Sunday, September 1, 2019

Quitting (A Labor Day Reflection)

Andrew Luck was in the news last week when he abruptly decided to quit being an NFL quarterback. Predictably, a lot of armchair macho men judged him for daring to value his health above their fantasy football teams.

I was happy for him. He's financially secure, why should he destroy his body and mind for the profit of billionaires and the entertainment of others? Although Luck is a millionaire by virtue of his profession, he got to experience one of the greatest thrills the typical American worker ever gets: quitting their job. 

In the modern American workplace the toilers have little leverage and less power. Organized labor gets weaker with each passing year, while the bosses find ways to drive their workers harder with the rallying cry of "efficiency." The film Office Space came out twenty years ago, and the trends it documented have only worsened. That film highlighted what I call "underling fatigue": the accumulated drag of being treated like a peon by people who are no better than you. The one surefire thing a worker can do is to quit, especially when it's inconvenient for their employer. That's certainly what Andrew Luck did.

I quit that way twice. Once was my worst job ever, as a telemarketer one summer in college. I took on part time evening shift hours at the rubber parts factory for a month so that I could quit the telemarketing job and work part time the rest of the summer and still make enough money. My telemarketing bosses were a little shocked to see me go well before summer was out, and it felt good.

The next was leaving my job as an assistant professor. This was the thing I spent seven years in grad school and two years in a "visiting" position fighting to have. It turned out to be a nightmare, but it was the job I was supposed to cherish. Plenty of other people out there still cling to their tenure track jobs, even if they never bring the fulfillment they promise. I decided that my life was meant to be better than that. I have never felt more free than the day I told my chair that I was gone.

Despite the thrill that quitting brings, and the positive changes to life that can come with it, it is a weak power. We all fancy ourselves irreplaceable in our jobs, but we are pretty easy to switch out. I love my current job and have no desire to quit. I also know that they'd be able to get a good teacher to take my place without much fuss.

And that prompts me to remember another time I felt powerful as a worker. It was in grad school when I went on a walkout with my fellow teaching assistants and we picketed the quad. That eventually led to getting a union contract. American workers are stuck having to get their shot at power by telling their boss to take their job and shove it. It'd be far better if they could get it in solidarity with their coworkers creating a workplace that doesn't make them want to quit. In today's climate that seems downright fanciful.

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