“Quiet Quitting”? “Work-to-Rule”? No. It’s Refusing to Be Exploited
“Quiet Quitting”? “Work-to-Rule”? No. It’s Refusing to Be Exploited
by Kathleen Perez
The phrase “quiet quitting” is being bandied about all the time these days. Union
leaders and unionized workers will say that it’s simply a new way of describing the traditional
union policy of “working to rule” – doing your job to the letter according to your collective
bargaining agreement (CBA), and nothing more. But there is another way to consider this
phenomenon. While the terms “quiet quitting” and “work to rule” seem to denigrate the
employees who are framed as “refusing to work hard” or “refusing to do a good job”, let’s take
the argument and call it what it really is – the refusal to be exploited. Exploitation occurs when
an entity or person treats someone unfairly for their own benefit, to the detriment of the
person being exploited. When teachers are subjected to unrealistic expectations, over-scrutiny
of even the most mundane tasks, robbed of their time to work while AT work, forced to give up
their own time to compensate for poor planning on the part of administration, and making up
for staffing shortages, all the while being expected to meet the impossible demands of their
actual jobs, they are being exploited. It is unreasonable to expect that the educational
landscape will change of its own accord – teachers have been being exploited since women
became most of the teaching force, after all – so, it is up to teachers themselves to step up and
stand up to the unfair and unhealthy expectations that have been forced on us by a system that
depends on our free labor and compliance to keep itself afloat. Teachers have been taken
advantage of on the job for so long that it had become normalized. Let’s examine, however,
how we and the educational system in general, would be better off if teachers refused to be
taken advantage of and began to collectively set boundaries between their work and their
When we choose to work to rule, and perform our jobs exactly as required, within our
workday limits, we protect ourselves and our colleagues. The first effect of everyone agreeing
to work to rule is that the establishment can no longer make use of the Good Teacher/Bad
Teacher dichotomy – where teachers who smile and accept all the extra unpaid work and
expectations are labeled “good teachers” and teachers who do not are labeled “bad teachers”.
If everyone is working to rule, this argument disappears. It is also much easier to hold the line
on teacher exploitation if everyone is unified in working to rule. One single person or group
cannot be singled out for retaliation if the entire school, with the leadership of the chapter
leader, is unified in holding the line and refusing to be taken advantage of. As we move into
contract negotiations, working-to-rule can put pressure on the City to come up with a fair
contract with fair pay, because it will highlight how valuable our work is to the smooth
functioning of the City. The City will NEVER be persuaded to pay us for our extra time or fully
fund our classrooms if they can get us to provide these things for free. Refusing to dip into our
personal time or money will clearly show the value of what we provide to children and families.
The only way we will ever be compensated for our time and effort is if we demand it, and if we
refuse to be exploited for our time and money to cover up for the lack of planning and
resources that are provided to NYC schools.
By working to rule, we become better teachers. This is not about avoiding work or
refusing to work hard – it’s about NOT avoiding life OUTSIDE of work. As teachers, we struggle
with this. Teaching is a big part of our identities and many of us struggle with turning our
“Teacher Mode” off. In a society that glorifies the idea of overwork and never being “off”, this
becomes even more difficult because of the social pressure to always be “working”. By working
to rule, we allow ourselves to begin to separate our genuine selves from our “work” selves,
which is likely to increase our mental health. When there are healthy boundaries between work
and home, work issues are no longer personal failures. We are no longer judged by how our
lessons went that day, or how we were unable to prevent the argument between students, or
how we are such terrible people because we were three minutes late picking up the class from
gym. Those issues remain in their place, and so does the guilt and insecurity that comes with
measuring our worth as a human being by how well our workday went. Working to rule can
also lead to better, more positive working relationships. If everyone is working withing the
boundaries, the sense of toxic competition dissipates. No one needs to keep track of who spent
the most money on their Pinterest-worthy classroom, who comes in the earliest or stays the
latest, who takes on after school activities for free, and so on, because it isn’t important
anymore. The cattiness and tit-for-tat pettiness of the workplace is relegated to the far corner
because there is no need to climb over each other to prove how much WE love the children
MORE than our colleagues, because it just doesn’t matter. It also robs administrators from
using the Good Teacher/Bad Teacher dichotomy to target and retaliate against those who are
not able to be coerced into working for free, because everyone is working to rule and only
completing tasks for which they are paid. This protects the staff, and significantly reduces the
level of toxicity in the working environment.
Finally, by working to rule, as an individual or as a staff, we standup for the value of
ourselves and our profession. We refuse to continue to be exploited. Exploitation of teachers
has been normalized to the point where it isn’t even noticed anymore. Mention how we are
faced with impossible tasks with ridiculous criteria, and we hear “Well, you knew what you
signed up for”, or “But you get summers off”, or “But think of the children”. And for too long,
we have internalized these ideas and accepted them. We have accepted being underpaid,
blamed for all of society’s ills, expected to take on more and more roles and responsibilities
while our time and autonomy is taken from us, and being increasingly micromanaged, We have
accepted being treated like the children that we care for daily and believed those who would
tell us that we deserve the micromanaging and excessive supervision because WE are somehow
at fault for all that is lacking in education. When we stand up and refuse to continue to be
exploited, stand up to the emotional blackmail of the “good teacher/bad teacher dichotomy,
and take back our personal lives and our personal time, we begin to reshape our jobs and our
lives for the better.
About the Author: Kathleen Perez is a member of the UFT Solidarity Council and heads our Fundraising Committee. She is a Reading Specialist in Queens, NY. A life-long unionist, she has supported numerous causes including Long Island Opt-Out and the UFT Elections in Spring 2022.
This was eloquently stated. It describes a situation that goes on all to frequently and needs to stop. It makes for an extremely toxic work environment.
I think a great point it makes is how the profession lacks the respect it deserves and how it was/is primarily a woman’s profession. I think the same when I think of nurses and what they go through. Other unions such as electrical, police etc seem to get better contracts.
Very important and pertinent information. In buisness they don’t tell people just do it for the company like they tell us just do it for the children. Teachers historically have been exploited and people are upset that we are trying to stop it. Our profession is no longer respected and this comes into play with why quiet quitting is so prevelent.
I have been abused for many years by going above and beyond. Now, I just work to the rule and nothing more and my mental health is finally starting to get better. I was killing myself before trying to please everyone. I will no longer do it as I am getting no respect from my school admins, from my union and from the large nycdoe
Two major impediments to the laudable objectives Kathy promotes here:
1) The utter absence of job protection and recourses for untenured teachers, who have effectively been relegated to the status of indentured servants subject entirely to the whims and will of often incompetent, unprepared, and abusive administrators, and
2) the utter absence of accountability of school principals to anyone other than their higher-ups, leaving all stakeholders mostly powerless to effect change.
Any progress in our own work conditions will be dependent on meaningful change in tjose and a variety of other areas.