I have a friend in a terrible situation at the moment, one that I've watched several friends and acquaintances go through over the past few years. Her company has stopped paying all of its employees. They were unable to meet the Feb. 1 or Feb. 15 payroll and, despite many promises and runarounds, there were no paychecks forthcoming on March 1 either. Being a practical person, I have advised her in the strongest possible terms to stop doing any work until paychecks are forthcoming. Yet she and the rest of the employees are still working. They're being threatened by their landlords and they don't have any groceries, but they're still working. Whenever I have a friend in this situation I am struck by the absurdity of the dilemma. How sad it is to realize that the American workforce is whipped enough to keep working even when it isn't getting paid. We have some misguided sense of obligation to our employers no matter how many times they reiterate how little obligation they feel toward us.
The contract between employee and employer, formal or otherwise, is simple: they pay us and we work. If we don't work they certainly aren't going to pay us. The inverse of that statement does not always hold, however. When one works for a smaller company, I understand that there is a stronger sense of, "Well if we all make a sacrifice now we can right the ship and then payroll will be back to normal. If we all quit, the company will definitely go under." That makes some sense. Up to a point. Inevitably, however, the reality of having bills to pay can no longer be ignored.
I would certainly like to think that I'm rational enough to refuse to work if I'm not being paid, but I've never been in a similar situation so I can't say with certainty how I'd react. If my friends are any indication I'd be showing up to work anyway, paycheck or no paycheck. How did we get like this? I mean, despite some aspects of this reaction being understandable, from a distance this looks like pure insanity. Battered Worker Syndrome at its finest. If our ancestors were brought here in a time machine and we tried to explain that sometimes Americans work without getting paid – either "off the clock" overtime or work in the complete absence of paychecks – they would return to their time convinced that people in the future are all insane.
Actually, not all of our ancestors. If we explained this to people from the late 19th/early 20th Centuries they could no doubt relate to it. This is precisely the kind of Gilded Era labor-capital relationship they would recognize. Thankfully that was followed by the Progressive Era and the growing recognition that, you know, human life and labor had some basic dignity worth recognizing and protecting. It took a long time, though, for that to sink it. It has taken almost as long – we're 31 years past the inauguration of St. Ronald – to beat that dignity back out of the workforce. If your employer stops paying you, show up to work anyway. Because your job is the most important thing in your life, and people who don't want to work (paycheck be damned!) are the lowest form of life. Leeches. Welfare queens. Bums. Criminals. The efforts at shaming the lazy, ungrateful American worker have succeeded so well that people are afraid to stop working even when their landlords are threatening eviction. The labor-management power imbalance is so severe that we don't even seem capable of standing up to our employers to say, "Uh, I'm not coming in tomorrow if I don't get paid."
That sounds like an eminently reasonable request, and in a reasonable world any employer would understand that the employees are not going to work (or be expected to work) without compensation. Here in the land of the unreasonable, we get pep talks about pitching in to help out The Team and guilt about failing to work regardless of the circumstances.
I don't know. I took a Friedmanesque approach here, basing this on anecdotal evidence from people I know. Maybe my friends are atypical and weird. I have the sneaking feeling, however, that this sort of "take one for the team" attitude (and expectation) is common given the general reverence with which The Bosses are treated in our society. That said, feel free to restore my faith in humanity by telling me I'm crazy and this doesn't really happen. Reassure me that American labor has enough backbone and common sense to stop working when the paychecks stop coming.