Is It Time For Workers To “Act Our Wage”?

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After over two years of pandemic and an ongoing economic slump, everybody is struggling. And it’s not just the workers. While workers may be struggling to get by, the bosses have been struggling to cope with the substantial changes in consciousness among young workers around their jobs. According to a Gallup poll, only 34% of those surveyed reported feeling engaged at work, while 16% said they were actively disengaged in their work and workplace. This poll, from 2021, is the first time in a decade that engagement dropped year-over-year. Won’t somebody think of the poor bosses?

In response, we’ve seen new phrases like “the Great Resignation,” “anti-work,” and “quiet quitting” coined to describe these anxieties. The latest of these, and one being much more deliberately taken up by many young workers, is the practice of “acting your wage.” Sarai Soto, who popularized the concept in a series of TikTok videos, explained in an interview with  Business Insider:

“If a company is paying you, let’s say minimum wage, you’re gonna put in minimum effort… If you’re acting your wage, that means that the amount of labor that you’re putting in reflects the amount that you’re getting paid. So you’re not going to go above and beyond and do the job of two to three people and do all this extra work if you’re really not even making a livable wage.”

The bosses have responded to “acting your wage” the same way they’ve responded to “quiet quitting” and “the Great Resignation.” They’ve donned Steve Buscemi’s backward baseball cap and “Music Band” T-shirt and declared, “Hey, fellow kids, you might have heard about these viral trends, but don’t try this at home!”

“Think of what type of job or career would make you happy and can offer a more-than-fair compensation. Then, embark upon pursuing your dreams.”

For instance, senior Forbes contributor Jack Kelly wants the youth to know, “Instead of getting caught up with this tit-for-tat mentality, break the mold … Think of what type of job or career would make you happy and can offer a more-than-fair compensation. Then, embark upon pursuing your dreams.” Further elaborating his lack of understanding of capitalist class relations, Kelly argues “The employer and employee can job-craft a solution to improve the situation.”

Despite Kelly’s protestations, most workers can’t simply “embark upon their dreams.” The popularity of “acting your wage” is a sign of growing consciousness of the realities of capitalism.

Work Sucks

Soto’s TikTok videos give a clear idea of what acting your wage entails. No more showing up before it’s time to clock in. No more staying late, coming in on your days off, or taking on extra responsibility beyond the scope of the job description. These are all small acts of resistance against capitalism’s constant attempts to wring every last drop of labor out of us – and they’re a rejection of the alienation of a job that means nothing to you, but which you still need to survive.

This alienation is a key feature of working-class life under capitalism. As early as 1844, Karl Marx commented, “the worker is related to the product of labor as to an alien object. For on this premise, it is clear that the more the worker spends himself, the more powerful becomes the alien world of objects which he creates over and against himself, the poorer he himself – his inner world – becomes, the less belongs to him as his own.”

The alienation fundamental to capitalism has been exacerbated by decades of neoliberal reaction wherein past gains made by the labor movement have been whittled away. The advent of the Great Resignation, quiet quitting, and acting your wage indicate a more serious questioning of capitalism and the nature of work in the wake of the neoliberal era.

Acting your wage particularly resonates for minimum wage positions, and service and retail jobs where the prospects of developing into a well-paying stable career are slim – and rarely enticing. 

This is not helped by the utter pointlessness of so many of our jobs. Too many people are working jobs that don’t serve any value to them (or to society). Real experience in the workplace, not to mention multiple economic crises in the past 15 years, has shattered the illusion that a fulfilling “life purpose” career is waiting around the corner if we just sacrifice more for our jobs. Work is the necessary drudgery that we do to earn money to survive.

In his 2013 essay and 2018 book Bullshit Jobs, Occupy activist David Graeber describes this phenomenon. He argued that more than half of jobs in society, particularly the comfortable well-paying jobs that workers are told to aspire to, are pointless and unnecessary. Graeber draws attention to jobs like “corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources, and public relations.”

Graeber aptly depicts capitalism’s warped system of values. This image is sharpened by the experience of the pandemic where the term “essential worker” became an excuse to overwork people in dangerous working conditions. However, he’s wrong to declare “The answer clearly isn’t economic: it’s moral and political.” In fact, it’s both. And recognizing the economic basis of capitalist alienation and exploitation is key to fighting back against it. This requires moving beyond small individual acts of resistance.

Beyond “Acting Your Wage

The popularity of acting your wage is a positive development. While corporate apologists like Kelly may describe it as a “toxic attitude,” Kelly is really just covering up the toxicity of the capitalist workplace. Rather than being a toxic attitude, it’s a sign that young people are becoming increasingly aware of their exploitation in the workplace, and are refusing to play the bosses’ game in a positive show of defiance.

In a way, this is well-reasoned. Hustling for a job that doesn’t love you back, in a system that’s rigged, makes no sense. It’s a positive sign that workers are experimenting with ideas and strategies to navigate this reality.

However, acting your wage has its limits.

Ultimately, the idea of “minimum effort in exchange for minimum wage” isn’t quite the fair transaction it sounds like. First, you’re still making minimum wage. Second, it amounts to an adaptation to capitalist exploitation rather than a challenge to it. This is especially the case if it’s done as an individual act without connection to any wider demands.

As a collective act, acting your wage can have an actual material impact on the bosses’ profits. But if just one individual “”acts their wage” on their own, the bosses can just dump the extra work on their co-workers. When this happens, workplace resentment can be misdirected at your fellow workers rather than the bosses. This is why workplace actions need to be organized.

The notion of acting your wage is actually part of the traditions of the labor movement, but it goes by a different name: “work to rule.” Unlike quiet quitting or acting your wage, work to rule is an organized, collective act. As such it can make a more serious dent in the bosses’ profits and more clearly demonstrate the workers’ power. Even then, work to rule pales in comparison to other tools to demand raises, like organizing a union or going on strike.

While there are millions of jobs in the U.S. that are socially unnecessary or even harmful (weapons development, advertisement, insurance, etc.) there are also millions of jobs that are incredibly useful and can be extremely rewarding. The very fact that many workers, in the care sector for example, find gratification through this work is cynically used by the bosses as a means to squeeze more and more out of them. For these workers, acting your wage feels like less of an option. Resisting the alienating nature of work needs to go beyond individual acts of resistance. Acting your wage comes as we see exciting unionization efforts in unorganized workplaces like Amazon, Starbucks, and the tech industry. Building militant, democratically-run unions, organized around clear demands, is a key step forward for the working class. In workplaces that already are organized, the unions need to be revitalized by a fighting rank and file. In this process, the workers should be unafraid to wield their strongest weapon: the strike. This would represent a qualitative leap from quiet quitting and acting your wage.

Even this qualitative leap pales before what is possible, and necessary, to transform the nature of work. Moving beyond the drudgery of work and genuinely unlocking human potential is antithetical to capitalism. It requires workers’ control, meaningful jobs, and good pay. For that we need socialism, a workers’ democracy with a plan of production to meet the needs of people and the planet. This would allow work to be what it should be: socially useful, shared out, and democratically determined.

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