April 15 is annual Steal Something from Work Day. Today, whether we like it or not, millions of employees around the world are stealing from their employers in a desperate bid to slow the process that is steadily expanding the gap between those who labor and those who profit. (Yes, even on a Sunday.) That makes it a good day to reflect on workplace theft. If you are confused about why people steal from their employers, review the Steal Something from Work Day FAQ or our colleagues’ text, How to Justify Workplace Theft. On the other hand, if you simply want to savor a few pulpy stories about workers who set out to get even, we’ve got just the thing for you.
Mind you, we don’t endorse any of the following behavior. We’re not trying to persuade you to drop a banner or engage in some kind of illegal activity! What we’d like to see happen is for those who violently impose the prevailing system of property and profit on the rest of us to think better of what they’re doing and help us create a world in which stealing from work will be impossible because there are no such things as property, work, or theft. Change their hearts and minds! Failing that, we hope you’ll enjoy the following (surely fictitious!) tales of risk and reclamation.
For more resources and other such stories, consult past Steal Something from Work Day commemorations:
Steal Something from Work Day in Sweden
We received this anonymous video from somewhere in Sweden, where enterprising rebels celebrated Steal Something from Work Day 2018 a couple days early by promoting it to their fellow workers.
You can also read about Steal Something from Work Day in German and a variety of other languages.
Stealing from Work Is a Gamble, but It Can Be a Good Bet
In the repertoire of punk jobs there used to be a job known as poster tour. Many people who have spent a little time on college campuses can conjure a memory of this traveling spectacle. Picture it: a company orders absurd quantities of posters from overseas and sends forth its minions to market them to the gaping voids of personality that are the college students of America. The premise is that these first-year students, lost in the sea of their future, will desperately cling to any kind of material affirmation money can buy—to be specific, by adorning their dismally blank walls with beautiful portraits of the complex identities they’ve laboriously constructed throughout their lives.
By and large, the students’ poster selections involve a constellation of beer pong, action movies, bikini babes, the ever-present visage of Bob Marley, and some poem about Jesus.
The life skills needed for this job are similar to those required for other facets of the punk lifestyle, especially for anyone who has been on any other kind of tour. You wake up and eat a sorry excuse for a hotel breakfast, then get in a van and navigate to an unfamiliar destination; the host of the sale might meet you to introduce you to your venue (the requirements for the role of host do not include being available, being present, having any idea what’s going on, or being sober); you set up your poster sale, painstakingly facilitate access to it, and watch the clock until the event is over. Then you break down the sale, head to the cheapest motel the company could possibly find for you, fill out a bunch of paperwork, and cry yourself to sleep. Repeat this the next day, and the next, and the next—for six weeks.
The job attracted outliers from several sections of society. The largest faction, due to the connections of our subculture and the viral nature of our relationship to employment, was the punks. Besides us, there was a smattering of hippies, weirdos, a few wild cards (including some non-subcultural, seemingly successful people), and a healthy portion of Europeans. People from the last category were in a unique circumstance. Through shady outreach efforts and middlemen, they were promised gainful employment in the USA—at a price, of course. The company made sure that the workers’ profits were drained from what they owed to the company for securing their employment, as many companies do.
To top it off, we were tasked with selling the drivel of American culture. In rural Kansas, I watched as a dumbfounded Czech person was asked about the TV show Friends. Then the confused college student asked his companion, “Why are there Russians on campus?”
It goes without saying: the system was rigged. The company set projections of how much they expected you should sell; you wouldn’t get paid above a meager daily base rate unless you sold more than their projections. It was an easy way to motivate workers while making sure they could never get ahead. The workers were instilled with the desire to work harder in order to reach their projections and make more money via commission, while the company set the numbers high enough that the workers could rarely make a profit—yet in the company’s logic, the workers could only blame themselves for this failure.
It was obvious from the get-go that playing by their rules wouldn’t get us anywhere. We needed to create a new landscape if we wanted to take advantage of this opportunity that was taking advantage of us.
The first step is always to get organized. At orientation, we exchanged contacts, made friendships, and vetted each other for trust. Mixing fun and subversion, someone uploaded a bingo board to a blog and shared the login passcode with others. (This whole story precedes smart phones.) The idea was that this would help us to keep in touch and allow us to report our winnings.
The squares on the board included a fun mix of communal misery (crying yourself to sleep, an easy square to win), impossibilities (going a day without selling a Bob Marley poster, which was never achieved by any team), hijinx (selling cute monkey posters to really tough sports bros), and bad behavior (going skinny dipping, drunk dialing the boss, meeting with other poster teams on tour). The blog served as a break room for us to gripe about our working conditions, share tricks, and foster a work environment that would be increasingly hostile to our employers.
We showcased our commitment to slacking and time theft front and center. This was such a pillar of our work culture that there was no place for people who weren’t slacking and boasting about it. With the help of the blog, every day became a competition to see who could commit the most outlandish offense to the job. At the same time, the blog also helped us share information which enabled us to work out how much profit we were making for the company: with over 50 teams at work, we were making the company about a million dollars a week.
We tried to organize a strike. Unfortunately, in the end, the strike did not really come together and the team who was leading it decided just to quit. Quitting seemed like the best option—until we learned what happened when you quit: the company had all kinds of sly rules to ensure that you lost your earnings if you quit prematurely. Worse still, you might end up owing the company money afterwards! The team that quit ended up having to hitchhike out of the company office, as a final insult to the work they had done already.
This incident transformed our small-time scheming into war. We had already been telling each other how to pull the small scams we all depended on to stay afloat while working. The company gave us a small stipend for food, so we used our food stamps and pocketed the money. The company paid for hotels, so we would camp or stay with friends and pocket the money. The company allowed for a percentage of shrinkage, so we made sure that a percentage of posters “disappeared” and pocketed the money. Teams got creative: one bought a bunch of their own merchandise and sold it alongside the merchandise provided by the company. They weren’t found out until a college contacted the company to say that it was not OK for them to be selling “all this marijuana merchandise.”
The company noticed our sales weren’t meeting their projections, so they authorized us to have a 20% off sale. We charged full price and kept the extra 20%. When you’re in this mindset, the ball just keeps rolling.
In a Super 8 motel, I began to toy with a new idea. We dealt with lots of cash. How do you make more cash out of cash?
The answer hit me the next day as we drove by a riverboat casino: gambling.
Obviously, this was a bad idea. Countless movies, crime novels, and real-life disasters start this way. Still, we passionately hated the company, we shared an affirming and subversive worker culture, and we had already gotten away with a lot. The fact that it was a bad idea was what made it so appealing: workers at terrible jobs are always looking for something self-destructive to do that might just take the whole enterprise down with them.
There was one problem—I knew nothing about gambling. I sat in the motel for hours scribbling out math and probability problems, the way so many people have done in motels near casinos. The prudent gambler would have consulted proper sources via the internet or the library, as many people have written extensively on gambling tactics. But I was motivated and in my zone, and after a few days of neglecting the duties of the job, I had worked out my plan.
I won’t get into the mechanics of the plan; I wouldn’t want to bore the reader or showcase its obvious flaws. Let’s just say I came up with a strategy that felt safe as long as I would be working with a large amount of cash.
To play it safe, I did a test run with some of the money I had earned already. I was really nervous—taking risks with money is completely contrary to my character. I also hadn’t been to casinos, so it was terrifying to watch people lose hundreds and thousands of dollars in seconds. I watched a couple who had just gotten married earlier that day, still in their wedding attire, lose more money than I was slated to make all year in less than an hour. I wasn’t cut out for this.
Still, I persevered, comforting myself with the thought that if I lost my own money, I’d just take it from the company and figure out some way to get away with it. Sure enough, a nerve-wracking hour or so later, I had more than doubled my initial bet. Like many gambling strategies, it worked in the short term.
The next day just happened to be an anniversary dear to jingoistic patriots. It always feels appropriate to do something irreverent to capitalism and America on such a day. We went into the casino, a battlefield of flashing lights and singing machines desperately fighting to keep you feeling like a winner while draining all of the life and money out of you. I’d heard that when you’re gambling, it’s important to have a stopping point—a goal you set beforehand to keep yourself in check in case the desperation of losing or the elation of winning takes over. I won’t disclose the numbers, but with the pretty penny squeezed out of all those Bob Marley posters in my hand, I set out to make ten times the amount I walked in with.
In casinos, they don’t want you to stop gambling. They offer free drinks to gamblers, free food, members-only areas, concerts, shirts, stickers, and all sorts of other useless crap to assure you that you’re a winner in hopes that you’ll go on gambling until you’ve lost it all. I couldn’t fall victim to this nonsense; I had a scheme supported by math problems I did on napkins. It was mechanical, cold, exacting, and required the coolheaded rejection of any kind of victory-induced excitement that could tempt me to stray from my path.
Dealer after dealer watched me make the same tactical choices, unfazed by the results. While most gamblers would think about their next bets and take time to place them, I had already done my thinking and was simply executing a strategy. I didn’t take any of the free alcohol; I gave it to my tour buddy, who intelligently decided not to participate in my harebrained scheme. Like a rising flood, my winnings slowly grew while I watched other gamblers win and lose thousands of dollars around me. After a full day of what must be called work, I achieved my goal. I had taken company money and made tenfold what I put in.
I experienced none of the feelings I project to be associated with gambling—I felt no elation, no highs and lows, no sense that my good fortune would enable me to steal the wealth of the casino. I did a math problem and it worked long enough for me to quit while I was ahead. Having reached my self-prescribed goal, I was free to revel in all the benefits that the riverboat casino had to offer. We enjoyed all the free bowling we could handle, ate free hot dog after free hot dog, and danced with middle-aged day-drunk casino goers to a band of older men doing a cover of “What I Got” by Sublime (with several additional gratuitous saxophone solos).
The money I made came and went, as money does. But the feeling of getting yet another one over on the company that had engineered nothing but failure for its workers is something that I’ll carry with me forever. It reminds me that if I divert the energy and time that my bosses want me to invest in the job towards the more strategic goal of subverting my workplace, my fellow employees and I will come out ahead.
The Hard Stuff
On March 30, 2018, longtime anarchist and author Paul Z. Simons passed away. Paul was a determined rebel and illegalist; his writing is both lively and erudite. He published an article entitled “Take Things from Work” in Black Eye, a journal he helped edit some three decades ago. More recently, in “Illegalist Praxis: Notes on a Decade of Crime,” he outlined his own experiences stealing from work as a young person.
Bear in mind that Paul was writing about a different era, when surveillance cameras were less of a concern. But you’re not the sort of person who would consider doing what he’s describing, anyway, are you?
Before I begin, a disclaimer or two. First, I never knowingly physically harmed anyone. Second, most of my criminal activities were driven by survival, in some cases by desperation.
A quick philosophical footnote: money taken in crime is far sweeter than money earned. The fact that one relies on oneself, or a group, to outthink, outsmart, and outbrave some stupid boss and his security precautions turns ill-gotten gains into reward beyond compare. Plus, the hours, while short and nerve-wracking, are never boring.
Oddly, one of the best ways to begin a burglary is by getting a job in the store you plan to hit. In general, places that have loads of cash, that deal with deposits in a lazy fashion, and that trust you just enough to let you know that the burglary alarms are “just for show.” After a week or two of drudgery, you’re ready. The neighborhood is dead quiet at night, there are rear entrances that haven’t been used in years, and hopefully those entrances have windows. Timing is key and I recommend between 3 and 4 in the morning on a Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday. The cops are all changing out shifts, the security guards (if any) are drinking coffee somewhere trying to stay awake, and the neighbors are all tucked in their beds. Windows can be easily removed by breaking through the glass with a cloth wrapped hammer and steel bars can be separated using a tire jack. If the back is lit by floodlights, unscrew them. For windows placed high, use a car as a boost to reach them. A quick dash into the establishment—to exactly the place where you know the day’s cash receipts are hidden—and out. A peek in the rear view mirror to make sure you’re clean—and gone. Like it never happened. The rewards from burglaries can be surprising: in one short twenty minute stint I walked off with almost $5000. They can also be disheartening; one burglary took almost an hour and netted less than $300—but that was the exception.