Bosses Hate This One Trick

Work-to-rule is not walking away from a fight, but a different way to fight.

In These Times Editors Terry Laban

Illustration by Terry Laban

work • to • rule

noun

1. a disruption of operations in which workers intentionally do the precise bare minimum — down to the rule”

Work-to-rule is not walking away from a fight, but a different way to fight.” — Labor activist Jerry Tucker

Is work-to-rule the same as quiet quitting”?

Yes and no. Quiet quitting entered the discourse this year as a successor to the Great Resignation, and both phrases respond to a deep anxiety that a strong labor market is actually allowing workers to — gasp — get paid more and refuse uncompensated work. 

But work-to-rule is a deliberate strategy unions have employed for decades to draw attention to grievances from protesting workers. Where strikes and walkouts can be risky (or unlawful), work-to-rule is theoretically unpunishable — because workers simply do exactly what they’re paid for.

+ How can I work-to-rule at my job?

Much like declaring bankruptcy, it doesn’t work if you just shout out your intentions.

It’s best undertaken as part of an organizing campaign to increase leverage against your boss. Are you expected to show up 20 minutes early to do unpaid prep? Your mornings are now for coffee and contemplation. Have unfinished work you usually take home? Get ready for an evening of Netflix and chill. Pesky paperwork getting you down? Start dotting your I’s and crossing your T’s.

+ Is it effective?

Like any job action, there’s no guarantee. But work-to-rule has been deployed successfully across industries throughout the decades, especially when traditional strikes aren’t an option.

In 1938, French railway workers barred from striking instead seized on a law requiring train engineers to consult crew members if there was any doubt about a bridge’s safety. Crew members began scrutinizing every bridge, incurring massive train delays and therefore gaining negotiating power.
In the 1980s, when United Auto Workers realized during contract negotiations that manufacturers were trying to provoke workers into striking — to permanently replace them with scabs — the union turned to work-to-rule, throwing production into chaos and winning a 36% wage bump over three years at one plant.

Teachers, including in Oakland, Calif., have repeatedly used work-to-rule to shine a light on the amount of unpaid labor required to keep schools running in an era of privatization and disinvestment.

There’s nothing wrong with setting better boundaries at work and maybe even making a TikTok about it. But if you really want to change your workplace (to paraphrase an old labor adage): Don’t quiet quit — organize.

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