Friday, January 13, 2017

Labour & Pop Culture: Dirty Hands

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is the Battlestar Galactica episode “Dirty Hands”. I recently coauthored a paper on the absence of unions in science fiction with Mark McCutcheon and this was one of the few examples we found of unions in the (huge) canon of SF. I never really watched the new BSG (I prefer my Cylons robotic and my flight suits corduroy—see right) but this was a good episode.

The crux of the plot is declining fuel quality and quantity endanger the fleet’s ability to evade the Cylons. Responding to Dickensian working conditions aboard the fleet’s refinery ship, the refinery workers sabotage its operation by hiding crucial parts, a tactic thwarted via imprisonment and psychological torture. A replacement director of the refinery is converted to the worker’s cause and calls a general strike, which is averted first by threats of killing supporters and then by accommodation of some of the workers’ demands by the authorities.

In this episode, we see fleet Admiral Adama use the coercive powers of the state—including imprisonment, threats, and torture—to contain illegal strike action. Yet, having achieved his goal, Adama then sees the need for a political solution, wherein workers’ consent to their conditions of work is necessary to maintain long–term stability.

This portrayals of state activity may reflect the pluralist view of labour relations (i.e., workers and employers have legitimately conflicting interests and the state referees to preserve social stability) or the radical (i.e., the state colludes—or is one and the same as—with the employer to contain worker dissatisfaction).

This radical interpretation of “Dirty Hands” might be preferable given that the union’s leader, after abandoning a strike and securing minor improvements in working conditions, is wined and dined by the president in her luxurious cabin. This scene implies that the union leadership has been coopted by the political elite.

It is notable that the episode uses a strike as a plot device: strikes and corrupt union officials are pretty much the only two instances where unions are mentioned in contemporary books, TV series, or movies. I couldn’t find any related video of “Dirty Hands” so, instead, I leave you with the opening sequence from the 1978 Battlestar Galactica television series.

-- Bob Barnetson

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