Monday, September 27, 2021

Labour & Pop Culture: More Brooklyn 99

It looks like Brooklyn 99 will be using the Policeman’s Benevolent Association as a recurring antagonist in its final season. In Episode 3 (The Blue Flu), the uniformed officers fake an attack on an officer (mouse in a burrito) in order to pressure the NYPD to support the officers and buy them new tactical equipment. (These are likely reasonable demands from the perspective of the workers, but they are not explored and simply dismissed as self-interested.) When the NYPD won’t play along, the officers call in sick (i.e., strike illegally) and the main characters have to investigate and foil this job action.

Again, recognizing that writing a police comedy is tricky these days, there was a lot of interesting stuff packed into this show. First up, we don’t often see workers engaging in direct action on television. While the direct action is eventually contained by the employer, that the workers forced the employer to respond highlights how effective direct action can be. I’m not sure that was the intent of the writers, but it was an interesting facet of the show.

The sick out is basically treated as illegitimate. But one of the workers' demands was for new tactical gear (i.e., personal protective equipment), which you’d think the main characters might have some sympathy for. This suggests that there may be more to this work stoppage than worker laziness and manipulation (which is how it is presented).

The speed at which the main characters (who are generally written as moral, upstanding, and sometimes politically aware) jump to bust the patrol officers’ job action is quite striking. This again highlights how police officers sit in a conflicted position as workers. The main characters are workers but their job is to act against other workers on behalf of the powerful. That none of them (particularly Rosa, who left her job as a cop because of racist policing practices) were in any way discomforted by this was a missed opportunity.

To fill out the ranks while the patrol officers are out sick, detectives are dragooned from other precincts. The other precinct captains use this demand as an opportunity to take out the trash, dumping their least productive detectives on the 99th Precinct (my wife and I laughed aloud, having witnessed this exact play in government). This requires Amy to figure out how to covert these detectives’ capacity to work into actual work. She does this by offering an incentive program linked to pedometer metrics. The workers immediately subvert this effort, which is played for laughs and further amplifies the lazy worker trope.

The sick out is eventually brought to an end when the Captain tells the union rep that the strike has revealed that fewer patrol officers actually resulted in better policing. The threat here is that, if the patrol officers stay off, they won’t have jobs to return to when they come back. This is a classic management power move (threatening jobs to gain worker compliance). It has echoes of employers threatening to dump a product line, close a business, or automate a process if the workers don’t do management’s bidding.

While the police union has only appeared in two episodes, it seems that Brooklyn 99 is drawing upon the corrupt union (or union boss) trope to create a recurring antagonist for its final season. This makes sense given that the show is trying to highlight racist and violent policing, to which police unions have contributed, while also trying to be a comedy. To the degree that viewers don’t distinguish between this particular example and the behaviour of the broader labour movement, Brooklyn 99 is likely doing workers a disservice.

-- Bob Barnetson

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