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?