Several years ago, I had developed a course at Rutgers University called “Labor in Popular Culture,” where we would watch a different labor-oriented movie or TV show each class, and delve into the history and issues represented in it. Among the movies we watched were some of my all-time favorite movies, such as “Cradle Will Rock,” “Matewan,” “Salt of the Earth,” and “Newsies.” I also made sure I included a couple of episodes of some of my favorite sci-fi/fantasy television series.
I had also started compiling a list of labor-oriented sci-fi/fantasy television episodes, with the hopes of coming up with a great list of ten for this column. The sad truth is that since the late 1940s, worker-management conflict is rarely addressed in the genre that was originally born as a literary device to incorporate social commentary into fiction. The first sci-fi movie, the 1928 silent German film, “Metropolis,” highlighted conflict between an intellectual elite and working class people. Kurt Vonnegut excelled at using a blend of sci-fi and satire to highlight the futility of life within the perpetual motion machine of capitalism. His novel “Hocus Pocus” was perhaps the most brilliant in equating academic work with prison (something I identify completely with). H.G. Wells, best known as a science fiction writer, also dealt with man’s exploitation of man, as did George Orwell. As much as his “1984” appeared to be a criticism of communism, it was also a criticism of the oppression of workers by an omnipresent power that too many workers in the United States, the UK, and elsewhere, know all too well.
In my search for genre union- and worker-oriented stories, I have included shows that have portrayed the daily struggles of working people, strikes and union activity, and stories with class struggle as the backdrop. Few shows ever really address the topic, instead either going for broader, less specific “man’s inhumanity to man” issues, or side-stepping the fact that no matter where we are in time and space, work pretty much sucks.
I have a list of ten episodes ranging from the 1960’s to the present. I welcome additions to the list from you! The list is in reverse chronological order – Earth time.
10. Star Trek: TOS – The Cloud Minders (1969). Written by David Gerrold, Oliver Crawford, and Margaret Armen, and directed by Jud Taylor, this episode portrayed a scenario that would have made Karl Marx proud. In order to save an inhabited planet from a botanical plague, the Enterprise goes pick up zenite, the mineral cure, on the only known planet where it is mined. When Kirk and Spock beam down, they are attacked by ‘troglites’ (troglodyte miners) but are rescued by high council adviser Plasus, who brings them to Stratos, the intellectual and artistic utopia, which literally floats in the sky. Stratos is under attack from ‘disruptors’, troglites waging a revolt. The troglites do all the hard work, toiling miserably in mines and dwell in caves on the barren surface of the planet. They want the same living conditions that the cloud dwellers enjoy. The cloud dwellers justify the inequities by arguing that troglites are intellectually inferior to them. Dr. McCoy discovers that the troglites are no different than the cloud dwellers in their genetic make-up, but are being adversely affected by exposure to the invisible gas emitted by the zenite – which dulls the mind, but is completely reversible once the workers are removed from exposure to the gas.
9. Doctor Who – The Sun Makers (1977). Written by Robert Holmes and directed by Pennant Roberts, the Tardis goes far into the future, to the non-planet Pluto. Pluto, heated by several miniature suns, is habitable; however, the heat is available only to the ruling classes. The working population is oppressed by the ruthless, bureaucratic, and omnipresent Company. When the Doctor and Leela arrive, they help to initiate a rebellion from the Undercity. It’s a lot like “The Cloud Minders” all over again, except funnier, and without the cheesy scenes with the blonde chick with the too-deep belly button.
In the long history of “Doctor Who,” it’s possible that there have been other stories that dealt with worker/management conflict in one way or another. One reader also told me about the time the show had to improvise to keep filming during a strike. During the filming of “The Monster of Peladon” in 1974, the crew had to film on location, and use whatever they could find as props. I watched the results, and remember seeing it on television when I was a teenager. It was one of my earliest exposures to “Doctor Who.” I thought it was so badly done, I never watched it again until the Christopher Eccleston version of The Doctor aired.
8. Babylon 5 – By Any Means Necessary (1994). Written by Kathryn M. Drennan, and directed by Jim Johnston, this first season episode finds the space station in the throes of a strike by dock workers. The strike was precipitated when a co-worker was killed in an accident with a cargo freighter. The strike is declared illegal by the Earth Senate, which invokes the “Rush Act”, a law that permits a commander to use any means necessary, including the use of force, to end a strike.
The negotiator sent by the Earth Senate to settle the strike offers only threats of retribution for the striking workers. Instead of using the military to end the strike as the Senate intended, Commander Sinclair finds a loophole in the orders that allows him to divert funds from the military budget (which had received extra funding when the dock workers did not) to upgrade the docks, as well as grant amnesty to all strikers. When the government negotiator protests that this move is not in the spirit of the Rush Act, Sinclair reminds him that the phrase “by any means necessary” in the law clearly allows him to give the strikers exactly what they want to resolve the situation.
If only real life was that simple…
7. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Bar Association (1996). Written by Barbara J. Lee, Jenifer A. Lee, Robert Hewitt Wolfe, and Ira Steven Behr, and directed by LeVar Burton. This is one I show in my class at Rutgers, partly to highlight the fact that Avery Brooks is on the faculty of the university, but mostly because it’s simply hilarious. Inspired by a suggestion by Dr. Bashir, Rom, who collapsed on the job after being forced to work while sick, organizes workers at Quark’s bar into a union and calls a strike. One of my favorite scenes in this episode is when O’Brien and Bashir bet on who will boycott Quark’s bar, and who will cross the picket line. They spot Worf entering the bar, which leads to bodies flying and bruises. And who can forget Rom, a Ferengi, quoting “The Communist Manifesto?” Brilliant!
The one criticism I have of this episode, though, is that no union would ever give up recognition of the union as the bargaining agent for workers, as happened in the agreement with Quark at the end. Recognition of the union is of the utmost importance – more important than pay raises, or paid sick days, or benefits. You can’t build a house without a foundation, and you can’t make gains for workers without an organized front.
6. Buffy the Vampire Slayer – Doublemeat Palace (2002). Written by Jane Espenson (who also co-wrote “Dirty Hands” for “Battlestar Galactica”), and directed by Nick Marck, this is also an episode I show in my class (as a double-feature with “Office Space”). Anyone who’s ever worked at a fast food restaurant knows this story! It’s the story of working at a smelly, degrading, dull, greasy, low-paid job where the hours seem endless, and the workers so alienated that they simply disappear and never return. Then there’s the ridiculous uniform, that makes worker Buffy feel “like a tool.” While most burger joints don’t have old ladies with penis monsters in their heads, I’m willing to bet disgruntled workers in more than one of these places have been tempted to pull the “Soylent Green” routine. “Don’t eat it! It’s people! It’s people!”
5. Firefly – Jaynestown (2003). Written by Ben Edlund and directed by Marita Grabiak, the ship visits a planet where a large oppressed working class rallies around the image of Jayne, the show’s least heroic character. The crew discovers that Jayne has become a folk hero to the downtrodden mudders, who even wrote a song in his honor. It seems some years back, during an escape from a heist where Jayne robbed the local magistrate, he accidentally dumped “ten thousand” on the town full of mudders. They’ve loved him ever since.
Firefly had at its core, the theme of class struggle. The greatest conflict in the series was that between the aristocratic Alliance and the Browncoats – mostly poorer, working class, and independent business people.
We even see a ‘verse where there is a highly esteemed guild of “companions.” prostitutes whose profession has been elevated to a venerated status. Prostitutes’ unions aren’t a product of fiction. There are prostitutes unions in the United States and Europe. They provide medical and other benefits to sex workers. Most of the members of these unions tend to be the highly-paid prostitutes who service the rich and famous. Some of them make six-figure incomes.
As nearly every discussion of this series concludes, this show was mercilessly ended before it had a chance to finish its first season. Even with the movie “Serenity” answering some of the unanswered questions from the series, “Firefly” never got to fulfill it’s full potential. Who knows where this series could have gone if it was still on the air?
4. Angel – Harm’s Way (2004) Written by Elizabeth Craft and Sarah Fain, and directed by Vern Gilliam, this episode is more in the vein of 9 to 5 or Office Space than Salt of the Earth. It presented a day in the life in a dead-end, thankless job for an underappreciated secretary. Yes, she’s an evil, bloodsucking fiend, but Harmony suffers the indignities and insecurities that many workers suffer. She is ignored and even treated like an idiot by her boss, is hated by co-workers who want her job, and fears that if she does the slightest thing wrong, she’ll lose her job, or in her case, her head. Having myself worked as a secretary to a couple of bosses from hell, I let out more than a few chuckles watching this episode.
3. Battlestar Galactica – Dirty Hands (2007). Written by Anne Cofell Saunders and Jane Espenson, and directed by Wayne Rose, this episode was the “Matewan” of science fiction. On the fleet’s fuel refinery ship, overworked laborers are beginning to show the first signs of an organized revolt. Roslin’s response is to have the foreman arrested. Adama sends Chief Tyrol to supervise refueling.
Bolstering the sedition on the refinery is a pamphlet written by Gaius Baltar. “My Triumphs and My Mistakes,” a criticism of the aristocratic ruling class, has the “knuckle draggers” muttering amongst each other about their place at the bottom of the hierarchy. People in the fleet start questioning the assignments people are handed based on where their planetary origins, as Baltar’s propaganda fuels some big questions over what people can do with their destinies.
Tyrol finds himself wondering if this is the case, noting that among the workers are children, and that the people doing all the hard labor have worked non-stop since the Cylons attacked. They are being overworked, denied days off to rest, and are working with sub par equipment. After witnessing a teenage worker getting seriously injured on the conveyor belt, Tyrol reinstitutes the union and calls strike – which gets him arrested. Adama visits Tyrol and tells him that the strike is mutiny and that mutineers will be shot, starting with his wife, Callie. Tyrol calls off the strike and is told he is going to meet with president Roslin.
In the meeting with Roslin, she addresses Tyrol as the leader of the union. Tyrol is unsure of why she does this after he was just locked up for striking. She explains that part of the problem is that the laborers have no voice and they need someone to listen to them and convey their needs. She saw Tyrol as the union rep, and was willing to negotiate terms and working conditions. Among the agreements was flexibility in promotions and assignments so people from the planets that were traditionally seen as sources of menial labor could have opportunities to pursue other jobs or professions.
Battlestar Galactica has woven themes of class conflict and resistance of the underclasses to the dictates of the ruling class throughout the series. From the actual rebellion of Cylons, who as self-aware beings decide they don’t want to be enslaved by humans, to the recurring saga of Tom Zarek leading resistance against the people in power in post-Cylon existence, to the union of workers on New Caprica being the basis for human resistance against the Cylons, the theme of class struggle, or the struggle between the haves and have-nots, is central to BSG mythology.
2. The Expanse, which is more of an examination of the issue of war as an act of dominance and imperialism, and the price paid by everyday people, especially the working class – represented by the miners in the asteroid belt of the fully colonized solar system. In the episode entitled “Back to the Butcher,” based on the book by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck (as James S.A. Corey) and written for TV by Dan Nowak, reveals how Outer Planets Alliance leader Fred Johnson earned the title “The Butcher of Anderson Station.” Eleven years prior to the main events of the series, Johnson, who had been a UN Marine colonel, led an assault on a station occupied by protesting miners, killing all despite their attempts at surrender.
1. Incorporated presents a world that exists after climate change has decimated most life on Earth, creating a chasm between the haves and have-nots that leaves a corporate elite upper class (the 1% or the bourgeoisie) that has all access to jobs, homes, fine food, water, clean air, health care, and a wide choice of entertainment, and an impoverished lower/under class without access to food, clean air or water, medical care, other than menial jobs, or homes. People in the lower class (the 99%, or the proletariat) die younger, from a myriad of ailments for which they cannot get medical care. They are starving, forced to serve the upper class, prostitute themselves, engage in dangerous activities for the entertainment of the wealthy, serve in the military, or engage in criminal activity from which a handful of kingpins profit.
The series also deals with issues such as corporate espionage, people climbing the corporate ladder by destroying the lives of co-workers, friends, and family, and the ever-pervasive and invasive surveillance state.
My one criticism of this series is that it makes it seem like all poor people have to engage in criminal behavior in order to survive. Hopefully, it will return with a more diverse and complex portrayal of folks, because they represent of most of us in real life!
The big question that looms over science fiction television as well as other genres, is “Why aren’t these kinds of stories told more often?” Is it because in the world of science fiction and fantasy, there is no need for unions? Have working people gotten to the point where they almost never suffer exploitation, low pay, too many work hours, and dangerous working conditions? Or are we to surmise that in the fantasy future unions simply don’t exist?
During the 2007-8 strike of the Writers Guild of America, writers contended that with many series, producers don’t want to risk conflict with the networks over the story content of these kinds of episodes, so they avoid them altogether. If this is the case, it wouldn’t be surprising. Manipulating public sentiment by limiting media or educational exposure to certain issues has certainly always been a practice here in the United States.
According to a book called “The Rising of the Women” by Ruth Milkman, in the movements demanding public schools so the children of working people could have safe place to go while their parents worked, schools were allowed to be established, but they had to make compromises with industry in order to be permitted to function. One of the compromises was to run schools to train students to be good, compliant factory workers. Among the conditions was the mandate that no history (or any other) class would teach students about unions, the labor movement, or other mass movements waged by ordinary people. Instead, history was to be taught as the history of the political and business leaders, and using the teaching methods that would assure the least retention (rote memorization of names and dates and wars, followed by “objective” testing).
In a book called “Inventing Reality,” author Michael Parenti lays out in detail how the ownership of the media controls what people watch. They promote both news and entertainment that advances their view of the world, and undercuts the understanding of unions by ignoring or omitting coverage of workers trying to organize, and union conflicts with business managers and owners.
In a time dominated by Clinton’s neo-liberalism, Trump’s fascism, Brexit, and the apathy, or downright disdain of the ruling class toward poor and working class people, there does seem to be movement toward more sci-fi series addressing working class issues. Time will tell if this is a trend or just a momentary blip in sci-fi TV series.
Robin Brownfield is a retired sociology and labor studies professor and union organizer.