Today we take a break from our ongoing series about the anarchist critique of democracy to observe an annual day of action, Steal Something from Work Day.
Today is April 15—in the US, the day that taxes are usually due to the federal government. Ironically, this time tax day has been moved back to Monday so the IRS can celebrate Emancipation Day—which the rest of us have no opportunity to celebrate, chained as we are to the grindstone. Slavery has been abolished, but wage slavery persists.
The government steals a part of our labor in the form of taxes. Our employers steal a part of our labor in the form of profit. And the necessity of working steals our lives, one day after another—it steals us from each other, forcing us to toil to keep the bills paid rather than being creative together or spending time with our children.
We can build towards a worldwide movement to abolish the imposed scarcities and controls that force this situation on us. But in the meantime, we have to be pragmatic, to do the best we can with the opportunities available to us. That’s why people all around the world celebrate April 15 as Steal Something from Work Day.
Don’t Beg for Crumbs—Take the Whole Pizza for Yourself!
Being from the part of the world that is considered Eastern Europe in the West, you get paid a lot less for the same shitty jobs. I had a few of those jobs already, starting at the age of 14, usually sorting products on the shelves in the big hypermarkets. The theft prevention there seemed omnipotent, so however angry I was about getting paid the equivalent of $1.50 an hour (25% of which was taken by the contractor agency through which I found work), I had no idea how to do anything to improve my situation.
One day, I told myself I couldn’t carry like that for the rest of my life. I would rather risk and even lose my job than never try, and instead lose myself. By then, I worked behind the counter at a KFC franchise; my salary was still less than $2 an hour. This was a decade ago, and I doubt much has changed since then.
As a 16-year-old punk, before I even made a single crown, I had to buy my own fancy shoes to go with the ugly uniform, which had false pockets so the employees couldn’t steal. Although I already considered KFC to be an icon of pure evil, I never ceased to be surprised by the politics and regulations for workers. I couldn’t keep tips—they wouldn’t feed us for free—the leftovers were thrown into the trash, which was kept locked in a special room.
My first idea was to invite couple of friends for lunch and give them a lot of food for free when the manager wasn’t looking, then try to take a lunch break so I could eat some of the food too. Eventually, I realized that if I went for supplies to the refrigeration room, I could eat there—but it was so cold, and anyone could open the door at any time. I started to see more and more employees eating in the kitchen, smuggling food to the bathroom and locking themselves there, or sneaking it behind the counter when the manager went out to smoke.
I started to build up to talking about it with the other workers; until then, it had been taboo to talk about getting back what we deserved. People got more conscious and started to help each other to get as much food as possible for lunch, like preparing a big bucket of food in the kitchen and then taking the manager out for a cigarette break so the one going for lunch could take it upstairs. From the counter, we would bring soda, coffee, muffins, and such back to the workers who had no access to those things.
I was new to working and still went to high school, so I didn’t work that often. I wanted to get some food and leftovers to bring home and to school, to share with my family and friends. We made a deal that my colleagues would make a bag of food for me and leave it in the back so I could grab it when I went to change while the manager counted out my cash register.
It was nice to be able to eat for free and share with the others. But soon, everyone got tired of eating ultra-spicy steroid-filled fried chicken wings with fries and mayonnaise. I became vegetarian, and soon vegan. I felt like stealing food didn’t really pay me back for all the time I spent there in constant hustle and stress, sometimes without any breaks. Free wings didn’t pay for all the cigarettes I started to smoke when I worked there. It just wasn’t enough.
Thinking about it every day and getting more committed to breaking the rules, I figured out that no one was watching the security cameras and they didn’t archive the records. I discovered that I could open my register by typing that I sold a small drink, fries, or even a helping of ketchup. I quickly learned how to keep track of the costs of different items; if a customer had money ready or was in a hurry, I would first make the whole order and count it in my mind, then take the money, typing that I had sold something much cheaper. By doing that several times a day, I physically kept much more money in the register than they expected according the system.
Yes, this is simple and they knew about it—that’s why we didn’t have any pockets and they would check to make sure that we weren’t leaving with money in our hands or elsewhere. To bypass this control, I would ask some of my friends to come in for food, pretend we didn’t know each other, and pay with big bills. This time, I would type everything beforehand and correctly, in order not to be suspicious if the manager came around; but when giving the change back, I would give them all the money I knew I had saved during the day. In this way I would split the money with some friends who also had financial problems.
Once, my manager told me I had to clean the tables in the lobby for the rest of the day as soon as I finished with my next customer. At that point, I had way more money in my register than I was supposed to, so I pretended to tie my shoelace and put some money into my sock. I was still over the expected amount in the register, but I explained that I got big tips that day. It was good to know that I could get the money out myself so I could steal a bit every day rather than a big amount once in a while when my friends came. After that, I started to make pretty good money for a teenager.
All the same, working there became unbearable. The end of last shift felt so liberating. I couldn’t believe they didn’t catch me.
I started to work at a pizza window. Once again, we were not paid well. But in this new workplace, to my surprise, the workers had a system by which to multiply their income. In addition to selling weed alongside pizza, they figured out that the owner only kept up with the stock by counting the balls of dough. He was a busy man, opening more and more places; he never did any work besides coming in to take the cash at night. He always had a new car or fancy stuff. We sold big pizzas by pieces, so he wasn’t counting boxes, just the dough that we had to press into the pizza bases. My colleagues figured out that they could make seven pizzas out of the dough intended for six by setting a bit of each dough ball aside. Soon we were making four pizzas out of three balls, so our crew could sell every fourth pizza for the direct profit of the workers, and split 25% of the daily gross among ourselves.
Sometimes the boss would say we were using too much cheese or tomato sauce. Then we would buy our own supplies to make the extra pizzas, and still come out ahead. It was a workers’ cooperative pizza shop within a capitalist pizza shop.
Nowadays, looking back, I remember those times as less risky than my adult life has been, in which (like many people in this country) in order to survive I have to be officially unemployed while I make a living under the table, supplemented by shoplifting and insurance frauds. It’s too bad the customers had to eat those thin little pizzas, but hey, I’m not the one who came up with this social order or the incentives that drive it! If you want thick crust pizza, abolish capitalism!
Steal Something from Work Day Resources
A Theft or Work?—A grad student brings poststructuralist theory to bear on time theft, why the master’s degrees will never dismantle the master’s house, and how to resist work when it has spread so far beyond the workplace
Out Of Stock: Confessions Of A Grocery Store Guerrilla—A former Whole Foods employee recounts his efforts to run his employer out of business by means of sabotage, graffiti, and insubordination, reinterpreting William Butler Yeats’ line “The falcon cannot hear the falconer” from a bird’s-eye view.
Steal from Work to Create Autonomous Zones—The shocking true story of how a photocopy scam nearly escalated into global revolution.
What Became of the Boxes—An adventure in proletarian revenge.
And there’s more! Steal Something from Work Day videos, corporate media coverage, and even a journal (pdf, 4.3 MB).