Today is April 15: Steal Something from Work Day! Take those motherfuckers for all they’re worth. Goodness knows they’re doing the same to you! Perhaps, like countless other employees, you already do this every day; in that case, the thing that makes this day special is that today you know thousands of others are stealing in solidarity with you, imagining a better world.
In the US, April 15 is also Tax Day. The government is stealing your money and turning it into overseas occupations and death tolls; nowadays they’re cutting the few programs through which they used to give a little of it back to you. The way they’re slashing university budgets these days, next they’ll be going to schools and ripping out the copper pipes to sell on the black market. Much of the tax money they loot from you goes directly back into corporate pockets–the same corporations that are exploiting people like you! And despite the record profits the corporate sector is raking in once again, politicians claim they have no idea how to resolve their budget crises.
In this web of theft, your only hope is to redirect some of these resources to more sensible ends. Surely you and your coworkers, friends, and neighbors could come up with better uses for them! Be careful, though–unlike other days of action, Steal Something from Work Day should go by without the authorities noticing anything at all.
Steal from Work to Create Autonomous Zones
It was the late 20th century, back before the internet really took over, and I was trying to make a ‘zine but I didn’t have any money to pay for copying. I’d lost my last office job after I accidentally left my ‘zine masters in the copy machine when I sneaked in to use it one night. How embarrassing!
So I went to the local copying store – it was a chain, and this same story was playing out all over the country, but I’ll leave the name out just for good form – and hung around until I heard a song by the Misfits playing behind the counter. Back then employees were allowed to blast a stereo even during daytime hours; it was a different era. The employee who had put it on was this big skinhead-looking guy.
“The Misfits, huh?” From that moment, we were friends. It was an unwritten rule that if you were into punk or ska or other underground music, you got a discount. He copied my ‘zine for me, and in return I used to bring him food and other stuff I ripped off, since with the wages he was getting he had to sleep in the back of his friend’s truck.
Then they put him on night shift by himself, and things started getting interesting. Now instead of waiting for him to do a run of 100 for me when the boss wasn’t looking, I could join him behind the counter, doing runs of 200, 500, even 2000. I learned to use some of the big machines. Customers would come in and mistake me for an employee, and I would help them with stuff while my friend knocked out his jobs for the night. I probably spent three nights a week there, working and hanging out from midnight to 5:00 AM. I remember stumbling back to my apartment in the early morning loaded down with crates of photocopies, watching the street sweepers and paper delivery trucks pass – the secret underbelly of the city. Sometimes I made conversation with homeless people or other night owls like myself, up to no good. Surprisingly often, they would demand copies of the ‘zines I had made, as if sensing they were not part of the world of sales and bosses.
Despite all the copying he and I were doing for ourselves, my friend was still a more efficient worker than most of the other employees, because he was careful not to make mistakes and waste paper. For good or for ill, big-time workplace thieves usually make better workers. Much later, when he got promoted to management, I wondered whether there was a connection there – whether stealing from his employers actually helped prepare him to swindle wealthy customers. At the time, though, that was still far in the future.
We took smoking breaks together, standing out in front of the store at three in the morning comparing notes on music, politics, gossip, our philosophies of life. I never hung out with this guy outside the copy place – we were from different crowds – but our mutual commitment to photocopying drew us together, even if he was doing it for work and I was doing it to overthrow the government. There is a kind of camaraderie unique to those who labor together; I bet it predates wage slavery by a thousand generations.
Other friends of his started spending their nights there, mingling with the eccentrics and insomniacs who came in to make copies and ended up making conversation. The place became a sort of graveyard-shift salon where the most unlikely cast of characters gathered to jest, scheme, and experiment. In the witching hour, we entered an alternate reality in which we ran the place, like the goblins that come out at night in fairy tales. The store had just expanded to offer personal computer stations, and a handful of high-school dropouts taught themselves programming between 2:00 AM and 5:00 AM every night. Some of them later made successful careers for themselves during the dot-com boom, defying the barriers of social class and education. Meanwhile, once his assignments and my projects were done, my friend and I would experiment with the cutting and binding machines, retracing Gutenberg’s steps as we lovingly handcrafted unique editions of our favorite books.
The company had recently switched their machines from a plug-in counter system to a primitive card system, in hopes of thwarting the various scams based around the plug-in counters: resetting them with pins or magnets, stealing an extra one, just slamming them against something and claiming you had no idea what had happened but you’d only made a couple copies. Of course, my friend could produce the new cards behind the counter at his leisure. Whenever I mailed out a ‘zine to someone, I threw in a $100 copying card with it: Now go start your own ‘zine.
Corresponding with people around the country, we discovered this was going on elsewhere as well: it seemed that everywhere there was a night shift at one of these franchises, there were people like us. We heard about a branch in the Bay Area where they were so sure of their power they even had bands play late-night shows right in the middle of the customer service area! We’d already developed a feeling of ownership of the store my friend worked in, but now this came to extend to the entire chain. Everywhere we went we looked for one, and usually we clicked with the employees we met. When we didn’t, we fearlessly looted the places all the same, more brazenly than we ever would have anywhere else: we were discovering the feeling of entitlement normally reserved for the rich, that comes from the sense that one is on one’s own territory. We workers never feel like we’re on our own territory, so we never stand up for ourselves – but the night-shift salon had worked wonders for our self-confidence.
Across the continent, a network was forming, consisting of employees and volunteers like myself. Now, when one of us discovered the masters for an exciting new ‘zine, we made twenty copies of it instead of 200, and mailed those to twenty different stores around the country that would produce 1000 copies each. We believed in freedom of the press, god damn it, and the more photocopies we stole and circulated outside the exchange economy, the better we understood what that really meant. What had started as humble workplace pilfering was escalating into a full-scale insurgency as we spread from city to city like a virus. Like a virus, we proliferated by seizing the means of production and using it to produce more of ourselves: the ‘zines, it turned out, were the coded DNA of an alternate society.
What happened? The immune system of corporate America swung into action, and various people were fired or even led out of stores in handcuffs – but that clumsy show of force would have had little effect on its own. In some ways, we were victims of our own success. The most politicized ones gravitated to more direct forms of confrontation, which took them far at first but ultimately isolated them from everyone else – there’s always the danger of being seduced into direct conflict on unfavorable terrain before you’re ready for it. Meanwhile, new opportunities opened up for others among us, in the form of promotions and new career paths; even when these resulted directly from collective illegal activities, they ultimately tamed the ones who pursued them. But by far the most significant factor was the penetration of the internet into everyday life – that simply outmoded the territory we’d been fighting for, and everyone had to start over again to get their bearings. I think our story must be a fairly typical one.
A lot of water has passed under the bridge, but I’ll always treasure memories from the high point of the copying wars, when everyone except the manager himself was in on our secret society. I remember one night, I walked into the store at 7:00 PM with a friend visiting from the other side of the country. Behind the counter was an employee I had not yet been introduced to, and a new employee he was training. We could hear him explaining to her:
“You see those two people who just came in? Whatever they ask for, give it to them for free.”