What force on earth is weaker than (or SEXIER than) the feeble strength of one?

Everyone likes to hear a good “I told the boss to fuck off” story. (Er, well everyone except bosses, I suppose). This became all the more evident when my Facebook feed was inundated with post after post about Steven Slater and “Jenny.” I get it, individual acts of bravery are sexy. For those of you who missed the stories:

Scott Slater is an American Airlines flight attendant who quit his job on Monday. But this was no ordinary exit. When plane landed at JFK airport and an impatient passenger stood up to get his bag; Slater requested, per the rules, that the passenger return to his seat. Apparently the passenger called Stevens a “mother fucker,” along with some more verbal aggression. At this point Slater went to the intercom of the plane, and proclaimed: “To the passenger that called me a mother fucker; fuck you! I’ve been in the business 28 years and I’ve had it. That’s it.” And with that, he opened the emergency exit, grabbed a beer from the cooler, and slid down the chute to his freedom. As you can see from the link above, he’s been labeled “a working-class hero.”

“Jenny” is a broker’s assistant who decided to quit her job with pictures. Early Monday morning Jenny went to work and took 33 photos of herself holding a whiteboard; written on the whiteboard were various reasons she was going to quit. Part of this involved outing her boss as a slimeball who referred to her as a HOPA (“hot piece of ass”), and announcing that he spent 19.7 hours playing Farmville. She concludes saying that she’s quitting without the security of a new job, but that “something tells [her she’ll] be just fine. : )” See the link above for full imagery. (Note: Although there is now rumor this was all an internet hoax, for the sake of this post, we’re going to assume she’s real).

Certainly I, like so many of my facebook friends who posted these articles, was feeling victorious for all the oppressed workers of the world! In fact, for a moment I felt compelled to send this to my mom, who has been enduring months of a soul-crushing situation at her work; after a period of anguishing precarity in which she was unsure if they were going to fire her or lay her off, they ultimately cut her hours in half, and she lost her benefits. On top of that, her new boss is a horribly condescending asshole that belittles her on a daily basis. I felt like maybe it’d feel good or empowering to see worker’s taking agency over their shitty situation, right?

But right when I was about to send it, I reconsidered. It appears that these two relatively young, white individuals had not much to lose. In fact, Jenny asserts that although she has no stable new job, that she’ll be “just fine.” Smiley face. Mom and I have talked about her quitting her current position; we’ve talked about how satisfying it would be to finally have the chance to be honest with her douchebag boss; we’ve talked about how the ways she’d spend her time bettering herself for the future (going to nursing school, for example). But mom and I always conclude pragmatically. Now is not the right time. She doesn’t have a new job lined up. She’s a woman in her 50s without a college degree. The idea that she’d be “just fine” is a bit of a stretch considering all the bills she has to pay, and the fact that if she is ever going to do the nursing program (she is! in 2011!) that she needs to save money for that. So I didn’t send it. I thought it’d be more of a slap in the face than anything else. “Hey mom, look at these young, white people who have no fear! You should be fearless and tell your boss to fuck off! Forget about your bills or your future! You’ll be just fine!” No thanks.

The fact that Slater is being dubbed a “working-class” hero and that Jenny is touted as a poster-child for the wrath of a worker scorned troubles me. Not being taken into account is their certain level of privilege. Now, it’s true I don’t know the backstory of either of these people. I do know that they are both white, fairly young, and it’s likely that they both have some level of higher education. So that’s already going advance them in ways to which a good deal of the population doesn’t have access.

Furthermore, these individual acts of resistance perpetuate a sort of subversive Horatio Alger-ism that is nearly just as problematic as the original rags to riches hero story. It’s very romantic, in our internet-addicted world, to stare at pictures of individuals doing brave things. A lot of post-9/11 theory will tell you we are a nation that craves heros. But, to quote the labor movement, what force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one? What does it say when we celebrate the unorganized, individual resistance of spectacle, but live in a country where unions struggle to form? Why are we empowered by pretty young things taking charge for a happier life, but not abject workers joining together in an effort to claim the foundational semblance of a liveable life?

One of my favorite Emma Goldman quotes is the line, “Rebel! Rebel! Join together! Change the world!” I get a sense that our society would rather that read, “Rebel! Rebel! Document yourself/post on the internet! Change your life (but not the world)!” I am all for the labor movement taking cues from a constantly evolving society; we need old, white Marxists to realize that in order to make progress, we have to, to an extent, give the people what they want. And we see examples of this through the spectacle-driven projects of labor boycotts, (such as the UNITE HERE hotel workers and allies doing a flashmob where they danced and sang “Don’t get caught in a bad hotel” to the tune of Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance”). I’m not denying that need, nor am I trying to say that all unions are perfect as-is (obvs; that’s my dissertation project). But without collective action and solidarity, there is no power, there is no movement.

Now it’s important to note that Slater was represented by the Transport Worker’s Union (TWU), and that he had, on an American Airlines message board, voiced several complaints about the state of air-travel working conditions. There has been nothing that I’ve found written about whether or not he tried to make any changes through TWU, although I am aware that a better contract doesn’t mean asshole passengers will disappear. But it is a curious omission from these stories to not discuss the entity that should have been attempting to make his job more bearable. Whether or not TWU is a good enough union or not is not my point, but it’s frustrating that the discourse seems to suggest that grandiose exit strategies are a solution to bad jobs, rather than suggesting stronger unions as the solution.

None of this is to say I’m not happy for Slater or Jenny. Nor am I trying to suggest that nothing good can come from these stories; I am a firm believer in the empowering ability of story-telling, of role models, of inspiration. But we need more. I don’t want more heroes, I want a world that makes us less in need of heroes. I want the workers of the world to unite before they fight back. I promise those will make for some pretty epic pictures for Facebook too, okay?

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16 thoughts on “What force on earth is weaker than (or SEXIER than) the feeble strength of one?

  1. hi Raechel,

    Thanks for this. I totally hear you and I think this is a thoughtful interrogation of those “this is awesome!” kinds of moments that I for one tend to not pause and reflect over. I think there are analogies in film – there’s this movie Scorched I think it’s called, about bank workers who rob the place. Or there’s “Office Space.” There’s also some great county music and country music videos about how much work sucks. It all feels really good, as do these stories. But it’s also like… what, somebody quitting their job is this great satisfying act? I’d rather hear more about collective fights to improve work. More “Norma Rae” and less “Office Space.” As you say – “it’s frustrating that the discourse seems to suggest that grandiose exit strategies are a solution to bad jobs, rather than suggesting stronger unions as the solution.”

    take care,
    Nate

    • Thanks Nate. Definitely agree that this is prevalent in personal revenge movies like Office Space and the like. I’m looking forward to you being back in Minneapolis so we can discuss these things more in person! : )

  2. This is a great post. As I said when we discussed this, I think that the mass celebration of acts like these indicates a period of strong working class anger but relatively low class consciousness. Individualistic acts of rebellion and escape are embraced and end up serving as a (sad) substitute for collective action and the possibility of meaningful transformation and liberation. Unfortunately, plenty of radicals also end up engaging in such uncritical celebration of these individual acts (Nate – this makes me think of your response to Ignatiev’s awful piece on the worker shooting his foreman).

    I think it’s worth interrogating what we consider to be acts of “bravery” as well. One of the organizers on my team had a conversation with a Burmese worker today. He is two years away from fleeing a military dictatorship and is now living in a state of poverty and precarity in the U.S. He is thankful for his job and to be living with his family under conditions that are less brutally oppressive than those of their recent past. Despite this, he had the conversation – a forbidden and surely frightening conversation – about the possibility of taking action with his co-workers to make change. Such a small, quiet act will never be the stuff of youtube videos and news stories, but it’s an incredible act of bravery.

    My point isn’t to say that we should not celebrate acts like Slater’s. But it’s certainly important to analyze what is represented in these acts (e.g. the privilege of individual escape) and what is signified by their mass embrace. This post adds a lot to doing just that.

    • These are the symptoms of the disease not the cure.

      I find beauty in strength when workers learn to build their own organization and hence their own power.

      When over a thousand workers engaged in civil disobedience and were arrested in front of Hyatt Hotels across the the continent two weeks ago? That was beautiful, strong, and real.

      When a hand full of union officials and actors got arrested in front of the Sodexo headquarters three months ago…is stage acting of people without a stake in the fight trying to take short cuts and get attention without the work of building a movement.

      When these people act out in individualized anger…they change nothing and seek to change nothing.

      When privileged white kids start a baking co-op…they are trying to opt out of the world. Not change it.

      When anarchist smash windows its a spasm of a muscle that is too weak to force change.

      Meaningful change comes from pushing working class people to become working class leaders. Anything else is a cop out, escapism, adventurism, or old school sell out unionism.

      • Agree with it all. Except, since I’ve just been editing a chapter from my thesis to turn into an article, I have to point out that the radical bakery is a space for learning about radical politics, which can potentially create movement leaders. Clearly this is more the exception than the rule. : /

      • well tiffe you and I will always disagree on some things. the usefullness of “radical” spaces is one of them.

        i think of it as the ghettoization of politics and a opting out of class struggle and working class politics. and a site where people actually learn the wrong lessons of politics.

        that being said, I certainly do like danishes and coffee made by 20 something lefty ladies.

  3. Hey Raechel,
    I tend to agree with you here. But it still cheers me to her about individual workers saying ‘fuck you’ to the boss. I figure that there will always be a ratio of individual rebellion to collective rebellion of like 10:1 or something. So hopefully these stories are sort of like a canary in a coal mine- with all the dissatisifaction out there, i hope that there are deeper processes underway.

    BTW- did you hear about the trucker who shot up his workplace and killed himself in Manchester? http://www.wtnh.com/dpp/news/crime/manchester-shooter-long-complained-of-racism

    Funny that no one is posting this one on their facebook status…

    • Woah, that article is intense. I’d also want to interrogate the leadership of the Teamsters in this situation to find out if and how they responded to his complaints about racism (if he discussed those with the union). Very sad stuff. And definitely not “sexy” resistance that people would want to post on fb…..

  4. I posted the bit about Jenny-quitting-by-white-board, but not inconsiderately to rub it in the face of anyone who does not sit in a privileged enough position to pull that kind of thing off, if the situation required it (i.e. “douchebag boss”). I posted it for my friends as a type of “wouldn’t-it-be-nice” thing, just as I like to look at Jaguars and Porsches. I pretty much know that I’ll probably never be in the position to own one, and I’ll also probably never be in the position to tell a douchebag boss to go frig himself either. I’m 46, no real savings, and by the time I finish school, my aim will be to have my own home, for the first time. Given where I live, I plan on having a mortgage until the day I die so, Porsche’s won’t be on the menu. Still, I am in a very privileged position in life, and my concerns are pretty minimal, when I think about those many years I worked for hellish assholes, doing whatever dirt work was available, simply to put food on the table, and to ensure there was a roof over our heads next month. I recognize too that people such as Scott and Jenny are privileged enough to “be just fine” regardless of not having a job to go to, and I would never, in any way, consider them “working class heroes.” When I was suspended from work for 3 days because I slapped a pig that grabbed my breast, I would have LOVED to be able to quit, in ANY fashion. My friends and family know that particular boss was not an exception. There are quite a few others I would’ve loved to tell where to impale themselves. As far as I, and many of my friends, who have worked and struggled through most of their 40+ years on the earth are concerned, these two won the lottery. We know it’s not generally feasible to pull this type of shit off. We’re not stupid. We know the need for and role of good labour representation. We just enjoy a good fantasy once in a while, like window-shopping. Let’s face it, even unionized environments create poisoned places, and people can’t quite because they need the dough. I know. I’ve lived them. I appreciate the gist of your article. Really. But geez, I’m damned if I’m going to feel bad for enjoying a good fantasy.

  5. I quite like Mike’s formulation of high class anger and low class consciousness. Clearly both are important, but the former without the latter is often pretty empty or even corrosive (any of y’all remember the movie Red Dawn? “All that anger’s gonna burn you up…”).

    I rarely say or think this but I wonder if this suggests an important role for cultural producers, in writing new stories and making new images and so on. I think there are pretty understandable reasons for both the high anger (cuz things are so bad) and the low consciousness (cuz the other side is winning a lot and our side isn’t fight often or well enough, a big part of why things are so bad). I think to some extent people just have to experience certain types of fights to get this sort of consciousness, but in the absence of short term prospects for getting involved in fights, I think more cultural products could fill a bit of that gap. Make fighting be on people’s radar more, so to speak, in a way that they could actually imagine in a somewhat detailed way. Know what I mean?

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