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