A Unionist’s Qualms with Quiet Quitting

Dec 21, 2022

A Unionist’s Qualms with Quiet Quitting

By Fredrick Henley

Image: Mohammad Hassan / Pixabay

Quiet quitting – the act of putting in the least amount of effort possible at work while still technically fulfilling the job requirements – may be one of the top phrases of 2022. It makes a lot of sense, too. A recent Gallup poll found that as many as 50% of American workers say they are or recently were quiet quitting. This is largely a response to burnout, poor financial prospects, and disillusionment with the post-Covid restriction workplace.

On social media, quiet quitting is being discussed in terms of self-care. Refusing to put in 110% is a way to prevent repetitive stress injuries and strain at work and to save you some peace of mind in your day-to-day. That is more than reasonable.

On the other side of things, plenty of CEOs and “finance gurus” seem to have latched onto the idea, desperate to dissuade workers from it. Their go-to arguments?

“You are selling yourself short!”

“Just book a therapist if you are feeling worn out!”

“Quitters don’t rise up as fast as others!”

“Only fighters succeed in this world!”

Their gripes have a through-line: they are poorly aimed appeals to personal ethics and thinly veiled threats to block career progression. They fall flat on workers’ ears however because workers only consider quiet quitting after they have found out that their boss is a spiteful bully.

So, where does the unionist fall in this discourse? Obviously, I can only speak for myself. And, obviously, I am on the side of the workers eleven times out of ten. However, I am not a fan of the concept of quiet quitting from a purely strategic point of view. To understand why, we have to understand that quiet quitting isn’t exactly a new concept at all.

Quiet quitting used to be called work to rule – well… kinda.

Oxford Languages Dictionary defines work to rule as: “to follow official working rules and hours exactly in order to reduce output and efficiency, especially as a form of industrial action.” That last part is key.

While quiet quitting is framed as a liberating individual action, work to rule has always been a part of the organized workers’ playbook as a form of industrial action.

To make things even clearer: the former has a small chance of achieving lasting relief at work but with a significant risk of back-firing, while the latter can be leveraged to negotiate improvements to working conditions and has a lower risk of back-firing.

Imagine you, as an individual, decide that you have had enough abuse at work and that, starting today, you are going to quiet quit. You stop all the extra bits and pieces of work that, up until now, were considered normal for you and your coworkers. Do your coworkers also quiet quit? Maybe not. And if they don’t, will they resent you? Will your manager start to notice that you are working less than everyone else? 

Of course, the law prevents your boss from firing you for refusing to perform overtime work for free, among other things; but as far as your managers are concerned, you have failed the personality test. What that means is, you have got a target on your back and your managers will find ways to make work worse for you and they may even try to manufacture a justification to dismiss you. In short, by staging an individual protest, you frame the poor work environment as a you problem and you risk creating difficulties for yourself that can compound quickly.

Working to rule is a collective action. That means that long before you do it, you get your coworkers on your side so you have strength in numbers. You talk about what working to rule means with them and you plan it – when it starts, when it stops, and what tasks you apply the strategy to. And most importantly, you make sure your boss knows exactly what you are doing, why you are doing it, and what the boss needs to offer you in order to stop it. Then, you have got a negotiation weapon in your hands. If this weapon is paired with other tools that workers have at their disposal and a good collective bargaining team, then you have got a real shot at creating lasting positive change at the workplace. It’s about strategy, and it’s about you leveraging your value as a worker in a smart way.

Officers in our union have experience with labor disputes and industrial actions –  as rank and file and as organizers. If you are fed up with working conditions at your company, reach out to us and see what you may be able to accomplish as part of a labour union. You can submit a consultation request at https://www.generalunion.org/consultation.