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Three Men Who Left Their Jobs in a Blaze of Glory

If you’re gonna go, go with style. These three legends share why they did it, how they did it and what they learned from it.

Does your job suck? Forty-nine percent of Americans think so. Many of us then dream of going out in a blaze of middle fingers and dropped mics, though few actually try it (still fewer go on to become icons). We talked to three guys who quit their jobs in ways that go far beyond telling your boss what he can do to himself, and learned not only how they pulled off their ballsy maneuvers, but what happened afterward.

James Renner, Akron, Ohio

I was a reporter working at both the Cleveland Scene and the Free Times for many years, writing mostly long-form journalism features about unsolved crimes and political corruption. The two papers merged, and while the new paper was still called Scene, it was run by a media conglomerate out of Scranton, Pennsylvania, called Times-Shamrock, which was a business run by two families.

The new generation was now running things — these were people who had no real-world common sense, rich kids who were handed a kingdom and had no idea how to run it, in my opinion. Essentially what these old-money conservatives did was buy the most liberal newspaper in Cleveland, and that was a recipe for disaster.

Around the fall of 2008, I was tipped off on a story about political corruption involving an Ohio gubernatorial candidate. We found evidence that he was buying hotel rooms and Ohio State football tickets for dates he had with a mistress. Generally, I don’t give a fuck about affairs, but Coughlin was one of those politicians who made morality a big part of his public image and often sent out campaign mailers to shame his opponents for similar actions. I interviewed his mistress’ roommate, who confirmed the affair, and a staffer of his who dropped them off at the hotel. We had it solid: The article was approved by my editor, our legal council and our publisher. But when it reached the desk of a Times-Shamrock exec, he spiked it.

It was mentioned that the candidate’s lawyer had threatened to sue if we published, and I was told that even though the story was true, the candidate could sue regardless and we couldn’t afford to defend the paper in court. I pointed out that this was a lousy way to run a social-justice newspaper whose mission is to afflict those who are abusing their positions of power.

I was angry. I had spent two months working on this article. It’s the type of story places like Scene live for. So I wrote a memo to my coworkers, like a Jerry Maguire type of thing, about how if we’d known what kind of company Times-Shamrock was, and if we’d known about their empty promises to us during the merger, we wouldn’t have done it, and we should work together to get them to change.

I was abruptly fired. There was a follow-up conference call between me and the CEO, with his lawyer listening in. The call was brief: I told him he could go fuck himself. He told me I was barred from the building.

I had about five minutes before security came. I took two things: The company handbook, which says we can never be fired for voicing our opinion, and my Rolodex, which had all my contacts in it. I always kept a copy of the story in my email, which I’d forwarded to my private email. As soon as I got home I emailed my article to everyone in my Rolodex. The story was distributed throughout the state house and reported by local media. By the end of the month, the candidate had withdrawn from the governor’s race.

On the one hand, I had left the most fun job I ever had, a job that gave me true joy and fulfillment. I was leaving my friends. But it was thrilling at the same time because I got to leave on my own terms for a story I believed in. Then I sued Times-Shamrock, and later, I came to an agreement with the company in federal court.

If I ever cross paths again with my old CEO, I should thank him. After he fired me, I spent the next two months finishing a novel I’d been chipping away at. That novel, The Man From Primrose Lane, was sold to a national publisher and later optioned as a movie for Bradley Cooper at Warner Bros. It’s currently being developed as a television series. I’m making a lot more money, and I’m happy to say Scene is now owned by decent people again — and I had the cover story recently.

What I learned about the whole thing was that at some point, you have to draw a line in the sand and say, “I won’t cross this line. I won’t lay down my credibility for corporate interests.”

What would I do differently? Not a Goddamn thing.

Chris Holmes, Sawston, England

I was working as an immigration officer at Stansted Airport in London. I was one of those miserable-looking people who check your passport when you arrive in the U.K. I hated it: It was a mixture of extreme boredom with a sprinkling of extreme stress and conflict. I couldn’t wait to leave.

I already had a side business making cakes. After school — and before entering the Civil Service — I worked as a chef for a few years, so I had a background in catering, and knew I enjoyed working with all kinds of food. I chose to base my new business around cake making because of the low startup costs and because it’s something you can do quite easily from home.

I’d already made the decision to resign. My birthday was about to take place, and I’d recently become a father, so it seemed like the right time. Then, an idea came to me in a dream: I had this idea to hand in my notice written on cake instead of paper. It just seemed like a fitting and fun thing to do.

I figured I’d make it out of a passion cake, that is, carrot cake with spices and cream cheese frosting. I thought it would be poignant for it to be passion cake, as I was leaving the job to do something I was passionate about! I had to plan out the writing carefully to make sure I could fit it all on, but the piping wasn’t too hard, just a matter of practice.

When I went into work to hand in my notice, by chance, it was my meanest/strictest boss who happened to be on duty, but even he took it well. It’s probably the only time I ever saw him smile! I put a photo of the cake on my personal Facebook page for my family to see, and my brother-in-law saw it and tweeted about it, where a friend saw it and put it on Reddit. I had no idea what they’d done or that it would go viral — I woke up the next morning with thousands of social media notifications and dozens of missed calls on my phone from international news agencies. It was crazy! It gave a great start to the business, even though I didn’t plan for it to happen. So in that respect, it was a great way to resign.

I took a pay cut when I left my old job and started making cakes full-time, but over time, I’ve learned ways to make the business work more efficiently and effectively for me, and to fit around my home life in the best way possible.

The most important thing I’ve learned is that you have the power to take charge of your life and change your situation completely. You should never believe that you’re trapped or that you have to do something you don’t enjoy or believe in.

Joey DeFrancesco, Providence, Rhode Island

I was working in room service at the Renaissance Providence Downtown Hotel. For three and a half years, I’d wake up at 4:30 a.m. to be at work by 5:30. Sometimes I’d get handed two shifts in a row and only get a few hours’ sleep. I had to work around unappreciative, entitled guests, clean up filthy things that guests would leave behind, and burn myself on Sterno cans. For all this, I was paid $5.50 an hour plus tips, although our supervisors would take 50 percent of our tips despite making twice our wages and not interacting with guests at all.

I was involved in a long-running fight at the hotel for employees to organize and form a union. When someone would get injured, they’d be sent to company-approved doctors who’d send them back to work before they’d recovered. They’d make an extremely pregnant woman open a restaurant early in the morning by herself, moving heavy tables. I think people’s personal qualms about our jobs are generally rooted in more systemic things happening at our workplaces — especially in these low-wage jobs in the service industry, there are all these structural things set up to make workers’ lives miserable and strip you of your power.

I was in this band at the time, a protest marching band called What Cheer? Brigade. We’d joked for years about having the band play at people’s important life events: Quitting a job, or coming out to your parents, to punctuate these big moments. My bosses at the hotel definitely wanted me to quit — which was part of the reason I didn’t want to just quit normally, because I didn’t want to give them that gift of getting rid of me. That’s one of the few things they can’t do: You can’t be fired for being pro-union. I’d already been thinking about quitting, but I’d had a particularly shitty day, and I’d been sick. The band was already together, and so it was kind of like, “Okay, why don’t we just go do this thing right now?”

My friend, who just happened to be there, had a nice camera and has done other video work. She decided to film it. It was supposed to be kind of a last little protest as I was leaving. We thought it’d be funny for some of my co-workers who were going to still be there, continuing this union fight. But then it became something bigger than that.

You can see it all in the YouTube video. We got my boss to come around the corner, because a woman who used to work there asked him to meet her in his office. She actually quit months before, but my boss was so oblivious he didn’t realize it. He’s such a perfect cartoon villain in the video: He’s what makes the video, because he’s just so instantly unlikeable.

I told him, “I quit” and dropped my resignation letter, the band starts playing, and we made our way out. It was nerve-wracking because it’s flipping that usual power dynamic you have with your boss, where you have to go in and do whatever they tell you to do. So sneaking in an entire band is obviously flipping that, and at least for a moment, taking all of the power in the situation. I was worried they were going to call the police, but afterward, we all went to a bar and laughed about it.

After it went viral, I was invited on 20/20, Access Hollywood and Good Morning America, all these mainstream news and talk shows. I was happy to talk about the video, but it was also this fun way to be able to talk about workers’ rights and the struggles of housekeepers on shows where these things don’t usually get talked about. So it was almost like a game to see how much I could fit in on these shows talking about real issues, while still making it sensational enough for them to pay attention to.

We released the video about three months after I quit. Luckily, I already had another job by then, which was at a museum where I still do some labor history programming. People at my new job definitely saw it at that point. Most of them thought it was funny, or were like, “Don’t do that here, please!” And I didn’t.

I’m still an activist. I work with an organization called Demand Progress that does all sorts of organizing, and I’m still politically involved in Rhode Island, where I live. I play music in another band, and the video comes up if we’re getting articles written up about us. So I still gain from it directly in the fields of social justice or music. I imagine if I was trying to apply for another service industry job it might be difficult, but so far I haven’t applied to another hotel job. Hopefully I can continue to stay out of the industry directly.

I’m not sure what the lesson is. What I tried to get out from the beginning is that the way we win better working conditions is by fighting back. Sometimes fighting back can be spectacular things like this video, but for the most part, it’s a long, hard fight that involves organizing. In the end, the workers at that hotel did eventually win and formed a union and improved their working conditions. Right now, workers at Marriotts around the country are on strike. These strikes can go on for months at a time, so to have that one big moment is a really fun, rare thing.

Most of all, sometimes you’ve just had enough and you’re kind of like, “Fuck it, this is worthwhile to do this.” If I’d thought too much about it, the video probably wouldn’t have come out as great as it did.