Monday 18 February 2019

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

This is the second of a three-part blog post about the historical invisibility of organized labour in science fiction, as well as recent works that address this absence. In the first part, we examined prose works published up to 1980, in this blog post we examine prose works from 1980 up to the present. A third blog post examines  science fiction television and cinema that depicts labour unions.

In December of last year, Wired magazine invited eight prominent science fiction authors to tackle an
As workplaces are changing, how workers
organize to assert rights will change also.
(Image via Bloomberg.)
interesting question: “What is the future of work?

While many of the resulting stories explore important challenges that are likely to shape our work lives, and are well worth reading, it is interesting that none of the authors even touched on how workers organize themselves to assert their rights. There is not one mention of “unions,” nor of “solidarity” or “collective bargaining.”

But while unions and the struggle for labour rights are still significantly underrepresented within the genre, the past three decades have seen the blossoming of a small but significant school of labour-aware science fiction that is worthy of discussion.

We have been compiling a list of labour representation in science fiction, and it is obvious to us that there is a growing interest in projecting a future of organized labour. As examples, we would encourage you to read some recent works by Cory Doctorow, Alex Wells, Allen Steele, Madeline Ashby, Adam Rakunas, Paolo Bacigalupi, and Ken MacLeod.

Depictions of labour unions that appear in science fiction published over the past two decades show a significantly greater understanding of how unions operate than is evident in stories from previous decades.

We would suggest that labour awareness within science fiction is in no small part generational. The authors who wrote science fiction during the first ascendency of the genre in the 1940s and 1950s had come of age in an era of strong union power, when New Deal policies were creating an expanding middle class and mass prosperity.

During those years, it was easy to assume that broadly shared prosperity would continue into the
The University of Trantor's faculty
association almost certainly provided
good health and dental benefits.
(image via Goodreads)
future; most of the characters in the high-tech Galactic Empire of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation are middle-class, and it is only once barbarism returns to the galaxy that wealth inequality appears to rise.

But children growing up in the 1970s would learn a different set of assumptions. During those years, for America’s middle class, the future seemed to be atrophying. America was embroiled in an ugly war. The moon landings were over, income inequality had begun to increase, and the labour union movement was being systematically undermined.

This precariousness of the existence of the middle class would be reflected in the despair of cyberpunk, as well as in the activism of the Scottish socialist wave of science fiction.

As the people who read science fiction in the 1970s began writing their own science fiction in the 1980s and 1990s, labour’s reappraisal in science fiction starts to appear.

Allen Steele’s 1989 debut novel Orbital Decay is notable as being one of the earliest works in this (labour-aware) era of science fiction. It offers a depiction of construction labourers building an orbital station under hazardous conditions. While Steele’s work doesn’t delve into the political framework that has enabled this union to exist, or under what legal jurisdiction space construction might fall, his novel does explore how union protection can help ensure safer workplaces by giving workers the right to refuse unsafe work.

Slightly later, the 1996 novel Night Sky Mine by Melissa Scott is a cyberpunk work that subverts the sub-genre by showing that corporate power is not inescapable, and featuring a labour union that helps ensure fairer wages.

If stories like these were a significant departure from almost any science fiction featuring labour unions in the 1950s or 1960s, then it might also be noted that the labour movement of the 1990s and 2000s was one that had been radically transformed.

In the wake of several setbacks for labour unions — the destruction of the PATCO union in 1981, the
The air traffic controllers' strike of 1981,
and the subsequent disbanding of the
union is one of the most significant
moments in labour history. 
creation of NAFTA, the UK miners strike in 1984-85 — it became more difficult to imagine the labour movement as menacing.

At the same time, numerous labour unions were tackling internal governance and structural issues that had marginalized segments of their membership. Many labour unions found common cause with equity-seeking groups such as the women’s movement, anti-Apartheid activists, and the gay rights movement.
It is easier to write positive portrayals of labour unions when labour movements are doing more good for more people.

Cory Doctorow has been one of the leading lights of the genre’s reappraisal of the role of employment in society and the relationship between workers and employers. Tackling such subjects as employment precarity, labour mobility, and income inequality, Doctorow’s work consistently shows a strong understanding of the labour union world.

Of particular note is his 2010 novel For The Win which depicts a unionization drive amongst workers
Union organizing in the
future is a subject that
provides narrative tension.
(Image via Goodreads)
who are paid to gather resources in a World Of Warcraft-style online game. This depiction shows the necessity of worker organization in the face of capital overreach, and is informed by knowledge of the systemic flaws in traditional labour organizing.

Madeline Ashby’s novel Company Town may be better-known outside of the science fiction community than within, as it was a Canada Reads selection in 2017. Telling the story of a character who works as a labour union staff member is rare, and it provides an opportunity for Ashby to examine aspects of the labour movement that are almost never talked about — like the quotidien work of helping ensure the safety of individual members and providing employment services. Because the protagonist works for a union of sex workers, her story helps illustrate an important purpose for labour organizing in the first place: protection of the most vulnerable workers.

Such protections show up repeatedly in recent works that focus on unionization drives. Alex Wells’ 2017 debut novel Hunger Makes the Wolf and its sequel focus on mining workers on a remote world. Their attempt to tackle the corporation’s exploitative practices through union organizing builds on a depiction of management’s divide-and-conquer tactics and deftly illustrates the difficulty of dealing with corporate loyalist employees. Although the goal of empowering workers is portrayed as being difficult, Wells makes it clear that working as a collective is worthwhile and achievable.

Former Republican congressional candidate and author Lou Antonelli devoted a significant section of his 2016 novel Another Girl, Another Planet to the depiction of an labour board appeal on a Martian colony. At issue in the hearing are scope-of-work issues between a highly skilled and technically competent unionized workforce, and an employer who has used robot labour in violation of the union contract. It is shown that the union is not only in the right on legal grounds, but that there were important safety-related reasons for the scope-of-work clauses in the contract.

This depiction is particularly noteworthy because of Antonelli’s nuanced understanding of the work done by labour union representatives. Scope-of-work negotiations and labour board hearings are not as high-profile as organizing drives or work stoppages such as strikes, but they are a vital part of how union representation can promote workers’ rights.

When asked on Twitter about this subplot, Antonelli explained the positive depiction of the union, “even on a space colony, there will be practical labor issues to be addressed. A space colony isn't built by magic.”

Science fiction’s ability to imagine new social orders is one of the genre’s great strengths. But as Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek once noted, it sometimes seems easier for authors to imagine the end of the world, than it does for them to imagine alternatives to unfettered neoliberal capitalism.

Žižek’s observation may still hold some truth. But the genre is experiencing a wave of labour-aware science fiction authors that are challenging dominant ideas surrounding the nature of employment and the relationship between capital and worker. This gives us hope for the future of employment.