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Ten Forward: Working Stiffs And Unions On Sci-Fi TV

With the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers walking out on talks with the Writers’ Guild of America, it appears that there is no end in sight to the strike of screenwriters. Most fans of genre television are just now starting to feel the effects of the disappearance of intelligent, scripted entertainment, and would […]

With the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers walking out on talks with the Writers’ Guild of America, it appears that there is no end in sight to the strike of screenwriters.

Most fans of genre television are just now starting to feel the effects of the disappearance of intelligent, scripted entertainment, and would love nothing better than to see this conflict end swiftly and justly. But as Joss Whedon recently said on Whedonesque, “It’s gonna get really rough for a lot of people, but the studios are not going to break our union.”

About three 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 started compiling a list of labor-oriented sci-fi/fantasy television episodes, with the hopes of coming up with a great list of 10 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 out of a desire 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 his fellow 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 (and elsewhere) know all too well. Just ask any TWA worker about how every move they make, and conversation they have, is monitored by management with surveillance devices.

This was going on way before the attacks on the World Trade Center, as a way to intimidate workers who were union activists – or merely disgruntled, or sick, or human.

In my search for genre union- and worker-oriented stories, I had to broaden my search to beyond the 10-year framework I usually try to stay in. I also had to include shows that simply portrayed the daily struggles of working people. Even still, 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.

So for now, I have a list of 10 episodes ranging from the 1960s to the present. As always, I welcome additions to the list from you! The list is in chronological order – Earth time.

1. “Star Trek” – 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 picks 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.

2. “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. Its 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,” its 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.

3. “Star Trek: The Next Generation” – The Measure of a Man (1989): Written by Melinda M. Snodgrass and directed by Robert Scheerer, this story isn’t quite a labor vs. management story, but it has at its core the question of the morality of creating a race of beings who are deemed as property and serve as slaves. Data receives orders from Starfleet to go with cyberneticist Cmdr. Bruce Maddox to have his memories downloaded into a computer and be submitted to disassembly for research. Data objects because Maddox does not have the knowledge or skill to safely disassemble him and reassemble him again. If something were to go wrong, Data would cease to exist.

The position of Maddox and Starfleet is that Data is a machine, not a sentient being, and therefore is the property of Starfleet. Picard persuades Starfleet to hold a hearing to determine Data’s status. After what appears to be a futile attempt to make a case for Data, Picard is ready to give up until Guinan points out that a ruling against Data having rights is tantamount to sanctioning slavery. Picard presents his defense by arguing that Data fulfills most of Maddox’s own criteria for the definition of sentience. Furthermore, he notes that creating a race of sentient beings who are legally considered property, or slaves, is an affront to the ideals and principles of the United Federation of Planets, adding that all beings are technically created, but that does not make them the property of their creators.

Re-watching this episode, much of the argument about the status of Data as a sentient being is similar to the arguments around whether or not adjunct college professors are competent or “real” academics and professionals, with the same needs and rights as any other human being. Having worked as an adjunct professor since 1985, I can tell you that it often does feel like slavery, especially when administrators refuse to treat us like viable, valuable human beings.

After working for one college for 19 years, I objected to a change in the way courses were being assigned to instructors. I was told that regardless of how long I worked there, I had no rights or say in how things are done, nor does 19 years of working there guarantee continued employment in the next semester. I half expect that one day, theyll order me to go to the main campus to be disassembled.

The theme of this episode was one that played out many times during the run of TNG. The sixth season episode, “The Quality of Life” expanded the consideration of what constitutes sentient life, when exocomps — devices that were created to make repairs to the starship and do things like diffuse weapons — exhibit behavior that appeared to be acts of self-preservation. The issue then became whether a self-aware machine had the right to make its own decisions about whether and how to handle life-threatening tasks. As human beings, we still often have to assert this right on our jobs, even when our bosses maintain that we dont have a choice in the matter.

4. “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, Cmdr. 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 :

5. “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 Quarks bar into a union and calls a strike.

One of my favorite scenes in this episode is when OBrien and Bashir bet on who will boycott Quarks 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 cant build a house without a foundation, and you cant 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 is now a producer on the series), and directed by Nick Marck, this also is an episode I show in my class (as a double-feature with “Office Space”). Anyone whos 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 dont have old ladies with penis monsters in their heads, Im willing to bet disgruntled workers in more than one of these places have been tempted to pull the “Soylent Green” routine. Dont eat it! Its people! It’s people!”

7. “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 “10 thousand” on the town full of mudders. Theyve 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 its full potential. Who knows where this series could have gone if it was still on the air?

8. “Angel” – Harms Way (2004): Written by Elizabeth Craft and Sarah Fain, and directed by Vern Gilliam, this episode was 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, shes 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, shell lose her job, or in her case, her head. Having myself worked as a secretary to a couple of bosses from hell, I got a kick out of this episode.

9. “Smallville” – Subterranean (2006): Written by Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, and directed by Rick Rosenthal. I never thought I would see an episode of “Smallville” actually take on an issue like the brutal treatment of undocumented workers (aka “illegal aliens”). Never, in all the years this series has been on, have I seen Clark be so heroic.

An illegal immigrant from the McNally farm seeks Clark’s help, because his friend has disappeared. Clark uncovers a morbid secret in the farmer’s cornfield, where workers, who try to escape, are essentially sucked into the ground and buried alive. The workers are mostly kids who were illegally brought into the country to work on the farm, which turns out to be a Luthorcorp property. Senator mom lectures Clark about his helping illegal immigrants, but Clark, for once, took the higher moral ground and chose to think of them as human beings first.

I found the scenes where Clark could see the bodies of the missing boys underground disturbing, because Ive worked on cases in real life where bodies of murdered migrant farm workers were found buried in unmarked graves on farm properties. They were most likely workers who demanded their pay from mercenary crew chiefs, or people killed by “coyotes” who demanded more money for smuggling them into the country than the immigrants could pay.

10. “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 fleets fuel refinery ship, overworked laborers are beginning to show the first signs of an organized revolt. President Roslins response is to have the foreman arrested. Adm. 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 Baltars 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 conveyer 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,” perhaps more than other science fiction series, has woven themes of class conflict and resistance of the underclasses to the dictates of the ruling class. From the actual rebellion of Cylons, who as self-aware beings decide they dont 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.

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 no longer suffer exploitation, low pay, too many hours, and dangerous working conditions? Or are we to surmise that in the fantasy future for AMPTP-executive types, unions simply don’t exist?

Some writers contend 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 always been a practice in the United States.

According to the book “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. Another tactic used by media organizations to denigrate unions is to use language in any coverage that makes unions look bad and management look good and reasonable. In a typical mainstream news report, unions “demand,” while management “proposes.”

Check out coverage of the Writers Guild of America strike in the mainstream media. If you are able to find it at all, you are likely to find a spin on it that makes the union look corrupt and greedy. Joss Whedon posted about this very issue at Whedonesque last month. In referring to an article in Entertainment Weekly, he said their reporter has “fallen into every clichéd journalistic trap the congloms have ever set.”

Some of the most prominent writers inspiring the fan movement to pressure media moguls to bargain in good faith, are science-fiction and fantasy writers. A campaign to send millions of unsharpened pencils to key AMPTP members has been forged out of collaboration between fans and writers such as Whedon, Ronald D. Moore, Espenson and Jaime Paglia. It will be interesting to see if, after the strike is over, more or fewer stories about union/management conflicts will crop up in sci-fi/ fantasy television.

Robin Brownfield is a staff writer with Airlock Alpha, writing out of New Jersey. Her Ten Forward column is available monthly in celebration of Airlock Alpha’s 10th anniversary, which takes place Aug. 13, 2008. Robin can be reached at rbrownfield@airlockalpha.com.

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