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EA: The Human Story [Nov. 10th, 2004|12:01 am]
ea_spouse
My significant other works for Electronic Arts, and I'm what you might call a disgruntled spouse.

EA's bright and shiny new corporate trademark is "Challenge Everything." Where this applies is not exactly clear. Churning out one licensed football game after another doesn't sound like challenging much of anything to me; it sounds like a money farm. To any EA executive that happens to read this, I have a good challenge for you: how about safe and sane labor practices for the people on whose backs you walk for your millions?

I am retaining some anonymity here because I have no illusions about what the consequences would be for my family if I was explicit. However, I also feel no impetus to shy away from sharing our story, because I know that it is too common to stick out among those of the thousands of engineers, artists, and designers that EA employs.

Our adventures with Electronic Arts began less than a year ago. The small game studio that my partner worked for collapsed as a result of foul play on the part of a big publisher -- another common story. Electronic Arts offered a job, the salary was right and the benefits were good, so my SO took it. I remember that they asked him in one of the interviews: "how do you feel about working long hours?" It's just a part of the game industry -- few studios can avoid a crunch as deadlines loom, so we thought nothing of it. When asked for specifics about what "working long hours" meant, the interviewers coughed and glossed on to the next question; now we know why.

Within weeks production had accelerated into a 'mild' crunch: eight hours six days a week. Not bad. Months remained until any real crunch would start, and the team was told that this "pre-crunch" was to prevent a big crunch toward the end; at this point any other need for a crunch seemed unlikely, as the project was dead on schedule. I don't know how many of the developers bought EA's explanation for the extended hours; we were new and naive so we did. The producers even set a deadline; they gave a specific date for the end of the crunch, which was still months away from the title's shipping date, so it seemed safe. That date came and went. And went, and went. When the next news came it was not about a reprieve; it was another acceleration: twelve hours six days a week, 9am to 10pm.

Weeks passed. Again the producers had given a termination date on this crunch that again they failed. Throughout this period the project remained on schedule. The long hours started to take its toll on the team; people grew irritable and some started to get ill. People dropped out in droves for a couple of days at a time, but then the team seemed to reach equilibrium again and they plowed ahead. The managers stopped even talking about a day when the hours would go back to normal.

Now, it seems, is the "real" crunch, the one that the producers of this title so wisely prepared their team for by running them into the ground ahead of time. The current mandatory hours are 9am to 10pm -- seven days a week -- with the occasional Saturday evening off for good behavior (at 6:30pm). This averages out to an eighty-five hour work week. Complaints that these once more extended hours combined with the team's existing fatigue would result in a greater number of mistakes made and an even greater amount of wasted energy were ignored.

The stress is taking its toll. After a certain number of hours spent working the eyes start to lose focus; after a certain number of weeks with only one day off fatigue starts to accrue and accumulate exponentially. There is a reason why there are two days in a weekend -- bad things happen to one's physical, emotional, and mental health if these days are cut short. The team is rapidly beginning to introduce as many flaws as they are removing.

And the kicker: for the honor of this treatment EA salaried employees receive a) no overtime; b) no compensation time! ('comp' time is the equalization of time off for overtime -- any hours spent during a crunch accrue into days off after the product has shipped); c) no additional sick or vacation leave. The time just goes away. Additionally, EA recently announced that, although in the past they have offered essentially a type of comp time in the form of a few weeks off at the end of a project, they no longer wish to do this, and employees shouldn't expect it. Further, since the production of various games is scattered, there was a concern on the part of the employees that developers would leave one crunch only to join another. EA's response was that they would attempt to minimize this, but would make no guarantees. This is unthinkable; they are pushing the team to individual physical health limits, and literally giving them nothing for it. Comp time is a staple in this industry, but EA as a corporation wishes to "minimize" this reprieve. One would think that the proper way to minimize comp time is to avoid crunch, but this brutal crunch has been on for months, and nary a whisper about any compensation leave, nor indeed of any end of this treatment.

This crunch also differs from crunch time in a smaller studio in that it was not an emergency effort to save a project from failure. Every step of the way, the project remained on schedule. Crunching neither accelerated this nor slowed it down; its effect on the actual product was not measurable. The extended hours were deliberate and planned; the management knew what they were doing as they did it. The love of my life comes home late at night complaining of a headache that will not go away and a chronically upset stomach, and my happy supportive smile is running out.

No one works in the game industry unless they love what they do. No one on that team is interested in producing an inferior product. My heart bleeds for this team precisely BECAUSE they are brilliant, talented individuals out to create something great. They are and were more than willing to work hard for the success of the title. But that good will has only been met with abuse. Amazingly, Electronic Arts was listed #91 on Fortune magazine's "100 Best Companies to Work For" in 2003.

EA's attitude toward this -- which is actually a part of company policy, it now appears -- has been (in an anonymous quotation that I've heard repeated by multiple managers), "If they don't like it, they can work someplace else." Put up or shut up and leave: this is the core of EA's Human Resources policy. The concept of ethics or compassion or even intelligence with regard to getting the most out of one's workforce never enters the equation: if they don't want to sacrifice their lives and their health and their talent so that a multibillion dollar corporation can continue its Godzilla-stomp through the game industry, they can work someplace else.

But can they?

The EA Mambo, paired with other giants such as Vivendi, Sony, and Microsoft, is rapidly either crushing or absorbing the vast majority of the business in game development. A few standalone studios that made their fortunes in previous eras -- Blizzard, Bioware, and Id come to mind -- manage to still survive, but 2004 saw the collapse of dozens of small game studios, no longer able to acquire contracts in the face of rapid and massive consolidation of game publishing companies. This is an epidemic hardly unfamiliar to anyone working in the industry. Though, of course, it is always the option of talent to go outside the industry, perhaps venturing into the booming commercial software development arena. (Read my tired attempt at sarcasm.)

To put some of this in perspective, I myself consider some figures. If EA truly believes that it needs to push its employees this hard -- I actually believe that they don't, and that it is a skewed operations perspective alone that results in the severity of their crunching, coupled with a certain expected amount of the inefficiency involved in running an enterprise as large as theirs -- the solution therefore should be to hire more engineers, or artists, or designers, as the case may be. Never should it be an option to punish one's workforce with ninety hour weeks; in any other industry the company in question would find itself sued out of business so fast its stock wouldn't even have time to tank. In its first weekend, Madden 2005 grossed $65 million. EA's annual revenue is approximately $2.5 billion. This company is not strapped for cash; their labor practices are inexcusable.

The interesting thing about this is an assumption that most of the employees seem to be operating under. Whenever the subject of hours come up, inevitably, it seems, someone mentions 'exemption'. They refer to a California law that supposedly exempts businesses from having to pay overtime to certain 'specialty' employees, including software programmers. This is Senate Bill 88. However, Senate Bill 88 specifically does not apply to the entertainment industry -- television, motion picture, and theater industries are specifically mentioned. Further, even in software, there is a pay minimum on the exemption: those exempt must be paid at least $90,000 annually. I can assure you that the majority of EA employees are in fact not in this pay bracket; ergo, these practices are not only unethical, they are illegal.

I look at our situation and I ask 'us': why do you stay? And the answer is that in all likelihood we won't; and in all likelihood if we had known that this would be the result of working for EA, we would have stayed far away in the first place. But all along the way there were deceptions, there were promises, there were assurances -- there was a big fancy office building with an expensive fish tank -- all of which in the end look like an elaborate scheme to keep a crop of employees on the project just long enough to get it shipped. And then if they need to, they hire in a new batch, fresh and ready to hear more promises that will not be kept; EA's turnover rate in engineering is approximately 50%. This is how EA works. So now we know, now we can move on, right? That seems to be what happens to everyone else. But it's not enough. Because in the end, regardless of what happens with our particular situation, this kind of "business" isn't right, and people need to know about it, which is why I write this today.

If I could get EA CEO Larry Probst on the phone, there are a few things I would ask him. "What's your salary?" would be merely a point of curiosity. The main thing I want to know is, Larry: you do realize what you're doing to your people, right? And you do realize that they ARE people, with physical limits, emotional lives, and families, right? Voices and talents and senses of humor and all that? That when you keep our husbands and wives and children in the office for ninety hours a week, sending them home exhausted and numb and frustrated with their lives, it's not just them you're hurting, but everyone around them, everyone who loves them? When you make your profit calculations and your cost analyses, you know that a great measure of that cost is being paid in raw human dignity, right?

Right?


===

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From: (Anonymous)
2004-12-02 08:42 pm (UTC)

This is why Unions were created!

Corporate America will not become more "worker friendly" if the workers do not force them to do it. At the turn of the century, people fought and died for the right to have an 8 hour workday and a six day workweek. Seriously - people died! So nothing is going to happen until the workers stop thinking of themselves as individuals and start thinking of themselves as a force - a workforce that has power of its own that must be used to better working conditions.

Forget the Overtime law - that is virtually gutted by the Bush Administration- what your husband needs to do - and do quickly - is band together with his other workers and form a strong, united union. It is not easy to do and it often results in months if not years of uncertainty but it is the only answer. California law does not limit work hours, but union contract CAN. It is the ONLY thing that can. The only thing that can prevent a company from making a virtual slave out of you is a union contract. And it is not just for blue collar workers anymore. Lawyers, nurses, professors and other professionals have done it, but only by setting aside their ego and embracing collective action. So, if this really means a lot to you and your husband, you'll start contacting unions and speaking to his co-workers and take back his right to have a life. If he doesn't they could be moving you to a company town in the near future.

Sorry if I came off like a ranting communist but I do feel bad for you and other workers like your husband, but somewhere along the road the American workers decided they didn't need unions anymore, and now they work 100 hour weeks. Maybe its time to revisit the issue. Best of luck.
(Reply) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-12-03 07:44 pm (UTC)

Re: This is why Unions were created!

Absolutely agree... This is very much along the lines of what I said in my long ass post (Ranndino).

I gave an example of my girlfriend's grandfather, a simple iron worker, who thanks to a strong union made a fortune. Her mother is a nurse (she's studying to become one as well). She was just telling me today that she got a look at her mom's paycheck the other day. $84,000 with a month to go!!! Working 36 hours a week! Her mother works 3 days a week, 12-hour night shifts. That was her choice because this way she gets 4 days completely off and they pay even more for night shifts.

So, let's summarize. With a month to go in the year she has made $84,000 working 3 nights a week and enjoying her 4 days off, every week. Anyone still think Unions are a bad idea?

(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-12-02 10:47 pm (UTC)

EA Work Ethic

I used to work at EA and started there when it was a different company, we got bonus for a job well done and comp time. I was there when they crossed over to a billion in sales. It was a glorious time but then things changes. The place became very management heavy, and the OT started to crank.
I was 40 years old and sleeping under my desk to final a game. Shortly after I quit I have never looked back, some call the org, the evil empire...at times thats not to far from the truth.
I am glad for the op and the credits, but I'm very glad to have my life back.

Many senior artists and programmers are leaving as we speak....
(Reply) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-12-03 03:49 am (UTC)

Re: EA Work Ethic

I am a senior artist looking to leave.


All true all true
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread) (Expand)
Re: EA Work Ethic - (Anonymous) Expand
[User Picture]From: master_mean
2004-12-03 12:17 am (UTC)
Wow..I never really liked EA, but now, they're up there with Nike as one of the most evil corporations out there. Thanks for telling me. It was a fool's dream to work at Bungie for a while.
(Reply) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-12-03 12:51 am (UTC)

Bungie isn't EA

Bungie is owned by Microsoft. Don't give up the dream!
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-12-03 12:55 am (UTC)

What has EA said about all this?

Curent EA employees,
have you heard anything official from your company? I can't imagine they don't know about these blogs and can't beleive they haven't tried to send an email or meetings explaining their position. I would be extremely upset if I worked there and after 2-3 weeks there hadn't been any explenation or viewpoint offered up by the senior staff/CEO's on how they want to correct some of these issues and truly make it "the number one people company". Do they want art unions, and programming unions?

spz
(Reply) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-12-03 02:56 am (UTC)

You can't rape the willing

Wow, I've never heard anything like this before - what the heck happened to the american spirit, creative thinking and inginuity? In reading through the comments to this article, I keep running across the same term 'White Collar Slavery', but this term is an oxymoron, an impossibility. You cannot be a slave unless you are being forced to work. An average salary for a programmer (according to salary.com for a level III programmer (videogame programmers aren't crappy)) in playa del rey (right next to ea) is 77k/year. You can get a car for $5000 instead of the new lexus, and probably get your total expenses down to 30k/year - a lot of families live on that, which leaves you w/ 40k/year. Take that, throw it in the bank, and you have at least six months to start your own company. If your entire team is doing this, they're all probably unhappy - odds are if they were a good team for EA, they'll be a good core for a small software dev company. The whole idea that 20 people can't start a game company is bull. Scaled composites put a _GUY_ _IN_ _SPACE_ with 25 people.

Have some pluck, have some balls, and quit, start your own company, change jobs, change fields, get your self fired so you get unemployment, do something. A friend of mine put it best: 'You can't rape the willing.' - if it's too much to bear: quit. If it's not, shut up and deal with it, you make a boatload of money, and there are plenty of other options. No one is MAKING you work at EA. No one is MAKING you work for ANYONE. This is america, dammit. If you can't find an employer to suit you, become your own damn employer.

Lollygaggers.
(Reply) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-12-07 05:20 pm (UTC)

$40K a year, in California?! Sweetie, you know nothing

IIRC, a lot of these companies operate in CA, where the price of living is SKY HIGH. That $77K doesn't go far at all here in sunny SoCal. If you want a house instead of a dinky apartment (and believe me, I'm paying $1,400 a month for a plain little two-bedroom in a dead-ordinary rundown suburb, I'm NOT talking Hollywood) you're completely fucked unless you make six digits. Which is why we're moving out of state soon. But if you're in the local game industry, there's nowhere to go. :/
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread) (Expand)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-12-03 05:17 am (UTC)

EA's SweatShop

Wow! I am a an artist who is starting to lose my chops because for years I've applied for jobs with these games and they refuse to even talk to me. So for me this seems like poetic justice. They will eventually get theirs, but you guys are going to have to create some kind of solidarity. You need a union.
(Reply) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-12-03 06:05 am (UTC)

RE: This is why Unions were created!

Why is that this board is so infested with socialist, marxist and other left-wing extremists hell bent on "unions" and "sticking it to the man." These repeated calls to arms by liberal extremists have really turned me away from what was initially a very noble cause. It simply confirms what I've suspected, that Unions are a hallmark of socialist theorists, neo-Marxist "economists" and other left wing extremists. I'm just waiting for the post from the "Dean Nation" calling all their left leaning brothers together. Unions have a very checkered past and it sickens that individuals are exploiting workers concerns to promote a political agenda.

Unions won't work in the video game business, and if it does, all be damned if it's carried under the banner of the left leaning hucksters that keep posting. Keep the political agendas at home, shut the fuck up, you're ruining the cause.

How typical to exploit real concerns to promote political agendas. Keep it the fuck away, concentrate on the issues and stop beating us over the head with "unionize" bullshit. It's not the 1940's. I don't want fucking "Red" teamsters slapping each other other the back. We're developers not Richard Gere sympathizers you pathetic fuck.
(Reply) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-12-03 09:33 am (UTC)

Re: This is why Unions were created!

Someones been listening to too much Rush Limbaugh.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-12-03 06:43 am (UTC)

Invitation to a party...

Sounds like a CEO and a gagle of managers need an invitation to an Iraqi beheading party.....I'll grab the bucket....
Maybe on a highway somewhere, a shot could go off. If it hits one, who's gonna give a sh*t????
(Reply) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-12-03 06:55 am (UTC)

Career change?

Hey, the military is hiring..... they'll be needing some fresh fodder for the new year..
They don't pay what the "game industry" does, but hey, you get to shoot people, right? Just think of them as former managers.... hell, why go to Iraq to do it... Do it NOW, while they don't expect it. I mean it. We've got to start assasinating these assholes. They don't deserve to be on our planet. Don't be a pussy, kill a manager for mom......
(Reply) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-12-03 07:06 am (UTC)

Unions???

The cops and firemen have unions.... airline pilots. Even doctors have 'em... Are they a bunch of commies... Well, ok, but they've still got unions, and make more than your average putz. Especially the quacks..
(Reply) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-12-03 07:29 am (UTC)

ha! tell your SO to try working as a tester for EA

if you think his experience was bad, try life as a tester.. EA calls it "Quality Assurance". i was a member of QA for over a year, and we suffered just as much, if not more. at least he was on salary and got benefits. we got squat, and had to work way longer hours than anybody in production. our crunch time never stopped. if you were in production, you usually worked on a particular title, like say NASCAR Thunder or Madden. when that gamed shipped, your job slowed down for a month or two, then production slowly ramped back up to crunch times again. if you worked in QA, you had a crunch time every other week, as tester work on multiple titles throughout the year, as it is common for EA to have one studio test, and one studio build. the studio i worked for, Tiburon, only had 3-4 official titles per season, but we tested for several other studios. so basically you could come off of the crunch of one title, only to be tossed directly into crunch time on another. you can argue that hourly paid employees get overtime, but that doesn't mean squat after taxes. we worked for $8 an hour, with time and a half for overtime. i remember a few 17 hour or more days,with plenty of days exceeding 10hours and when i got my check, the taxes ate most of it away... that and $20 games were all we got, oh and that great credit on a title if you managed to meet the requirements for being on that, which meant you had to work on the title for at least a month to even be listed... no benefits or company vacations for us.
QA is the real EA sweatshop.
the make you sign away your rights when you start working there, and give you the false idea that maybe if you kiss enough butt, you might be considered for some lowly production job, even though everyone i worked with had graduated from colleges with related degrees that should have put them in production, but the real truth is that if you work as a tester, you'll almost never make it to production, because if you're any good they just want to keep you there.
and god forbid you speak out against your superiors. that's a sure fire way to get canned. if you're not prepared to be a yesman that kisses your supervisors butt 24hrs a day, don't apply at EA.
they made us sign a paper that basically gave them the right to fire us whenever they want for whatever reason. this came after several of my friends slaved away for years as testers (which are all temporary employees except for the supervisors "leads"), to get that full time status, only to have that goal shattered by a piece of paper.
the turnover rate for testers is far higher than that of production. EA will say that that's because it's cheap labor and they have to, b/c testers are usually college students and are "seasonal". this is only true for about 10-15 percent of the QA staff, as everyone who manages to get past their 3 stage interview process wants to keep their job, especially after working 80 hour weeks.
(Reply) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-12-03 09:42 am (UTC)

Re: ha! tell your SO to try working as a tester for EA

Hmmm...on the games I have worked on for EA, dev has always been around long after test went home...and I have worked FAR more hours as a programmer than I ever did as a tester.

Since when does merely having any kind of degree mean you deserve to be "put" anywhere?

I'm not sure if you're aware of this, but EVERYONE pays taxes.

Seasonal or not...that's not the point. It's nearly completely unskilled labor. It doesn't require anything more than a high school diploma, no matter how many of your fellow testers had degrees.

The overtime sucks, but at least you got overtime for it. You found the workload and conditions sucked, you didn't like it, and you quit. I would recommend the same to anyone that feels that way.

If you really are a "struggling digital media artist" and you're any good, why bother getting a job as a tester at all? Why not just apply on your artistic merit?
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread) (Expand)
From: poe_diddley
2004-12-03 07:55 am (UTC)

QA is the real EA sweatshop

if you think his experience was bad, try life as a tester.. EA calls it "Quality Assurance". i was a member of QA for over a year, and we suffered just as much, if not more. at least he was on salary and got benefits. we got squat, and had to work way longer hours than anybody in production. our crunch time never stopped. if you were in production, you usually worked on a particular title, like say NASCAR Thunder or Madden. when that gamed shipped, your job slowed down for a month or two, then production slowly ramped back up to crunch times again. if you worked in QA, you had a crunch time every other week, as tester work on multiple titles throughout the year, as it is common for EA to have one studio test, and one studio build. the studio i worked for, Tiburon, only had 3-4 official titles per season, but we tested for several other studios. so basically you could come off of the crunch of one title, only to be tossed directly into crunch time on another. you can argue that hourly paid employees get overtime, but that doesn't mean squat after taxes. we worked for $8 an hour, with time and a half for overtime. i remember a few 17 hour or more days,with plenty of days exceeding 10hours and when i got my check, the taxes ate most of it away... that and $20 games were all we got, oh and that great credit on a title if you managed to meet the requirements for being on that, which meant you had to work on the title for at least a month to even be listed... no benefits or company vacations for us.
QA is the real EA sweatshop.
the make you sign away your rights when you start working there, and give you the false idea that maybe if you kiss enough butt, you might be considered for some lowly production job, even though everyone i worked with had graduated from colleges with related degrees that should have put them in production, but the real truth is that if you work as a tester, you'll almost never make it to production, because if you're any good they just want to keep you there.
and god forbid you speak out against your superiors. that's a sure fire way to get canned. if you're not prepared to be a yesman that kisses your supervisors butt 24hrs a day, don't apply at EA.
they made us sign a paper that basically gave them the right to fire us whenever they want for whatever reason. this came after several of my friends slaved away for years as testers (which are all temporary employees except for the supervisors "leads"), to get that full time status, only to have that goal shattered by a piece of paper.
the turnover rate for testers is far higher than that of production. EA will say that that's because it's cheap labor and they have to, b/c testers are usually college students and are "seasonal". this is only true for about 10-15 percent of the QA staff, as everyone who manages to get past their 3 stage interview process wants to keep their job, especially after working 80 hour weeks.
(Reply) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-12-03 09:30 am (UTC)

BUG REPORT

BUG: Post is posted twice. Posts should be posted only once.

-Tester
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread) (Expand)
Re: BUG REPORT - (Anonymous) Expand
NEED MORE INFO - (Anonymous) Expand
From: (Anonymous)
2004-12-03 11:32 am (UTC)

Spouse isnt the only one...

I totally understand what you are going through, I dated someone in the gaming business and he had to take on those same kinds of issues, Even me, who is in a differnt business completely have to deal with simmilar problems, except I get paid overtime, but thats only because the company went through lay-offs to prepare for more "money-wise" situations. So instead of having a decent amount of people getting no overtime, we have too little people who get to be overworked and with a minimal amount of overtime, yay! And because the corporation I work with is so large they send out newsletters from the high up CEOs and such, and the main company controller actually said that since we should expect to never see a decent raise ever again, and no company perks or bonuses or 'thank you's for the hard work employees put it (direct quote) "We should just be happy that we aren't unemployed"..... Yeah, what kind of person with five differnt houses go and tell people who actually have to go into the office seven days a week ten to twelve hour shifts that hey.... you could just not have a job. Now thats respect for making someone millions.
(Reply) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-12-03 04:20 pm (UTC)

How to stop this madness now...

Well, it's no use going to a place like 60 minutes or, especially cnbc... They get a bundle of advertising dollars from this place, and that lap dog surely won't bite a big hand that feeds it.
Time to understand that the u.s. gov isn't going to help either. Uncle Sam has changed, almost like one of the games they create, into our big brother. It's time for U S citizens to arm up and prepare for the coming police state. It won't be a long wait, I promise....
Good luck suckers, I'm shootin' my way out of here when I have to, until they get me.
(Reply) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-12-03 04:33 pm (UTC)

Quit now! not tomorrow!!!

Why do you losers stay there? I just don't get it. For the "prestige"? There is none, face it! You're losers, and should quit being pussies. Bitch slap your supervisors, and tell them all to go fuck themselves. It'll feel great when you look at yourself in the mirror the next time.
(Reply) (Thread)
From: chgowiz
2004-12-03 05:24 pm (UTC)

Re: Quit now! not tomorrow!!!

That's constructive. Have you had to pay a mortgage? Have you been unemployed for 6 months or longer? Have you watched your kids go hungry or struggle to pay the utilities while you slave away at some pissant job just to try and keep from going homeless?

Try living in reality.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread) (Expand)
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