both new and old even if they seem to be knowing what they’re doing.

But at least this skipper (according to Borris) is more benign compared to others.

It’s a bit hard to keep track of time on the boat due to falling asleep and waking in the dark and then sometimes going to sleep when it’s light out. There are internal alarms in the cabin that wakes crew members up every 12 minutes which only improves the situation, I’m sure.

Levison is put in charge of the bait cans for the day while everyone else (save for Borris who is going to keep watch) will take it easy and get their sleep or do whatever they want to do.

Even though it’s the simplest thing in the boat this job still ends up freezing Levison’s hands and having him constantly get splashed full of water, not to mention all of the herring oil that spills onto the deck.

In the end Levison is more concerned about the next time he can go to sleep then when he can do his job.

Tensions run high for Levison as he decides it’s a good idea to insult the cook on board (who, to his credit, sounds like a lousy one) and then gets into a fight.

But after they’re broken up the dinner goes on as normal.

The cogs keep spinning.

And even the skipper eventually realizes after two weeks that this trip is a waste of time. He calls for everyone to clean up the deck and prepare for a return to Dutch Harbor.

The skipper then proceeds to tear everyone a new one for a bit about how lousy they are and Levison deals with it like so:

The first time, I was hurt by it, because I’ve pretty much poured my heart and soul into this fucking miserable job for the past three weeks but now I just tune him out and imagine how damned good it’s going to be to lie down in the bed at the Seattle Youth Hostel and got off this fucking boat and out of fucking Alaska.

“You don’t know shit about crab fishing,” he finishes.

No argument there. I’d been pretty clear about that when he hired me.

After he has gone, Borris shrugs and laughs. “He doesn’t like it when we don’t catch a lot of crab,” he tells me. “He’s a sweetheart when the pots are full.”

“Fuck him. (pp. 134-135)

And now for the ultimate fuck over.

When Levison decides to leave after only half the shipment has been filled up he’s given half of .3 which results in…

Wait for it.

Wait for it…

Still wait for it.

A grand total of $438 bucks for two weeks of insanely dangerous work.


“It’s all there,” he tells me. He’s expecting this argument, and he’s got a copy of the contract with him, and a copy of the check the processing company wrote him. He pulls out a calculator and some receipts. I look at the check and realize that I’ve also been billed for the gas that the Killoran has used, and the food we’ve eaten. After deductions, that’s all I’ve got left. (emphasis added, pp. 135-136)

I can’t even begin to describe to you how royally fucked Levison just got from these people.

Where do I even start? How could I even satisfactorily describe the level of fucked Levison just went through in one single conversation? All of the effort, time and bits of himself (literally and figuratively) that Levison put into this job for two weeks and when he was promised so much more than that is just the height of BS.

And Levison can’t argue, he can’t do shit. He has little to no power in the relationship to begin with or over the terms or much of anything, really. These jobs are completely at odds with any notion of a two-way contract between equals and where there is a lack of equality in contracts you’re going to have contracts that are prone to abuse. Just for the simple reason that someone can get away with it and the other person who can’t or probably couldn’t isn’t going to be able to challenge it as easily thanks to their lack of power.

Levison can’t tell them that it isn’t fair. Fairness means nothing to the people who can dictate the terms in highly monopolistic and unaccountable ways. Like before he can’t go tot he court system since he’ll be hollered at for ignoring his community service (which, just so we’re clear, he’s been doing since day one).

All in all, Levison lost out big time.

The good news?

He can get the fuck out of Alaska.

Levison draws some sober conclusions from this, takes being fucked pretty well and I’m not sure whether I sympathize with his conclusions as much as I maybe should.

For example he claims that there is nobody to stick up with you which seems to be true a lot of the time. And this seems like a good reason to have a union so workers can better negotiate terms and not be on their own.

But Levison also seems to suggest that while you can get rich helping the poor who do you stick up for after that?

Well…the poor? Like, there are plenty of ways to still help the poor when you’re rich. You may not have as many incentives but hell, your class identity isn’t all you are in life.

He also brings up the Soviet Union as an example people use to excuse mistreatment of workers. I’m not sure how I feel about this example but I’ll let it pass on by.

While in the Seattle airport, Levison bumps into Little Jimmy who is going back to work and laughs about it.

But the laugh seems hollow and Jimmy doesn’t wave to Levison at all.

The last of this chapter revolves around Levison meeting a Green Beret and then a girl who works for a company that literally sells beeswax. She’s pretty enthused about the job, too.

The Beret listens to Levison’s tale and giving his own tale of thinking he was going to die he decides that the most important thing is…drinkable water. So long as you have that, he figures, you’re alright.

Both me and Levison aren’t really buying this, as Levison points out that he’s sure a man who just lost his job has running water but that doesn’t mean he’s doing alright.

The girl on the other hand is all about beeswax and I agree with Levison that she sounds like the sort of person who will be in another job in a year that’s totally different and will have the same enthusiasm. As long as her position in the company is going up.

And after all of this, Levison decides, yeah maybe that’s what I should do.

So you may have noticed as we went further along I started getting less and less detailed with the sections. Part of the reason for that was that in a few sections it really was pretty small and there literally isn’t much to talk about.

Another part of it was laziness. Ya know, because it’s me.

But the biggest reason was (besides laziness) an exhaustion with this chapter and writing about it. Especially when Levison just keeps getting fucked over and then fucked over some more. It just gets hard to even talk about why this sucks or even really need to. A lot of this just kind of speaks for itself which is partly why this book can be really good sometimes. Sometimes the details are just so incredible that you really don’t need to do anything except tell them and the reader can fill in the rest.

Which may explain why Levison isn’t trying to explain much to us or offer alternatives to work or try to find ways to make it better. He figures that this is what we have and it sucks but that there’s gotta be ways to deal with it. So he’s trying everything he can to make it a better situation for himself and, in the process of writing this book, helping it be the same for other people too.

This was definitely the best chapter that shows just how awful work can get and what these roles can make people do or act like, given the right incentives. It doesn’t surprise me at all that Levison devoted the most amount of time to detailing his experiences in Alaska. The story was fairly gripping and the turns interesting and the things that happened worthy of analysis for sure.

I don’t think it dragged too much but by the end when Levison just kept getting the short end of the stick it felt tough to keep saying as much at length. Especially since Levison himself just seemed to accept what his situations were and make the best of them. And while that isn’t necessarily a bad attitude to have even in these types of scenarios I’m not sure that it ended up serving him as well as he might have hoped.

In the end, Levison tried to do the “get rich through shitty work” scheme and failed hard.

Will he do better at climbing the corporate ladder?

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