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.

The Purpose of Small Business

I like small businesses. I like shopping at small businesses, I like supporting small businesses, and my late father owned a small business that I worked in for many years.

Yet small businesses, or rather small business owners, have a way of grinding my gears. Loud complaints about the primacy of Amazon or credit card fees have always sounded disingenuous to me. Not that I don’t understand them. Competing with larger companies is difficult, and doing business can be expensive. But sometimes these complaints veer into “woe is me” territory when voiced by business owners who are honestly just bad business owners.

Summarizing all these thoughts was hard for me for a long time, mostly because of my own biases. Then, awhile back, I listened to episode 111 of Citations Needed.

The hosts of this podcast are very left-leaning, and not everyone reading this will agree with them. However, they make a few points that I think most people will agree with. That is, that much of the rhetoric surrounding small businesses, especially in politics, takes advantage of the fact that the public has a very different idea of what constitutes a small business. Furthermore, this rhetoric assumes that small businesses have a right to exist.

Do not get me wrong. I love walking down mainstreet and see healthy, vibrant, local shops and restaurants, but they are not good businesses simply because they are small. A small business can be just as bad for its employees and for its community as the big corporate chain that just moved in.

So, let’s keep in mind a few things.

  1. Small businesses are not an inherent good.
  2. Owning a small business does not automatically make the owner a skilled businessperson.
  3. A small business does not inherently benefit its community.

Which leads quite nicely into what a small business should aim to do.

  1. Fill some need in the community.
  2. Provide opportunities for members of the community.
  3. Contribute to the betterment of the community.

Business owners can be hardworking, yes, but they can also be entitled. Everyone likes the idea of supporting a small business and for good reason. It’s not some huge faceless entity with its headquarters on the other side of the country, it’s a small shop just down the street. But that does not mean that it deserves to exist.

For me, there are basically two reasons that I would judge as small business to be a bad business.

The first is one that does not fill a gap in its community. If a town has six dress shops does it need a seventh? What makes them superior to the previous six? Competition is a good thing, but if rows of cookie cutter businesses take up space that could be put to better use by better businesses.

The second is one where the owner does not properly credit, support, and compensate their employees. Money at small businesses is tight, often they cannot pay their employees as much or offer as many benefits, but they should offer something. Many businesses owners work hard, but few of them would be able to keep their businesses afloat were it not for their employees. If they cannot offer pay to their employees they should offer something. Community, mentorship, cammeraderie, flexibility. A business owner and employee should have a symbiotic relationship. They don’t both need to get the same thing, but they both need to get something.

The problem in both of these cases, are the owners who feel entitled. They feel entitled to have employees, they feel entitled to be business owners. They wrap their dreams on entrepreneurship so tightly around their identities that they fail to see that it’s their dream. Their employees don’t want to work misserable hours for misserable pay so that the business will succeed in ten years. Their employees need to eat.

Many new businesses go out of business quickly, many bad businesses stay in business longer than they deserve. Only businesses whose owners understand and value their place in the community deserve to stay in business. Rather than begging you not to support Amazon and other online retailers, small business should offer something more than online retailers. A book store should also be a gathering place. An art shop a place to get advice. A music store a place to explore new skills and talents.

Not all business live up to these standards. Too many expect the community to subsidize the egos of their owners. Inevitably, they blame Amazon and minimum wage and rent and taxes and credit cards fees when instead they should blame themselves.

But the fact is, business owners and employees and communities exist in a symbiotic relationship. A business is not just a chance to make money, it’s a chance to make a difference and contribute to the community.

The Anatomy of Fascism by Robert O. Paxton

I picked up this audiobook on a whim after I heard it mentioned on a podcast. I wasn’t sure what I was getting into at first, but the narration and subject quickly drew me in.

Paxton asks a simple question with a complicated answer: What is fascism?

Many authoritarians of the last century have been referred to as fascist, but according to Paxton few of these dictators fit the mold. This is because fascism is not merely defined by it’s tools and imagery but also by its origins. Fascism is fascism because of how it takes root and how it behaves once in power. Fascism is a mutable beast capable of changing its appearance to match its surroundings and for that reason it is also hard to identify until it is too late.

Paxton explains that this is because fascism adopts new images and icons in each iteration. This differentiates it from isms that emerged in the nineteenth century; capitalism, liberalism, and socialism. Fascism is a rejection of democratic ideas and even education in favor of action and emotion. It fees on perceived victimhood, intense nationalism, fear of the other, and the glorification of violence. In order to take advantage of these feelings, fascists must adopt local symbols and customs for their own use.

He argues that fascism develops in stages. In the early stages a nascent fascist party is composed of what are essentially hooligans, street fighters, and outcasts. Taking advantage of their followers’ willingness to participate in mass demonstrations and do violence, they begin to assert themselves in democratic elections. Finally, once allowed into government they work to dismantle the same democratic structures that got them into power in the first place.1

For most of the book, Paxton focuses on Nazi Germany2 and Fascist Italy.3 He explores what makes them similar and different. Part of this examination explores the differences between what fascists said and what they did. Once in power, fascists stray from their previous ideological purity in order to satisfy the corporate and conservative interests that help them attain power.

In my view, based on the information Paxton presents, there is little pressure for the actions and words of fascists to have anything in common. Once a personality cult has been constructed it doesn’t really matter what the fascists do as long as their leader maintains their image.

Finally, Paxton looks at whether fascism could happen again in other places, and there are some who have argued that fascism was limited to the particular circumstances of its time. Paxton argues that the characteristics of the leader are less important than the perceptions the public attaches to them and that early-stage fascists are relatively common. Successful fascists, if they arise, will learn to moderate what they say and do and how they present themselves in order to make themselves palatable to a wider audience. For example, an American fascist movement would more likely clothe itself in religious imagery rather than swastikas.

The book’s prescience and the clear parallels between the past and present make for a fascinating and terrifying combination. The book was written in 2004, and Paxton remarked that there were dangerous trends in the years after 9/11. He predicted that an American fascist movement would involve a great deal of religious imagery, anti-immigrant sentiment, anti-Islamic sentiment, and probably a lot of imagery focusing on the flag or the confederate battle flag. We’ve seen many of these things rise to prominence in the Republican Party.

It is not hard to see similarities in Trump’s presidency, QAnon followers, and the Proud Boys. What is more frightening is the GOP’s general acceptance of them in order to garner more votes. Hinting that our new American fascist movement may have already progressed through its initial stages.

Perhaps most importantly, we see today the same toleration of civil violence that was seen in Nazi Germany. Many people are fine with violence as long as it is not directed at them. Excuses made for attacks on protesters by police and proud boys this past year come to mind. I try to remain optimistic about the future, but it is hard not to see the warning signs around us today.

Overall, I can’t find any faults with the book. It’s a fascinating look at one of the most important and destructive political forces of the 20th century and one that forces the reader to reconsider what the word fascist really means. If you can, I also recommend listening to the audiobook. It helped me get through the book quickly by listening to it during my commute and the narration was perfectly suited to the book’s topic and tone.

If this topic interests you, you may want to consider listening to It Could Happen Here by Robert Evans. Evans is the host of the podcast Behind the Bastards (the podcast where I heard about this book) and wrote several op-eds after the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Notes

  1. Trump’s efforts to discredit the recent election results come to mind.
  2. Recently, many conservatives have claimed that the Nazi’s were actually socialist. This is not true. Modern conservatives do this to draw attention away from their more radical allies. The words “socialist” and “workers” were added to broaden the party’s appeal and have little to do Nazi ideology. Timeghost has a great writeup about this and also about the myth of Nazi economic success.
  3. Fascism first emerged in Italy after WWI. Which is funny, because Mussolini was the original fascist and Hitler came later, yet Hitler became the “star” of the Axis Powers. The word fascist derives from the the word “fascio” which means ” a bundle of sticks.” Use of this symbol, which dates back to ancient Rome, was meant to convey an image of strength through unity.