"Unemployment for all, not just the rich!" That's the catchphrase of r/antiwork, a Reddit community of more than 1.7 million people who want to end work as we know it and reimagine its role in our lives.
In this episode, we hear from members of this fast-growing community about what brought them to this online space, but also about recent turmoil within the subreddit that has left some wondering if it will endure.
- Anti-work subreddit
- The latest on r/antiwork after Doreen's Fox News interview
- Ken Klippenstein on the Kellogg strike
- Wall Street Bets subreddit
- The Taft-Harley Act (1947)
- Bob Black's book, The Abolition of Work
- Amazon delivery screenshots during tornado
- "Reddit ‘antiwork’ forum booms as millions of Americans quit jobs," Financial Times
- "Working was pointless at best and 'degrading, humiliating and exploitative' at worst, says Reddit moderator behind the influential 'antiwork'," Business Insider
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This content was originally created for audio. The transcript has been edited from our original script for clarity. Heads up that some elements (i.e. music, sound effects, tone) are harder to translate to text.
Ben Brock Johnson: Hey folks, we wanted to let you know that, as we were putting the finishing touches on this episode, there was a big update in the story — big enough that we debated whether or not to run the episode or hold it.
Amory Sivertson: But we wanted to tell you about this community that is, right now, embroiled in an existential debate. And we’ll tell you the latest on that at the end of the episode. So stick with us. Now, onto the show.
Ben: Amory let’s make like a news show and read some headlines from the last month.
Amory: OK Ben, let’s.
Ben: But like, let’s literally just read the headlines. Many of which over the last month or so have been…like THIS.
Ben: Reddit Antiwork Moderator says working was "Degrading" and "Pointless."
Ben: Final Straw…Aussie Quits Over Boss’s Email.
Ben: Lying Flat…Antiwork…and the Great Resignation…Spreads.
Some good stuff in there, but you know how we do. We do… like to hear the voices of the online communities we’re covering. So let’s do that throughout this episode, starting… now.
Vesper_: Hi, there this is user Vesper_. From the anti-work subreddit.
Rebekah: My name is Rebekah Hardy.
Elle: Elle from Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Ash: Ash from Texas
Mike: Mike from Toronto
WaterBaboon569: You can just refer to me as WaterBaboon569. That's my Reddit handle.
Vesper_: I was told at one company that if I love something enough, I would do it for free. And they said that to justify no overtime pay.
Rebekah: The general manager responded to me that she couldn't pay me $10 an hour because that's how much she made.
Mike: They were just bullying a whole bunch of people on the job site and it became a really toxic, horrible situation.
Anonymous 1: The nail in the coffin for me was when I was told by a superior that I would “have to lie in this career in order to get ahead.”
Anonymous: No matter how good the moral compass of the owner is, people are sacrificed to the God of profit.
Eli: My attitudes towards capitalism have changed since I was a kid and are still changing today.
Mike: I don't necessarily believe in capitalism because I think that maybe there could be a better system out there.
Ash: Nah, I ain't giving any of that to anybody anymore. No.
Amory: Yes. This week, we’re talking about the online and real life movement that has been galvanized in the pandemic by skepticism about capitalism, our current Coronavirus Malaise, and some truly viral, sometimes fake, always maddening, screenshots of texts with employers, bosses, and managers. And employees who have had it. The movement known as…
Ben and Amory: ANTI-WORK!
Ben: An episode we admittedly made… at work. You’re listening to Endless Thread.
Amory: And we’re coming to you from Boston’s NPR station WBUR.
Amory: So we’ve been following the anti-work conversation on Reddit for a while. Mostly lurking in the community reading people’s testimonials.
Ben: Yeah and I’ve been wanting us to cover this for a long time because I was seeing posts in that community hit the front page of Reddit more frequently. And they were often these kind of rage-inducing screenshots of text chains of bosses trying to force employees to come in when they were off, threatening them with losing their job if they didn’t — that sort of thing.
Amory: But when you’d read the comment thread. You’d see among the snark, some real conversations happening around how employers treat workers, how workers treat themselves, and how this country treats workers. And what to do about it. We were watching all of this, and then near the end of 2021… THIS happened.
[Ken Klippenstein: Redditors have been spamming Kellogg's job portals in solidarity with the strikers…]
Ben: Yes. Kellogg’s, the cornflake company, had a bunch of workers go on strike over work conditions at the company. And then instead of negotiating for a deal with some 1400 union workers, said it was just going to hire new workers to replace them. So Redditors found the online job applications for said new jobs to replace Kellogg's workers and started filling out fake applications.
Amory: A TikTok user named Sean Black even wrote a script of code in python…which automated bogus applications.
[Sean Black: And then it automatically…applies. Application has been sent.]
Ben: President Biden also criticized the company, though we don’t know if he filled out a fake application…
Amory: But users and moderators in the community would likely say this isn’t just about companies like Kellogg’s. It’s about something bigger.
Ben: It’s about the Mondays.
Ria: We all I think a lot of us really hate the work that we do. I mean, you talk about the Mondays, you know, Oh, I have to get up and go to work on Monday ugh.
Ben: This is Ria.
Ria: There's no reason to intrinsically hate Monday more than any other day of the week. It's the fact that you have to go into your job that you hate that is the driving reason why you dislike Monday so much I would think that a pretty reasonable goal for human society and for the economy is to serve human needs and to contribute to human happiness. And I think with the great resignation and the rise of antiwork, what we're seeing is a lot of people that are willing to really start looking about at the economy and saying that the economy is a means to an overall end of human happiness and satisfaction, and not an end to be served in and of itself.
Amory: Ria does work herself by the way. She does back office work for an addiction recovery clinic. At the time that we spoke in early January, she was also a moderator of the Antiwork subreddit, along with Dory, more formally known as…
Doreen: My name is Doreen Ford. I go by, she/her pronouns. I live in the Boston area. And my username on antiwork is pretty easy. u/abolishwork.
Ria: And I am Ria, username on Reddit as u/riaskies as it is in most other places. She her pronouns, I live in the south, central United States. And I am a recent convert to you, the anti work movement.
Ben: How did you get converted?
Ria: Well, you know, I well, I was born in 1991. I went to college, you know, right through the Great Recession. Then I went to grad school. I ended up. Burning out you know, started looking for jobs and work and realized that, you know what, this is all just kind of pointless. We're just going to was what is this really all that life is about? Is it just working 40 hours a week for 40 years? And then? Is that is that it, that that's that's what life is, where the richest society in the history of the world and that's the best that we can do with ourselves? I think we can do better than that.
Amory: Ria and Doreen represent a kind of spectrum in the history of the online antiwork community. Ria was a recent addition, part of the subreddit’s breakneck growth. Doreen had been moderating the community since the good old days, 2014.
Ben: But even among community moderators, there's a wide spectrum of opinion — just like the larger community of subscribers. So nobody — including Dory and Ria — can really speak for the community at large. Not these days, at least.
Doreen: Before the the explosive growth, it was pretty chill.
Ben: Doreen mostly was helping keep tabs on the thousand-member strong community as a favor for a friend. She did not, however, expect anything to really come of it.
Doreen: I had been in radical politics for almost 10 years, at that point. I was like, it'll be cool if this blew up or went somewhere, but how’s going to happen?
Amory: How it happened was either ironic or perfect. One of the things that helped the community get a bunch of attention was going viral… at the office.
Doreen: They had a picture of all the main cast and stuff like that, and each individual member were tagged with a given subreddit. And I believe the character named Stanley was tagged with our slash into work. And that, of all things, is one of the first time. I'm not saying it's the first time. I'm not saying it's like responsible for everything, but it's something that's always stuck in my mind. That's one of the first times we really blew up as a subreddit.
Amory: Internet jokes as a motivating force for a movement is admittedly something that some might look askance at. But then…when you actually listen to Stanley the character…it makes a kind of sense.
[Stanley: I wake up every morning in a bed that’s too small to drive my daughter to a school that’s too expensive… and then I go to work to a job for which I get paid too little…but on Pretzel day? Well I like pretzel day.]
Amory: Stanley knows his priorities. And…his post-career dreams.
[Stanley: Yes I have a dream. And it’s not some MLK dream for equality. I want to own a decommissioned lighthouse. And I want to live at the top. And nobody knows I live there. And there’s a button that I can press, and launch that lighthouse…into space.]
Ben: Speaking of launching into space. Between just last October and January alone, which by the way coincides generally with the timeline of the Kellogg’s strike story, r/antiwork has been on a tear when it comes to the growth of the community on Reddit.
Doreen: Between 60 and 70 K new people per week, still top 10 comments in days and posts for three months now. Comments per day are at all time highs and we're in the top five for most of December.
Amory: If that sounds a bit like Greek it really means that among the 1.7 million accounts subscribed to the community and the many more who peruse it, a LOT of people comment and participate. And…act.
Ben: The real world impact of loosely organized groups on the internet gets debated a lot. But if movements are groups of people working together to advance their social, political or artistic ideas, then antiwork is a movement. The tagline of the subreddit is "Unemployment for all, not just the rich!"
Amory: And when this particular group focuses its efforts on ONE thing, it does have real impact. Popular posts in the community call for boycotts and for organized efforts to raise the minimum wage. The most apt comparison of antiwork’s crazy growth might actually be another Reddit community that destabilized a capitalism hallmark. Wall Street Bets. The crazy popular community that had a big impact on stock option trading — enough to draw the ire of regulators, eviscerate hedge fund wealth, and become a constant topic on mainstream business television programming.
[Jim Cramer: Alright, welcome to the new world of WallStreetBets, small-d democratic taut sheet that’s been able to move stocks left and right because its followers number in the millions.]
Ben: And…Stanley from The Office quotes aside…Doreen and Ria both actually do point to Martin Luther King Junior and Mahatma Gandhi as inspiration for what they feel is one of the most important tools in the antiwork toolbox. Direct action. The subreddit even has a “library” of relevant literature. Which Dory and Ria seem to have read pretty closely themselves.
Doreen: Back when I first started working actually is when I got into into antiwork and when I read Bob Black's Abolition of Work, which is a very influential essay on the movement.
Ria: You know, John Maynard Keynes — yes, the famous Keynes of Keynesian economics — suggested that, by the year 2000, we wouldn't have to work more than 15 hours a week to do basic government structuring tasks and do our little bit of, you know, oversight. But why was Keynes so wrong?
Amory: Part of the answer, according to Ria and Doreen, is the way that we deal with work in a capitalist, free market, neoliberal society. And the common denominator among a lot of people participating in this online community is offline experiences with toxic work environments.
WaterBaboon569: I used to work for a business magazine that was horrible in so many ways. I could take up an entire episode and not get through half of it. Once we got a new website and a newsletter template that was absolutely completely 100 percent broken. It was my job to run the website and send out the newsletter, and I was told that it being broken wasn't an excuse to not get the newsletter sent out or the website updated. So for over a week, I had to stay at the office until sometimes as late as 10p.m., trying to fix it myself.
Anonymous: It was working my ass off at my first job as a line chef stressed out, burning myself, getting shouted out every night, destroying my will to live for minimum wage and finally asking my managers why I was working 40 hours a week when I was supposed to be part time, only to be told 40 hours wasn't full time in the restaurant biz.
Ash: My name is Ash from Texas. one time I was sick, like deadly sick had to get morphine from the E.R. and I didn't eat solid food for a week. And I had a doctor's note for that week, but I was still sick afterwards, so I went in to work. And I said to my boss specifically, Hey, I was on morphine and I came in without the morphine and I worked while I was sick and in great pain. Remember that. And about a month later, they fired me.
WaterBaboon569: A couple of years later, I learned that I had been approved at the time for a $2000 bonus for all of the overtime and fixing the code. But I never got it because my boss took that money and spent it on 10 Justin Bieber tickets for him, his kids, one of her coworkers and her kids. And then like one client. And then justified it to our parent company by calling it a client meeting. I don't miss working there at all.
Doreen: I ended up getting fired and I'd been there for the longest for two years longer than the new new owner, actually. And I didn't get to tell him to go through. I like cried in my partner's car after I got fired because I'd never been fired before. And it's a pretty f****** emotionally distressing thing.
Amory: That was Doreen at the end there. Ria also has a tough employment story. Back in 2019 she was working at a forensic accounting firm. And she says her employers changed her job from accounting work to more direct cold call and email sales. And she didn’t like that at all. She felt like she was being set up to fail.
Ria: I felt like I was going to be terminated within the next few days, so I just decided to go out on my own terms.
Ben: There’s a lot of stories about people who have experienced emotional trauma at work trying to take back some agency in their own lives. And, in the antiwork community, they’re starting to find ways to push back. More on that in a few.
Nick Klofkorn: Hello, Endless Thread. My name is Nick Klofkorn, and I'm in Phoenix, Arizona.
Alison: Hi, my name's Alison. I used to live in New York, but I left after losing my job in the pandemic.
Nick: Last year, I was working in a factory here. A kiln exploded during ignition and nearly killed me. Despite the fact that I'm an expert in this area and the factory itself was all running on antique and improperly maintained equipment, they decided to fire me instead of improve safety or equipment at the factory.
Alison: I joined the anti-work movement because since I started my working career at age 16, I've never once had an employer that didn't harass me or discriminate against me for my gender, my age or my disabilities.
Nick: I know with certainty that my experience is not unique. We are all treated as replaceable objects of low value, and frankly, it's B.S.
Alison: I've never received a 401K contribution. I've never received help repaying my $60,000 in college loans.
Nick: Quit your job, organize your coworkers,
Alison: My entire career, I felt like a lemon being squeezed for more juice by my employers.
Nick: Unionize and protest.
Alison: It's never enough for my corporate overlords, and it will never be enough for me to pay off my loans or buy a home, seek medical care without financial stress, or achieve financial security.
Nick: Rally around the fact that you've seen your entire working life being treated like garbage. Recognize your value. Companies are nothing without us.
Ben: There are a lot of stories about toxic work culture on r/antiwork. And on reddit, they get upvoted like crazy. Remember the tornados that killed scores of people last month across the Southern U.S. and Ohio valley? One post is just an exchange of texts reportedly between an Amazon delivery driver and an Amazon dispatcher.
Ben: “Radio’s going off,” driver says.
Amory: Dispatch: “Ok…just keep driving. We can’t just call people back for a warning unless Amazon tells us to do so.”
Ben: Driver: “Just relaying in case y’all didn’t hear it over there. Tornado alarms are going off over here.”
Amory: Dispatch: “Just keep delivering for now. We have to wait for word from Amazon. If we need to bring people back, the decision will be up to them. I will let you know if the decision changes at all. I’m talking with them now about it.”
Ben: The text chain goes on with the driver deciding to turn back for his safety, and the dispatcher telling them if they do, they won’t have a job tomorrow. The title of this post says in part, “Your life is just numbers in a machine. Make the correct call.”
Amory: This post has 116 thousand upvotes and almost seven thousand comments on it. Moderators deemed it to be verifiable and it stayed up. There are lots more posts that detail more aggressive disputes between employees and managers. People quitting and going out with a bang…bosses being unreasonable in requesting people show up on short notice, while they’re at a funeral for a family member, taking care of their kids — the list goes on.
Ben: Some of this stuff is almost definitely fake. Mocked up to rile people up and get internet points at the same time. But a lot of it is real. And Ria says these personal stories get at the essential ethos of antiwork.
Ria: It really kind of started once COVID took off and people had more free time to think about and process and be like, You know what? Hey, there's you know, a lot of this, this work that people do, it's not really all that necessary and I think. A lot of these positions that are being tasked as being absolutely essential, are some of the most strenuous, most disrespected, low paying positions out there. Whereas the positions that are in high regard, high esteem, high paying…They just took furlough or just switched over to not having to work or working from home, doing a little bit here and there, and society didn't seem to need them. So isn't that a little bit weird that the jobs that are so utterly essential are the ones paid as though they are utterly replaceable?
Gabriel: Hello, this is Gabriel from below the Mason-Dixon, and I used to work as an essential worker during the pandemic. And I'm anti-work because my employer forced a coworker of mine to come back to work about three months into the p– pandemic, even though she was still testing positive for COVID. I ended up getting fired because every time a district manager or a higher level management came, I always ask, you know, what are we going to be able to get paid enough that we can afford to live in the area.
Amory: There are a lot of people in the community that have seen this or experienced it firsthand and the result is feelings. Sometimes those feelings translate into politics. Dory and Ria describe the politics of the subreddit as generally pretty far left. Democratic socialists and progressives are in some ways the more low-key examples.
Ben: Anarcho-communists. Marxists. Leninists. In fact, when our public radio podcast posted on the subreddit asking to hear redditors' stories… we got dragged somewhat hilariously, to us at least, for being enemies of the movement. Or in the pocket of our sponsors. And here I was thinking we were doing pretty good on that front!
Amory: Seriously. But you do your thing anti-workers. All good. Still, we were struck by how even though the current political spectrum in the US might deem antiwork users as far left…a lot of the people we heard from had what struck us as not super radical positions? It wasn’t like “kill all capitalist pigs.” It was like…
[In the future, I would just be great to see that people could work not to live, but out of enjoyment and out of passion instead of being forced.]
[There's enough suffering in this world naturally, and we need to end the self-imposed suffering under the system.]
[I hope we can continue to grow as a movement, shorten the work, we can raise the standard of living for everybody.]
Doreen: You know, I'm not even anti-jobs. You know, I'm fine with people having professions and things that they want to do. You know, I don't think that's inherently a bad thing. I just think it's it's a bad thing under capitalism in the state and the way that it's done, they're like, I would still take care of dogs if capitalism didn't exist.
Ben: Oh yes…did we not mention? Dory has a job too. She’s a dog walker.
Doreen: I mean, look, I work with literal angels put on this planet. You know, I'm talking about dogs, of course, and there are still mornings where I'm like, Nah, I'd rather not get up and go to work.
Amory: For people like Dory who describes herself as an anarchist, maybe it’s just about sticking to some kinds of jobs, and wishing for the demise of other kinds of jobs. Opting out of the rat race and hoping to help convince others to do the same.
Doreen: I'll take a non-controversial example like war profiteering like that, like kind of companies that benefit off of wars. Like probably wouldn't exist as much of capitalism in the state didn't exist.
Ria: Well, how about corporate corporate lobbyists or data that just I would I would say that there are certainly positions, including very well-paying positions that don't, don't just not contribute to society, but actually harm society, but because they enable wealth extraction from the public sphere onto the private sphere, and they do so very efficiently. They're very richly rewarded under the current system because when there's money to be made and scams to be scammed, somebody is going to try to scam them.
Ben: Ria talks less about the state ceasing to exist and more about finding ways to change it. One piece of legislation she thinks about a lot is the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which restricted and regulated unions more aggressively. She says it peeled back protections put in place by FDR, stopping things like general strikes…while setting in motion some power dynamics that Ria thinks are problematic in the workplace today.
Ria: Just in order to illustrate the power dichotomy that exists within between capital and labor, think about the fact that it's considered unprofessional to leave without giving a tour and sometimes three four week notice, whereas it is apparently considered completely professional to tell somebody that they're going to be leaving and they're going to be immediately escorted out by security. We’ll send your belongings to you and in some period of time to be determined. So looking at those labor structures and that and the legal system that encompasses, I think that would be a potential avenue for change.
Ben: In late December, Kellogg’s backed down on hiring a bunch of workers to replace their union employees. The global food brand that employs 31 thousand people pulled in 13.7 billion dollars in annual revenue and nearly 2 billion in profits at last check in 2020, bowed to 1400 striking workers, and ratified a new contract with the union. With, according to union leaders, no real concessions.
Amory: And some credit the antiwork subreddit for that–and the direct action it inspired among users who buried the company in a reported deluge of fake job applications. But antiwork moderators have to be careful too.
Ria: So I think there is very much a thin line of how much direct action we can organize on in terms of Reddit's rules.
Ben: Yes. Reddit has rules about harassment and abuse. And not a crystal clear history of rule enforcement. Sometimes it seems tied to negative press coverage.
Ria: I mean, they tolerated some pretty ugly subreddits out there for a while until they decided that they were breaking too many rules and inviting legal troubles for Reddit.
Ben: The company is also reportedly moving towards an initial public offering, and many users have been voicing fears that, once Reddit becomes a public company, the antiwork community’s anti-capitalism stance won’t survive the demands of powerful shareholders. Ria and Dory are pretty skeptical of that concern.
Amory: Still, there are pitfalls for such an explosively growing community. Some users want a lot more naming and shaming of companies from whence the personal workplace horror stories come, which could get the community banned by administrators. And every once in a while, there’s the suggestion of committing violence against capitalism. Which moderators moderate with the "Remove" and "Ban" buttons.
Doreen: And that's why we're so hard line about it. People are like, "Oh, but the state is violence and capitalism is violence, and so many people are dying and like, How can you not want to at least have us defend ourselves," is how they put it. And it's like, yeah, I don't necessarily disagree with all that ideologically. But like terms of service wise, it's not going to go well for us. I'd rather have the platform than not. And also, I prefer nonviolent solutions over violent solutions, just about any day.
Ben: Ria agrees.
Ria: Do you really think your flimsy second amendment is going to be the ultimate defender against government tyranny? No, it's going to be your first, fourth, fifth and sixth amendment rights that are going to defend you from tyranny way more than the second amendment ever will.
Ben: Don’t get it twisted, though. At the end of the day, Dory says, antiwork does have an agenda — maybe not a political one, in the traditional sense. And, to be sure, even when there’s a corporate boogeyman to topple, it’s still not easy to get 1.7 million internet users to try to march in the same direction. In our own thread asking for personal stories from antiwork members, some were arguing that the movement needed an MLK-like leader.
Amory: Others felt the opposite. And some swore off talking to the press. But still others said that not talking to the press would result in antiwork never being properly understood or taken seriously.
B: And, even though we didn’t know it until two days before this episode dropped, that discussion would become prescient.
A: Very prescient. Because earlier this week — and several weeks after our interview — Dory did an interview with Fox News, and it did not go well.
[Fox News: Jesse Watters: And is there something you would like to do besides being a dog walker? Do you aspire to do anything more than dog walking or is that kind of your your pinnacle?
Doreen: I love working with dogs. If I had to do this for the rest of my life You know I wouldn’t be super complaining. Dogs are wonderful animals. But I would love to teach. I would love to—
Doreen: —work with people and stuff like that.
Watters: What would you teach, Doreen?
Doreen: Philosophy mostly.
Doreen: Critical thinking. Reason. Stuff like that.
Watters: Okay. Well I would love to take (LAUGHS) your class, Doreen.]
Amory: After the interview, the subreddit exploded into an argument over who exactly gets to represent the antiwork community and who doesn’t, and how those decisions are made.
B: Honestly, familiar challenges to any growing movement, right? But it got pretty messy. Dory and other moderators were arguing with users, the subreddit was made private for a number of hours, which made it impossible to view or join…
Amory: And then, it was public again. And Dory and Ria are no longer listed as moderators of the community. We reached out to them to see if they wanted to comment on what’s transpired over the past couple days. Ria confirmed that she and Dory are no longer moderators, but for “differing reasons.” Dory wrote back: “I don’t have any statement to give that would fix things or make them better.”
Ben: Groups of angry internet users can cause a lot of harm when they march in the same direction, too. So the antiwork movement on Reddit can be a powerful and dangerous force. Supporters would say that, if that means making sure a corporation mistreating workers has a very bad week, that’s a good kind of danger. Dory would like people to remember…
Doreen: We are a radical, anti-thought tearing leftist movement. We're not nonpolitical. We very much have concrete demands about capitalism and subverting it. We're not all anarchists and communists, necessarily. You know, there are Social Democrats and people from more liberal backgrounds and stuff like that. We're pretty big tent. But I think generally, you know, we're very anti-authoritarian at our core and really want to undermine capitalism as much as possible.
Amory: It’s hard to know how the recent blow-up in Reddit’s antiwork community will affect its trajectory from here. We reached out to the remaining moderators to get their thoughts on the circumstances behind Doreen and Ria’s departure. Their response?
“If the hundreds year long struggle for workers against toil and exploitation falls apart due to two people, then those two people are more powerful than all the kings, despots, and billionaires that have come before and now. The struggle continues and will continue.”
Ben: No matter what happens, we'll be watching and listening.
Elle: The Black Death helped end feudalism, and this pandemic has shifted the labor market and I hope it ends or wage slavery, and we are able to reclaim the time and some of the dignity that has been stolen. My personal dream is a post scarcity society, where people all over the world are allowed to pursue the work they find meaningful. There's enough suffering in this world naturally, and we need to end the self-imposed suffering under the system.