On being sh*t-canned

On being sh*t-canned

Workers often say that the fear of firings is one of the main reasons it’s so hard to get people to fight back. The power that bosses hold over workers through firings can put them on the curb for standing up. This fear is often unspoken, but present everyday in our workplaces. This piece we share explores how truly arbitrary that power is and its effects. When bosses can hurt us and sometimes ruin lives without any reason at all, it also reminds us why we need to organize.

One of the disciplinary tools employers use is what I call shit-canning. This is when an employee is let go without notice and without explanation, without having done anything wrong, even by the boss’s own account. I say “employee” rather than “worker” (my standard term) because it also happens to people in the upper ranks who themselves have the ability to hire and fire. For example, it is actually a common phenomenon among managers and executives in their 50s. If I think just about my parents and those of my closest friends, I can think of several examples. My dad was shit-canned as a project manager at an engineering firm. (My mom, who worked for an airline under a union contract, was not.) My friend’s dad was shit canned in 2008 when the economy tanked, which was really ironic since he worked in foreclosures. My sister-in-law’s mom was shit-canned after 30 years of service in marketing at a brewery, a few years shy of retirement. It cost her a chunk of her pension.

The management types it happens to are often people who have put in 10, 20, or 30 years’ service to an employer, which means they know both their job and their industry really well. But in a capitalist economy, the “value” of an employee is ultimately their surplus-value – their ability to generate profit for a company, in excess of what it costs the company to pay them. And if you can get someone younger and cheaper to produce the same results for less, that’s what you do.

Having said that, people get shit-canned for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes new management comes in and they want to get rid of the veterans and replace them with new folks that they can mold themselves, who won’t question the new way of doing things because they’ve never known any different.

Sometimes people get shit-canned because the boss doesn’t like them. Or their face. And in a workplace that is organized hierarchically, what the boss says goes, even if their reasons are stupid or fickle and firing this person will actually hurt the business.

And sometimes people get shit-canned seemingly for no reason at all. This happened today where I work. A really, really competent admin who got along really well with the boss, and everyone else for that matter, was just let go. She was totally blindsided by this – she was informed casually, in the middle of the afternoon, without any previous complaints about her performance, that she should finish out the day and not come back tomorrow. She had been with us three years. And she hadn’t done anything wrong, by the boss’s own account. The boss just said, “Look, you’ve been unhappy here for a while and it’s not working for you or me anymore,” which came as a big shock to my co-worker. The rest of us were given no chance to say goodbye – just informed, after-hours, via an email from the boss, that she “was no longer working for us.” In fact, my coworker was dismissed so suddenly that the boss is now left scrambling to find someone to fulfill her duties (answering the phones and scheduling meetings and whatnot) until we hire a replacement.

This isn’t the first time I’ve seen this kind of thing happen. Not even the first time at this workplace. And the only reason I can think of for it is that it strikes terror into the rest of us. It keeps us on our toes, keeps us sucking up to the boss, hoping that we’re not next. It lets us know who’s in charge, and it keeps us disciplined.

Workers who are lower on the totem pole get fired all the time without explanation, too, obviously. Most of us have been there. And it has a different impact on us, because we don’t usually get severance pay, and our work is often off the books, or we’re designated as temps or interns, which makes it hard to collect unemployment insurance. I just wanted to point out that this kind of disciplinary shit permeates all aspects of work under capitalism. And it really is a big disciplinary threat, because firing anyone in this day and age is almost a guarantee that they’ll spend a year or more unemployed, if they find another job in the same field at all.

Originally posted: September 26, 2013 at Recomposition

Comments

Joseph Kay
Sep 28 2013 10:29

I think this is one of the areas that US and UK labour law differ. Of course, that doesn't mean bosses always obey the law, but as I understand it much of the US is 'fire at will', whereas in the UK there's statutory unfair dismissal protection. That said, it's under attack - there's now a minimum two year qualifying period, plus a £1,000+ tribunal fee (tribunals are courts for employment matters). And of course you can hire people on non-contiguous fixed term contracts so they never make the 2 year qualifying period, or just manufacture some disciplinaries. But I think it's still a bit trickier to do this. I mean, I've been let go without warning or reason twice, but both within the first 18 months of employment (one was within 3 months). And I've seen it done with colleagues too, literally gone, no time to say goodbye. Although the impact of that's less in an age of facebook, it's still basically a low-grade form of class terror.

Steven.
Sep 28 2013 15:13

Yeah, I was going to say what Joseph said. For people who aren't agency or casual workers there is protection in place if you have been in the job longer than 2 years.

So the protection has been weakened but it still encompasses a sizeable majority of the workforce.

Joseph Kay wrote:
And of course you can hire people on non-contiguous fixed term contracts so they never make the 2 year qualifying period

on this note, to be honest I've not heard of this happening, and it would seem like a lot of work. And legally I'm not sure it would even stand up; a tribunal maybe inclined to look at it as effectively continuous employment with periods of unpaid leave…

One thing which does seem more, especially in some sectors (it seems to be the norm with people I know in the music industry, for example) is that essentially bosses do just call you into the office and tell you you're fired, but they pay you your notice period, an amount equivalent to statutory redundancy (one week's pay per year of service) and an additional sweetener to get you to sign a compromise agreement, promising not to sue them or badmouth them. So that precariousness is still there, ultimately, albeit with the slightly softened blow of a severance payment

Joseph Kay
Sep 28 2013 15:32
Quote:
on this note, to be honest I've not heard of this happening

i've known it be used to break-up redundancy entitlements for continuous service under fixed term contracts. in principle the same trick would work now there's a 2 year qualifying period for unfair dismissal.

Chilli Sauce
Sep 28 2013 15:42

Ah, the wonderful world of US labor law and at-will employment:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/At-will_employment

It's actually amazing how many Americans don't seem to understand how few rights they actually have in the workplace. If they talk about getting fired, it's always "they can't fire me for that, I'll sue them".

It's certainly not a communist morality, but Americans often seem to have some notion that the law will be have some sort of moral justness to when it doesn't. I mean, the f*ckers can fire you cause they don't like the way you tie your shoes or on which side you part your hair.

And even on "protected status" stuff (sexual orientation, race, gender discrimination, etc), you still need to prove that it's part of a pattern of larger behaviour.

In a weird way though, it's an leveller. I mean, when we had strikes in my UK public sector job, you had folks who didn't want to strike during their probationary period. That excuse doesn't work in the US: we're all just as vulnerable as each other.

[/end rant]

Noah Fence
Sep 28 2013 17:54
Quote:
It's certainly not a communist morality, but Americans often seem to have some notion that the law will be have some sort of moral justness to when it doesn't. I mean, the f*ckers can fire you cause they don't like the way you tie your shoes or on which side you part your hair.

Hehe, this is such a common concept in all areas of life. It just amazes me that despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary people have this unwavering belief in the intrinsic justice contained within law and order. Suckers!

klas batalo
Sep 29 2013 04:50

if i was actually to write a recent workplace story for recompostion this is basically the story.

they just fired a worker for being unhappy basically at my workplace.

they actually fired the worker for making them feel like shit because the worker was so unhappy they were acting suicidal.

they were gonna write them up for the social media policy, because this worker was talking about how unhappy at previous shit jobs like ours they were, but then they just fired them for "being a bad worker"

this forced everyone else to be burdened with tons of overtime because we're in the middle of huge turnover and have so many newbies. two weeks ago i worked the same 8 hour night shift with the same people 7 days straight. we all started having major deja vu.

i really hoped my boss gets shit canned soon because of the rate of turnover etc. this is does seem to be what upper management does a lot. overall though fuck upper management. it was their decision to ultimately fire my former coworker. and it was definitely just because they didn't like them.

Nate
Sep 29 2013 05:16

Sorry that happened, that sucks. Also dude write that up proper and send it to Scott and Juan!

factvalue
Sep 29 2013 08:46

Steven wrote:

Quote:
One thing which does seem more, especially in some sectors (it seems to be the norm with people I know in the music industry, for example) is that essentially bosses do just call you into the office and tell you you're fired, but they pay you your notice period, an amount equivalent to statutory redundancy (one week's pay per year of service) and an additional sweetener to get you to sign a compromise agreement, promising not to sue them or badmouth them. So that precariousness is still there, ultimately, albeit with the slightly softened blow of a severance payment

This happened to a mate of mine in an academy school. She'd only been there for two years but they kept paying her for a year after she left because she'd made it very clear that she was going to the press. Labour law apart, this is about the utter outrage of having to rely on the whim of indifferent strangers for your food and shelter, one of the basic existential ways in which capitalism is a system and not a society.

Nate
Sep 30 2013 03:29

I forgot to say - Amy's Canadian and I think a lot of her experiences of this stuff happened in Canada. I dunno what the law is there but I think the problem this story is about is bigger than the legal particulars of at-will firing.

Chilli Sauce
Sep 30 2013 22:06
Nate wrote:
I forgot to say - Amy's Canadian and I think a lot of her experiences of this stuff happened in Canada. I dunno what the law is there but I think the problem this story is about is bigger than the legal particulars of at-will firing.

Of course, I hope that didn't come across as my main concern in my post.