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CAUGHT IN THE WEB Quitters as Cultural Heroes

In a recession, not many people can afford to quit their jobs. But jobs are just as bad as ever—indeed, many are worse, with even unionized workers losing benefits and being forced to accept pay cuts—so many have continued to dream of quitting. Many resent being told they’re “lucky to have a job at all in this economy.” Sure, working is (usually) better than unemployment, but people get tired of the pressure to suck it up.

Enter Internet heroes Jenny and Steve. The strikingly attractive Jenny quit her job via a series of thirty-three photos of herself holding a dry erase board, enumerating her boss’s sexism, bad temper, bad breath, and—despite having paternalistically monitored his employees’ Internet use—habit of playing FarmVille at work. (See: www.thechive.com/2010/08/10/ girl-quits-her-job-on-dry-erase-board-emailsentire-office-33-photos.) The series, “Girl Quits Job Via Dry Erase Board,” was an immediate Internet sensation. “You go, girl!” was the almost universal reaction.

There was just one problem with the folk heroine who quickly came to be known as “Jenny DryErase”: she didn’t exist. The girl in the photos is an actress named Elyse Porterfield. “Girl Quits” was a hoax dreamed up by the publishers of a website, hoping to draw traffic. The site has pulled off several successful hoaxes in the past, including a “report” that Donald Trump had left a $10,000 tip on an $80 bill at a restaurant. Watching their website go from 15,000 to 440,000 unique page views in just one hour, the men behind thechive.com certainly achieved their goals, and offered a beacon of hope—or at least a laugh—to millions of fed-up office workers.

Although she was made up, Jenny’s instant popularity spoke to genuine dreams. The same day Jenny went viral a (real) JetBlue employee lost it and quit his job even more dramatically, in an outburst that he said was prompted by abuse from a passenger. Steven Slater exists, but his story may prove to be just as fake as Jenny’s, since no witnesses to corroborate his version of the story have been found. But to his Internet public, such details didn’t matter. Steven Slater has more than fifty different Facebook fan pages, with a total of more than fifty thousand fans and names like “Can Steven Slater Get More Fans than Justin Bieber?” (Putting the latter effort in perspective, pop-music phenom Bieber has more than 10.5 million fans.) Several of these pages hail Slater as a “Working-Class Hero.”

None of these Internet enthusiasms are about the facts. They reflect the perennial dream of telling the boss to take this job and shove it.

“Friending” the Enemy

Elsewhere on the Internet, we find that “friending”—the Facebook gesture that often warms the heart—can also be an innovative weapon against a bad boss. Workers in a Mott’s applesauce plant in upstate New York were on strike for several months last spring and summer, demonstrating exceptional endurance and solidarity. But the union’s creative use of social media was also impressive, as the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) encouraged supporters to “friend” Mott’s on the company’s fan page, and use the comments feature to express solidarity with the workers and criticize the Dr Pepper Snapple Group’s greed. The company’s status updates—recipes for children’s snacks, for example—briefly became forums for exposing corporate practices, as Mott’s new “friends” weighed in on its disgraceful practices.

Let’s hope the tactic will be used on a host of other offensive companies. As Audra Makuch— director of strategic organizing for the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU)—says, “It’s a good way to embarrass the company on [its] home turf. You can’t stop people from commenting!” Of course, none of the Facebook campaigning could substitute for in-the-flesh picketing, and the Mott’s workers did plenty of that. But you had to be in upstate New York to join the picket line; the Facebook activism, says Makuch, was a “fun way for people [who were not there] to participate.”

The Triangle Fire, a Century Later

The one-hundredth anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire is upon us. While the event could be better remembered in our everyday political discourse, the online resources devoted to it are tremendous. The ILR School at Cornell’s Kheel Center (www.ilr.cornell.edu/Trianglefire) has an excellent summary of the disaster, along with photos, illustrations, newspaper accounts, witness testimonials, reports by contemporary investigators, lecture excerpts from former U.S. Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, and even audio recordings of oral histories from key players. There is also an excellent, yet small, collection of photos at the New Deal Network Photo Gallery (www.newdeal.feri. org/library/d_4m.htm).

Stop Waiting for Superman

A documentary by Inconvenient Truth director Davis Guggenheim, called Waiting for Superman, tells a simplistic story about our nation’s schools. You’ve heard it before: everything’s the fault of the teachers’ unions, and charter schools are the last, best hope, especially for poor children. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) has put up a good website (www.aft. org/notwaiting) that responds to the film’s claims, and highlights the many great public schools in which their members work and the ways that teachers’ unions are actually working to improve education. The Grassroots Education Movement (GEM) of New York City has a YouTube video (www.youtube.com/watch?v=BUgrpjMjsyY&feature=aso), debunking the hedge fund-sponsored school “reform” movement that the film glorifies. And if you see Superman and find yourself seduced by its faith in charter schools-as-panacea, you’ll also want to visit a site called “Charter School Scandals” (www.charterschoolscandals. blogspot.com), a relentless and well-updated compilation of the ways some charter schools have abused the public trust, mostly through gross misappropriation of tax dollars for things like Caribbean junkets or wide-screen TVs for employees’ homes. At least 150 of the schools are run by a sketchy religious cult. Others have names like the Cato School of Reason. You can’t make this stuff up.

Her Majesty the Candidate

The 2010 California gubernatorial race inspired some labor unions to use social media far more creatively than usual. The members of the California Nurses Association and the California Labor Federation were terrified of the prospect of former eBay CEO—now right-wing activist—Meg Whitman becoming governor of their state, but they also realized that there was rich comedy in this non-voting billionaire’s sense of entitlement to public office. Thus several websites were born, all dedicated to exposing the absurdity and horror of gubernatorial Whitman (who was defeated by Democrat Jerry Brown in what turned out to be the most expensive statewide election in the nation’s history).

Wall Street Whitman, an online “newspaper” (www.wallstreetwhitman.com), contained information about the candidate’s Wall Street ties, including her stint on the board of Goldman Sachs, where she was directly involved in the very decisions that contributed to the most recent financial meltdown. Labor groups also created a character named Queen Meg. Marrying street theater and online activism, high school teacher and activist Elaine Burn toured the state and showed up at protests as Queen Meg—a satirical impersonation of the Republican gubernatorial candidate. With the help of the California Nurses Association, Burn created a Facebook fan page (www. facebook.com/QueenMeg2010?ref=ts), which includes videos of Burn’s performances as well as royal exhortations to the public (e.g., “Happy Laid-Off Day!”). Sometimes carnivalesque street protest antics have a limited audience, consisting of those who could make it to the march, rally, or picket. With social media, some of these creative performances have a life—and impact—beyond the protest itself.

Labor Movement News

Looking for news coverage of labor? It’s not easy to find these days. Daily newspapers, even before they went on life support, had been getting rid of their labor reporters for years, with Steven Greenhouse of the New York Times being one of the last survivors. The blogosphere—despite its much-vaunted grassroots, little-guy perspective—has in no way filled the vacuum. But there are a few excellent sources of Internet labor news.

Working In These Times is a blog brimming with original reporting and commentary by professional journalists and labor experts that can be found on the Working In These Times website. Stories have included hotel workers’ strikes, the current plight of Harley-Davidson workers in the United States, the corporate abuses that led up to the Chilean mine disaster, the IWW effort to organize Jimmy John’s workers, as well as even more under-reported stories, like the repression of organized labor in Iran. You can sign up for e-mails with links to all the week’s stories at www.inthesetimes.com/working.

Working In These Times has some good international stories, but focuses mostly on the United States. For a truly international perspective, check out LabourStart (“where trade unionists start their day on the net”), at www.labourstart.org. You can read it in twenty-four different languages (including Bahasa Indonesian and Czech) and there are three new stories posted every day. Unlike Working In These Times, LabourStart doesn’t produce original content. It’s an aggregator, compiling news—a mix of journalism and press releases—from around the world: strikes in South Africa and Cambodia; exploitation of Indonesian migrants in Malaysia; the nearslavery conditions of Middle Eastern domestic workers; protests over newspaper closings in Ireland; anti-G-20 protests in Korea. An additional good aggregator is the AFLCIO’s blog (blog.aflcio.org), which has a useful feature called “Daily News Clips”—another one-stop source for the day’s labor news.

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