Tuesday 18 December 2018

Imagining the future of organized labour (part one of three)

List of unions.
This is the first of a three-part blog post about the historical invisibility of organized labour in science fiction. The second postwas published in mid-February explores recent works that address this notable absence. A third blog post examines labour unions in science fiction TV and movies. These articles could not have been completed without the help of science fiction historian Alec Nevala-Lee and labour researchers Mark McCutcheon and Bob Barnetson
Science fictional narratives are filled with depictions of employment.

Whether it’s Gaal Dornick taking a job with the mathematics department at the University of Trantor, or Robinette Broadhead leaving his job in the protein mines to pursue an opportunity with the Gateway corporation, the genre is rife with examples of standard capitalist employment relationships.

Often given less focus, however, are the rights of those workers, and the means by which those rights are asserted. When it comes to employment, the majority of science fiction offers either utopian visions in which everyone has a share in societal prosperity, or dystopian nightmares in which the elites have all the power and workers are crushed underfoot.

For example, neither Star Trek nor Babylon 5 ever explore the reason why productivity gains of new
The character Robocop crosses a picket
line to appease the corporate masters
of a privatized police department.
In the labour movement, he would be
called a 'scab.'
(Image via DenOfGeek.com)
technologies have not been concentrated into the wealth of an ultra-elite. Conversely, neither Altered Carbon nor Neuromancer offer explanations for why the working class has failed to organize solidarity-driven or democratic responses to societal problems.

Few of us have memories of the might of the North American union movement in the 1940s and 1950s. It was this movement that accorded workers stability and living wages that increased on par with productivity gains. It is probably this era of increasing income equality that made expansive utopian imaginings without explanation seem plausible.

In 1951, famed science fiction editor John W. Campbell wrote to H. Beam Piper, one of his regular writers, asking the author to tone down anti-union language in the story Day Of The Moron. He did so not because he supported the labour movement, but because he was afraid of offending members of the printers’ union that his magazine, Astounding, relied upon.

At their peak in 1954, unions represented almost a third of workers in the United States, and it was easy to take their existence — and their action as a counterbalance to the power of capital — for granted. Even employees in non-union workplaces enjoyed gains because employers had to keep up with union shops to retain and recruit labour.

But despite their prevalence in society, labour unions were largely absent from science fictional narratives during the Golden Age, and their few portrayals in the genre are usually either comedic or antagonistic.

As labour activist and science fiction author Eric Flint pointed out at WorldCon76, the major
At Worldcon 76 in San Jose, Eric Flint,
Patrick Nielsen Hayden and Cory
Doctorow discussed the dearth of
labour unions in science fiction.
(Photo by Kateryna Barnes)
contributors to the development of science fiction — from the dawn of the Golden Age of Science Fiction through this era of union organizing and stability — were largely drawn from academic circles or the upper middle class. Despite working for a living, these authors and editors did not see themselves as part of the proletariat, and thus based their narratives on assumptions that their privileged working relationships allowed them to hold.

Arthur C. Clarke’s scientist and astronaut heroes exist in a rarefied academic bubble that’s divorced from more typical job markets. Even when tackling a worker’s revolution in The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, Heinlein defined the conflict in terms of nationalism rather than solidarity. Ray Bradbury seems to be largely unaware of conflicts about labour conditions. And the Amalgamated Union in Alfred Bester’s classic The Demolished Man is largely a force for ill due to corrupt leadership.

Of all the big-name authors of the Golden Age of Science Fiction, special notice should be given to Isaac Asimov’s troubled relationship to organized labour. Despite the fact that Asimov came from a working-class background, his portrayals of workers is often problematic and condescending - In Caves of Steel (1954), workers who are displaced by robots are shown to be semi-literate at best, using pidgin like “‘Maybe it’s time the gov’min’ reelized robots ain’t the only things on Earth.”

If his portrayal of individual labourers is dismissive, his depiction of organized labour is actively hostile: In Robbie (1940), the labour movement forms an unholy alliance with religious fanatics to oppose progress in the form of robots; in the Foundation saga, nepotistic labour guilds are in part responsible for the collapse of the Empire; and to make his antipathy more obvious, he wrote the story Strikebreaker (1957), in which the heroic lead character forces a worker to accept employer demands.
A hero to many left-wing science
fiction fans, Isaac Asimov had feet
of clay on some subjects, including
workers' rights.
(Image by Rowena Morrill) 

It is disappointing to note that Asimov, member of the Futurians and an author often perceived as a progressive voice, might have had such a significant blind spot.

Even one of the most labour relations aware works of that era, Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth’s comedic novel The Space Merchants, is far from a paragon. The novel introduces us to the United Slime-Mold Protein Workers of Panamerica, a union that both exploits its membership through unfair fees, and is unable to stand up against the corporation’s might.

The progressive New Wave of science fiction of the late 1960s may have addressed the genre’s blind spots around race and gender, but when the subjects of class and labour were examined, it was usually with a sense of despair. This viewpoint is understandable in the context of the times: after declining for most of the previous four decades, American inequality was on the rise; trust in liberal democratic political institutions was being undermined; and the worst aspects of hierarchical business unions were on full display through such figures as Jimmy Hoffa and Carlo Gambino.

Those few representations of labour-rights organizations are presented with either antipathy or comedic disdain. When Douglas Adams introduces the Amalgamated Union of Philosophers, Sages, Luminaries and Other Professional Thinking Persons in Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, the union’s representatives Vroomfondel and Majikthise are actively fighting against knowledge and research. Arnie Kott, the antagonist in Philip K. Dick’s Martian Time-Slip, is a broad caricature of a union leader and is presented as bigoted, corrupt, egotistical, and thin-skinned.

One notable exception to this anti-union sentiment was found in Larry Niven's 1966 short story A Relic Of Empire, in which unions are described as a necessity

Depictions of workers rights and the struggle to defend those rights are few and far between by the
Has anyone from the Occupational
Health and Safety department
completed an ergonomic assessment
 of this power armor?
(Image via TheVerge
late 1970s and 1980s. Employees of the Weyland-Yutani corporation in Alien have little-to-no recourse when it comes to their right to refuse unsafe work. Neoliberal assumptions around employer-employee relations are reflected in more and more depictions of independent contractors in the genre. Johnny Mnemonic is a precarious worker, as are most denizens of the sprawl.

It could be argued that the cyberpunk subgenre is the apotheosis of despair over the state of workers’ rights. In The Diamond Age, the thete (lower-class) citizens have absolutely no rights, let alone employment rights, while workers like Molly in Neuromancer are even stripped of their right to remember the tasks they perform.

In these corporatist dystopias, workers are either unwilling or unable to organize in opposition to these measures, and what few escapes from serfdom exist are accomplished through heroic personal narratives. This view of the struggle for workers’ rights can be seen again in Neil Bloekamp’s 2013 box-office dud Elysium, in which a disenfranchised worker fights an unfair system, but does so on his own through violent action, rather than by organizing his workplace.

Interestingly, even in Ursula LeGuin’s exploration of anarcho-syndicalism The Dispossessed, workers rights are defended in neither the capitalist society of Anarres, nor on the anarchic world of Urras. On the latter world, the protagonist is forced into manual labour due to societal strictures, while on the former he’s part of a labour protest that’s violently put down. In neither world do we see an example of an effective labour movement.

As Mark A. McCutcheon and Bob Barnetson argue in their 2016 paper Resistance is Futile: On The
(Image via BBC.com)
Under-Representation of Unions in Science Fiction
, “The paucity of realistic representations of unions in SF thus has political implications: it reinforces the absence of alternatives to ... neoliberal capitalism.” This observation is mirrored by Margaret Thatcher’s famous slogan, “There Is No Alternative.”

The rigid adherence to one paradigm might be understandable in memetic (non-genre) fiction that strives to represent the world as it is, but in a genre like science fiction, which purports to be based on imagination, it is deeply disappointing. As Cory Doctorow noted this summer at a Worldcon76 panel on the working class in science fiction “There is no sentiment more antithetical to science fiction than ‘there is no alternative,’ … what we do as science fiction authors is exactly to imagine alternatives.”

Thankfully, a new generation was about to do exactly that.

Part two of this blog post, covering a renewed interest in organized labour in science fiction in the 1990s and 2000s, was posted on February 18, 2019. 


  1. Olav, are you familiar with the work of Ken MacLeod http://kenmacleod.blogspot.com/, whose SF comes from a left wing perspective, and is certainly less dismissive of the rights of working people. His most recent trilogy is concerned with the struggles of robots who attain self-awareness, and organise to win their freedom from the corporations which 'owned' them before they became self aware.

    1. I am familiar with Ken MacLeod — we made note of Cosmonaut Keep in our list of labour unions in SF: https://hugoclub.blogspot.com/2018/12/organized-labour-in-science-fiction.html

      But I've not read his most recent trilogy. Will have to check it out while continuing the research for part two of this blog post, in which my co-authors and I look at recent trends in labour unions in SF.

  2. For more in recent SF that treats unions and labor movements positively, check out Alex Acks' Hunger Makes the Wolf and more particularly its sequel, Blood Binds the Pack. Bonus: Both are great fun to read.

    1. Will do! Thank you for the heads-up, Trish.

      (I've really enjoyed Alex' short fiction, and particularly their non-fiction essays. I should really get around to their novels.)

    2. Trish, included Alex Acks' in the second part of this blog post series.

  3. Double entry accounting is 700 years old. So why isn't it mandatory in our schools? What would that have for labor unions and for the economy had it been implemented since 1960?

    1. Huh. I don't think you have any understanding of the labour movement. Thank you, next.

  4. I'm late catching up with this but I do have a few comments.

    1. The Space Merchants: I don't have the book handy, but from what I remember, the idea that it is negative toward unions because the union is ineffective strikes me as victim-blaming. The book takes place in a world where corporations have almost completely replaced governments, and have literally their own armies. In that environment, a labor movement as we know it is hardly possible; these people are living under tyranny. I've always assumed that the union you're referring to is in essence a company union, i.e. a labor organization in name only.

    2. The Dispossessed: There's a major error there: Anarres is the anarchist planet. And Urras is not a capitalist world, but an Earthlike world, with one superpower analogous to the US and another to the USSR. Complaining that there isn't an effective labor movement in the major capitalist country on Urras (or at least in the tiny bit of it that we see) again strikes me as victim-blaming: if the government is willing to shoot demonstrators, what are the workers supposed to do?

    As for Anarres, I'm not sure what your point is there; that's a society with no employers and no money, labor assignments are voluntary (though enforced by social norms), and people rotate through many jobs as needed, so it's hard to imagine what the equivalent of a labor union would even be. In any case, this book certainly isn't an example of a "there is no alternative" attitude; it's strongly anticapitalist.

    In any case, thanks for doing this series; it's very thoughtful so far.