Escaping Corporate Exploitation

My Journey from burnout to worker cooperatives

Escaping Corporate Exploitation
Photo by Mishal Ibrahim / Unsplash

It took me three years to learn that the corporate world is toxic and not fit for human happiness or consumption. I was 23 years old and fresh out of college with a Bachelor’s degree in Engineering. I applied for entry-level engineering positions around the country and finally got hired by a firm in New Mexico.

In August of 1994, I packed up my meager possessions and drove to Albuquerque. I started work in September and quickly learned that I had to work “overtime” for free every week. It was expected that all entry-level engineers (and managers) work at least 5 extra hours per week.

I never questioned why we did that. I never questioned why donating my precious time to a corporation was expected. I was a young naive kid, I had all the time in the world. Over that year I worked more than 5 extra hours a week and I didn’t blink an eye.

My work life began to change over the next three years. It was gradual initially, but then the owners started setting impossible deadlines and “mandatory overtime.” We were expected to “donate” more of our time and “cut our teeth” to prepare for the Professional Engineer exam.

A few of us started pulling “all-nighters” to meet these artificial deadlines. The older more experienced engineers framed it as a way to show your dedication to the team. To keep morale up, the owners would dangle biyearly bonuses for everyone. Your bonus would be based on how many extra hours you worked for the company.

I thought this was normal and didn’t blink an eye. I had nothing to compare my experience to because I never worked for an Engineering company before, I did what was expected of me.

Three years after I moved to the Land of Enchantment I was called into one of the three owners’ offices. He had a special project for me and since I was “light” with work (a false assessment) at the moment, I would be the project manager on this special project. It was the first time I was put in charge of the design and was responsible for the design of all elements and meeting a tight deadline.

That deadline? It was next Monday and today was Friday. They wanted me to design and complete an initial design submission to the client by Monday. I started to panic. I had Friday and the weekend to work on this project and get it done.

I felt like they dropped a Mount Everest expedition in my lap and told me to run up the mountain carrying Sherpas. I walked out of his office and into mine, shut the door, and got to work.

Over the course of the next 72 hours, I pulled together the initial submission. I slept two or three hours from that Friday meeting till Monday morning. I remember looking at design calculations and seeing the numbers, but they weren’t registering in my mind. I was so tired, and exhausted, I felt like I gave every ounce of my energy into a stack of 11"x17" stack of plans before me.

Then my supervisor came waltzing in at 6:30 AM, walked past my office door, and just muttered, “Is it done yet?”

Not a “Good morning, how’s it going?” or even a “You doing ok?” There was no caring, no empathy, no emotion in his words.

I leaned back in my chair when he said that and let his words hit me. I felt a sudden surge of adrenaline course through my body and anger well up inside me.

I wanted to throttle him.

I wanted to pulverize his face with my fist.

I wanted to burn down his office with a flamethrower.

I took a deep breath and calmed down. Then I collected my thoughts and wrote a note for a co-worker. I left instructions for him to forward to the printer while I went home to sleep.

It’s been over two decades since I lived in New Mexico and I have many wonderful and terrible memories from that time. My fondest and cherished memories are the ones I made with friends and exploring the deserts and canyons. The worst ones were all related to the working environment I was in. The stress and exploitation of my labor.

Over time I learned what tricks the owners and supervisors used to exploit us young engineers and the lies and carrots they dangled before us. The worst part is that we believed those lies, we grabbed for those carrots, not because we wanted to but because we were expected to.

This tacit expectation is what haunts me to this day. Why were conditioned to expect to be exploited in the first place? Where did this come from? Was it because I was a salaried employee? Was it because my entire college education prepared me for exploration in the guise of doing “great things for humanity?” Was it movies and books I read about how John Galt stopped the motor of the world?

Why was this expectation that we must allow ourselves to be exploited by the people who own and run a company? Why was exploitation inherent in the system?

I didn’t wake up to this question until many years later, after working in many more exploitative companies, but I still have no answer.

I have no answer as to why this expectation exists. Why we must prostrate ourselves to it, or better yet, why do we let them do it to us?

I get it, if you’re an owner of a company you must generate a profit to survive and keep growing. But isn’t profit theft? Isn’t profit a mere representation of someone’s exploitation?

After I moved back to New Jersey I decided to get a Masters in Business Administration (MBA). I was so bitter about what happened to me that I wanted to learn about how this exploitative system works and then take it down from the inside.

I learned that your coworkers are called “labor units” or “labor inputs,” not Frank from Belen with 3 children, or Sally from Denver who loves craft beer. No, people were interchangeable meat sacks that were needed to push the button of the machine and could be replaced if needed with cheaper alternatives.

Dehumanization and exploitation were built into the system from the foundation up. It is and remains a dangerously flawed system.

I graduated and went back to work at another Engineering company only to quit in 2014 and move into a different field altogether. It wasn’t until 2017 that I was presented with a possible solution to this problem — the worker cooperative.

A worker cooperative is just a bunch of people working together and splitting the income. They organize themselves and help lift each other out of poverty by leveraging their talents together. They each own a part of the business and the only shareholders they have is themselves.

There’s no single person or persons at the top telling them to work faster or else they get replaced. No company dangling the carrot of healthcare to get them to push the button. No exploitation and no expectation to donate precious time to an entity where they have no say in how it’s run.

While a worker cooperative might not work for everyone, it can work for most people if they’re aware of that option. Artisans, makers, designers, and builders might like this option better because it concentrates income into the hands of a few aligned people.

A friend of mine works in a high-tech IT design firm that’s a worker cooperative. I’ve known craft beer brewers that built worker cooperatives and brewed damn good beer. I’ve read a story of a group of baristas buying out their former employer’s Rhode Island coffee shop and running it themselves now.

People are waking up. People are realizing that there’s more to life than the expectation of exploitation for a paltry sum of money. People are reclaiming their power and realizing their worth. They realize that their labor, creativity, and skill are their true value, something immeasurable that’s not to be exploited by a narcissistic psychopathic Twit at the top.