That didn’t turn out the way I thought it would: on the power of walking away


These boots were made for walking, dig?

Maybe it’s just a coincidence that I was just talking with friends in person and over email about the job market this year, but you know what they say:  when the student is ready, the teacher will appear, right?  So just now I read Scott Rasmussen’s article called “The Ability to Walk Away is the Key to Empowerment:”

Politicians like to talk about empowering the middle class or other segments of the voting population, but they’re typically a little fuzzy on what empowerment really means. That makes sense when you consider that elections are essentially about politicians asking to get power rather than share it.

The truth is that we all have more power as consumers, volunteers, supporters and members than we do as voters. That’s because the key to empowerment is the ability to walk away.

Right on! Rock and roll!  Any specific examples come to mind?

That’s a lesson learned over the past half century by Major League Baseball. Up until the 1960s, baseball players were restricted by something known as the “reserve clause.” It was a contract provision that restricted a player to one team for life.

In those days, the minimum pay for a ballplayer was $6,000 a year. The average salary was under $20,000 a year.

Then, in the 1970s, a Supreme Court ruling gave players the chance to become free agents when their contract expired.

Today, the minimum salary is $490,000 a year with an average pay topping $3.2 million.

That change, from an average salary of under $20,000 a year to over $3.2 million, didn’t come about because the owners suddenly became generous and decided to share more revenue with the players. It came about because players won the right to walk away and force the owners to compete for their services.

Awesome!!!  Because this is an article I found at RealClearPolitics, I think Rasmussen is going to say, “Don’t let pols take you for granted.  Voters must walk away from pols who don’t represent your views or vote the way you want them to.”  But wait–here’s the big finish:

The same logic applies whether it’s shopping or looking for a job. We get the best prices not because some store owners are more generous than others. It’s because we have the power to walk away by taking our business elsewhere.

When it comes to shaping our community, we have that same power over charities and nonprofit groups. Whether it’s a food bank or a local theater group, their survival depends upon convincing us to give our time as volunteers, our support as members, and our cash as donors. If we don’t like their mission or don’t think they’re effective, we walk away.

So, the next time a politician talks about empowerment, ask the candidate how they are going to give you more power to walk away and make your own decisions. 

What???  Our big move is not to walk away from the pols, but to “ASK the candidate how they are going to GIVE [US] MORE POWER to walk away and make [our] own decisions?”  First of all, is that even possible?  Can we have more power to walk away and make our own decisions than we already have by the laws of nature and nature’s god?  Is that what Curt Flood did–he asked Bowie Kuhn nicely and politely to please, pretty please, give him more power?  No, he filed a $1M lawsuit (back in the days when $1M was real money) and compared the reserve clause to slavery, b!tches!  He sat out the 1970 season and effectively walked away from the rest of his baseball career.

I was fully prepared to love this article, because I’ve always been a big fan of the liberty to walk away.  Too few of us own it, when it would make our lives so much happier.  None of us are happy when we feel trapped in a bad job, a bad relationship, or a bad scene of any kind.  We announce our own weakness when we refuse to walk away, or even to imagine walking away or to admit the possibility of walking away.*  (As Curt Flood’s argument suggests, not walking away is also the best way to exercise your power to walk away.)  Sometimes owning your own power to walk away is enough–because it means that choosing to stay is an affirmative choice and not a fate.

This article ended on a weird capitulation.  Just stop reading after the penultimate sentence.  And yes, walk your votes away from pols who ignore you or take you for granted.  (Looks like this year I’ll be voting for Ruth Bader Ginsburg for a number of offices in Colorado.)

*As a service to my readers, I will re-print a portion of a rant I published last year with respect to adjunct labor and what they owe to universities who contract with them:

Adjunct faculty should tend to their own needs and interests, and to hell with your employers.  If the university you teach for has made you no commitment, then you owe it–and its students–precisely jack squat.  Please, please, please:  DO NOT MAKE THE MISTAKE OF DEMONSTRATING MORE LOYALTY TO AN INSTITUTION THAN IT DEMONSTRATES TO YOU.  Our employers looks after their own interests; that’s why most of us don’t have tenure-track jobs.

.       .       .       .       .

If you are an adjunct lecturer now, please put a time limit on the number of semesters you’re willing to work as an adjunct.  Seek out opportunities outside of academia, no matter if it’s February, May, September, or December.  If you have a Ph.D., it may not count for much in some lines of work outside of academia, but what it suggests to me is that you’re able and willing to learn and will be successful if you choose to work in another field.  You possess substantial intellectual and cultural capital compared to the vast majority of other job seekers.  Use it.

9 thoughts on “That didn’t turn out the way I thought it would: on the power of walking away

  1. Ugh! I thought the popular empowerment slogan was “we can do it,” not “I can do it.” That linked article is unreasoned, elitist(ish) drivel.

    There was a deep global history of industrial action long before baseball players ever came along. Why choose rarefied high wage earners as the example? (Actually, I think I know the answer to that.)

    I’m immediately skeptical of any comparison with consumer activities (students are customers, etc.) but in any case, we don’t get the “best” prices. We get prices that are tilted by subsidies, offshoring, and low-wage labor*. Sometimes at the point of purchase we get genuine “loss leaders” but they exist to entice us in so we can pay inflated prices for other goods. And depending on our income and neighbourhood environment, there may be no alternative toward which we can walk.

    In the end, the article is about relatively well-off individuals making individual choices. Walking away as an individual can be excellent (or it can be ruinous), but it has next to no power in the context of the body politic. I suppose writing about the real power of collective action using collective examples would not fit the capitalist narrative.

    When I resigned my tenure (as a full professor) and left my former university, nothing there changed. I just got the heck out and left everybody else behind. Yay me.

    I’m happy to have left and happy to be where I am now–but I’m under no delusion about what I did. It was a survival tactic, not an action intended to make anything outside my own experience better.

    * In the US anyway–we pay more for food here in my new imperial outpost and in exchange, farm and food workers come closer to earning a family wage.


  2. Asking a politician how they’re going to “give you the power to walk away” would probably lead to a lot of “sound of one hand clapping” panicked empty stares.

    I’m not remembering all the details of the Flood case, but it wasn’t a Supreme Court decision that enabled free agency in baseball. The Warren Court, with that other guy from Minnesota writing a wacky fan’s decision for the majority, ruled against Flood. It was an arbitrator in c. 1974, deciding a grievance pursuant to a clause in the collective bargaining agreement that the owners obviously hadn’t thought through clearly enough, that freed a guy by the name of Andy Messerschmidt to walk down the street like any guy in a factory and get another job. The decision may well have been upheld by the courts, probably including a Supreme Court decision not to hear an appeal.

    The interesting thing about the Flood case was the degree that it wasn’t even about money, it was about the more fundamental question of the ability to decide where you want to live and work. He was a very good outfielder in St. Louis and was thought of as a “model citizen” in ways that even liberal journalists of the late 1960s wouldn’t have been embarrassed to employ rhetoric about his being “a credit to his race.” He was traded to Philadelphia for a spectacularly skilled infielder named Richie (now Dick) Allen who was viewed, again in the vocabulary of the day, as something of a “militant.” Flood was aware of how badly Allen had been treated by a largely white working class Philadelphia fan community and decided he would rather stay in St. Louis. How it would have worked out salary-wise never became clear, but the owners were not about to allow any reserve-claused “hands” to set their own terms and conditions of employment. Flood lost the case, which in effect was about his right not to be *sent* away, and a later generation of players benefited mostly in economic terms. Occasionally, though, individuals take less money to go or stay where they will, or to privilege other preferences.
    Just the way, say, academics sometimes do.

    Of the reserve clause, a general manager in Philadelphia, working for a branch of the DuPont clan, in about 1960 called in his team’s best player and said something like: “you had a great year last year, which is why I’m only going to cut your salaray $4,000 for the coming season. Here, sign this…”


  3. Whoops, sorry. I didn’t even click on the link above, which contains a lot of the same information about the Flood case that I thoughtlessly added.


  4. Just wanted to put in a plug for A.O. Hirschmann’s _Exit, Voice, and Loyalty_ here. He describes the way that conventional economic models overestimate the power and effectiveness of “exit” (not buying, emigrating, what have you). “Voice” (basically, complaining, or, at a larger scale, politics) is important to the successful functioning of institutions and to the creation of loyalty which is actually valuable in the kinds of human communities anybody would want to live in (vs. the values of “freedom” we hear so much about in capitalism).

    Adjuncts are right to complain and use politics as much as they can. If they just took the “exit” route quietly and humbly, things would just go downhill quicker in academia than they currently are.


  5. I don’t think leaving changes anything about the institution one leaves. That’s not the power in the leaving. The power in leaving is that one can change one’s own life, which ultimately is really the only power we have.

    Agitating and protesting is good, but unless and until more adjuncts are willing to walk away, they will continue to be exploited. Universities know that there is always a new crop to be harvested–after all, they’re the ones credentialing them in the first place.


  6. I guess I think that in walking away I was exercising my privilege, not my power.

    Workers do have collective power if they choose (and have the legal ability) to exercise it. There isn’t actually a new crop of faculty who can show up on the first day of classes when everybody has just walked out. The threat to gum up the financial works in that way is massively powerful–if you mean it and are ready to go out together.

    It’s the together part that I think academics fall down on. We are praised for being successful individuals and university administrative structures reinforce our understanding our ourselves as great individuals–our work products are tabulated, ranked, and reviewed all the time. We are raised up to have strong disciplinary identity, and that can also be used to divide us. Universities pit disciplines against each other–through departmental performance metrics (butts on seats, number of graduate students) and salary structures (engineering proffies make more, humanities make less). We are supposed to be the smart ones but we are sure easy to manipulate.

    I went through more than one contentious contract negotiation at my former uni. The humanities tended to be epicentres of solidarity while engineering and some sciences were not. Engineers would say “my salary is not so bad, why should I go out on strike for an adjunct English teacher?” Ugh.


  7. We are supposed to be the smart ones but we are sure easy to manipulate. Word!

    I think you’re right that humanities-types tend to have a somewhat less individualistic view of their workplaces, perhaps because of some of their ideological views/commitments. However, most of us still see ourselves as Exceptional Individuals, that’s for sure.

    I saw a similar divide between ag. scientists and the humanities when I was circulating a petition a decade ago regarding the qualifications for the new president of my university. The humanities department members mostly signed, but the ag. scientists didn’t. (In fact, in some departments, the faculty council rep. refused even to circulate our petition, which I thought was especially crappy. I guess they as individuals decided they didn’t support us, so why give any colleague of theirs the opportunity to decide for themselves?)


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