Organized Labor and its Lessons for Fiction

For the past several weeks, commentators and labor activists have been waiting to see how the union vote at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama would turn out. We’ve heard for several years about the working conditions inside Amazon facilities, and the pandemic only brought more attention to the situations that warehouse workers have to deal with. It really shouldn’t be surprising that Amazon employees would start to unionize. I also don’t think it was a surprise that this effort was voted down.

Except for a few groups like police unions, I think labor organization can only be a good thing. Wealth inequality is a big problem on both an individual and societal level. Anything that urges people to advocate for their own well-being and community is a good thing. 

​I also think that this outcome carries with it a lot of lessons. Union leaders are already talking about how they intend to change their strategy in the future with a new emphasis on public relations and national-level campaigns instead of local votes and agitation.

I’ve written before about what I believe the purpose of small businesses should be, but as a writer and worldbuilder, I see a lot of lessons to take from this. As much as many “centrists” and commentators on the right like to complain about politics in television and video games, it needs to be remembered that art is inherently political in all its forms. The creator’s beliefs are bound to find their way into the finished product, even if they did not mean to do so when they first started.

I myself prefer to design settings that are roughly analogous to our world’s 19th and 20th centuries, and if they aren’t directly analogous, there is still a heavy influence.

I tend to do this because I have always had a fondness for steampunk and dieselpunk and gunpowder fantasy. Classic sword and sorcery are still fun, but I like to see fantasy tropes played out in a more modern context and to put characters in environments of intense chance. The industrial revolution generated huge amounts of wealth for the upper class, allowed cities to grow, and pushed workers to organize. Old class systems declined in prominence. New ones rose to take their place. Established oligarchs fought to keep their positions while the lower classes fought to bring them down or replace them. And of course, as we see time and time again, every time a Republican is elected to office, common people can be convinced that their oppressors are their friends.

I am especially interested in this right now because it just so happens that labor unions are a major part of my current WIP. In it, the Whalvian Empire is going through a period of political and economic turmoil after its victory over several of its neighbors. My protagonist is put into a position where many in his company town have decided to unionize. He is torn between his desire for safety and stability and his sympathies for his fellow workers. Reading these articles has already given me a lot of new thoughts about what kind of internal conflicts and pressures our fictional characters might have to wrestle with.

What does the public think of unions?

Unions in America are weak. Many of the things we enjoy today are thanks to unions, but public support has fluctuated over the last fifty years. Fewer people are members of a union or know someone is. Negative biases and misconceptions need to be overcome by organizers both among workers and the general public.

Do the workers feel like the union understands their concerns?

One thing that stood out to me in one NYT article was a quote from a Black woman working in Amazon’s warehouse. She said that the union reps tried to connect Black Lives Matter to their labor organizing efforts. This individual said that they did not feel that racism was a concern in their workplace. Obviously, one anecdote does not give us a full picture of what the working environment is like with respect to race. However, effective campaigning relies on figuring out what potential supporters are concerned about and focusing on how that can be addressed. People are much less likely to care about fixing problems that don’t seem relevant to them.

Do workers feel like they have something to gain?

I was glad to see that workers were taking steps to unionize, but I’m was not surprised to see it voted down. There is a lot that could be done to improve the conditions inside Amazon warehouses, but the pay and benefits that come with working with them are superior to those offered by other employers in Alabama.

In the United States, the days of hiring armed Pinkertons to deal with strikers are long gone, but that doesn’t mean workers who attempt to unionize are not putting themselves at risk. There are basically no protections for workers who are working to organize. If those workers feel like they are already better off than their neighbors, then it’s unlikely they will want to put their job security at risk.

Are workers being told the truth about unions?

Employers have a key advantage. They can require employees to sit through “info sessions” about why unions are bad. They can make employees fear for their jobs. And depending on the employee, this may all reinforce preexisting biases.

Does the government protect workers?

In the wake of this defeat, unions are already talking about adopting a new strategy that focuses on high-profile endorsements and a public relations campaign to influence policy creation. I think this is a good choice. There are a lot of misconceptions about unions, and while I support workers unionizing, we as a country really need to do more to establish an acceptable baseline for workers.

But what does this have to do with speculative fiction? Why don’t you get off your soap box?

Okay, fair. I just spilled a lot of ink to share my own thoughts about current events, but that is because it’s a conversation worth having and because an artist’s environment will influence their art.

And it should influence their art. I generally dislike overanalyzing books in search of deeper meaning, but I think the context of the author’s beliefs can still add a lot to a reader’s understanding. I also think that pitting characters against relatable challenges makes the experience more meaningful for the reader.

A world of wizards and mind control and other fantasy elements would make the experience of workers and striking workers very different. But in the end, people just want a few things. They want safety for themselves and their families. They want to be able to put food on the table. And they (should) want to build a better future for their children.

Real-world events lack the allure of fantasy but trying to understand them yields dividends in inspiration. Fiction changes minds and writers have a big role to play in shaping public opinion.