Friday, November 25, 2016

Labour & Pop Culture: The Bar Association

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture focuses on the Star Trek: Deep Space 9 episode “The Bar Association”. 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.

The crux of the episode is that the workers in Quark’s Bar are treated poorly and decide to fight back by forming a union. The workers go on strike and, eventually, win slightly better pay in exchange for disbanding the union. The use of a strike as plot device is one of the two most common ways unions are represented in fiction of all genres.

There are some interesting bits in the episode. An early exchange between the space station’s doctor and the union organizer Rom highlights the conflicted class position of many workers, who are presently exploited while awaiting their own chance to join the ranks of capital.

The workers eventually decide to form a union. This is anathema to the hyper-capitalist society of the Ferengi and the workers fear repression by the state. Yet the workers decide to unionize anyways because they have nothing left to lose.

The dispute then spills over to the station personnel. The station commander (who is the state in this story) then has to intervene to maintain social stability.

The employer (Quark) then calls in some muscle from his employer buddies to terrify the workers, and one of the workers immediately caves to the pressure. The employer then threats the workers unless they get back to work.

In the end, the workers disband their union and the employer quietly meets their demands. From the perspective of mainstream trade unionism, this is likely viewed as a defeat (the union id dissolved). From the perspective of more radical trade unionists (e.g., the Wobblies), this is a success because (1) the workers concerns were addressed, (2) the workers earned an important lesson about solidarity and how to exercise power, and (3) employer learned an important lesson about the limits of his power (and thus is less likely to be a dick in the future).

Overall, this is a pretty typical representation of unions in sci-fi: the union emerges suddenly because of circumstances and then disappears (reinforcing the view that unions are not “normal” parts of society). In this episode, the state plays a neutral role (which is not the case in other examples) and, by protecting the rights of workers to strike, helps them exert pressure. The state also applies some pressure to the employer in order to encourage settlement.

-- Bob Barnetson

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