We know that one of the best ways to get people thinking about unions is through pop culture.
So did one of last year’s Man Booker shortlisted novels. Elmet, written by Fiona Mezley, successfully captures the power of collective resistance against an unscrupulous employer in a way that feels both modern and nostalgic.
For me though, the timeless universality of workers coming together behind a common aim is best captured in a specific episode of The Simpsons.
The episode Last Exit to Springfield begins with 8-year-old Lisa Simpson being told she needs braces. Unfortunately, Mr Burns, the boss at the power plant where her dad works, has been caught up in dreams of a pre-union time when workers didn’t have rights and benefits.
To prove a point, he wants to scrap the company’s dental plan. The dental plan was won years previously, in the strike of ’88. We find out that the strike was based around a very gentle and reasonable chant of:
What do we want?
More equitable treatment at the hands of management!
When do we want it?
At a union meeting, the workers need to vote on the new contract. The removal of the dental plan is the only change to the contract, and it pretty much goes unnoticed by everyone. If anything, the workers are excited. In exchange for giving away their dental, they’ll get a free keg of beer.
Homer, suddenly remembering that his daughter needs braces, turns the room against the contract. He ends up being voted the president of the union. Lisa is very excited, praising her dad for taking the opportunity to “get a fair shake for the working man”.
When a series of contract negotiations are unsuccessful, the workers vote to strike. During the strike, Lisa continues her support for the union movement by singing for the striking workers. “We’ll march day and night by the big cooling tower. They have the plant, but we have the power.”
Burns attempts to break the strike, first by using a gang of old men to bore the strikers with stories that go nowhere, and then by using force. When these both fail, Mr Burns and his assistant Smithers try to run the plant but fail at it. Again, this show the value of the workers. Mr Burns needs them, and the power plant relies on them.
As his final attack on the workers, Mr Burns turns off the town’s power. He hopes that plummeting the public into darkness will turn the town against the strikers. Instead, the workers sing in the darkness, Lisa leading them in another rendition of the power plant song.
The episode ends with Mr Burns accepting defeat. He reinstalls the dental plan, and Lisa gets her braces.