TV Review: The Simpsons Strike—‘They Have the Plant but We Have the Power’
This is the latest installment in an occasional series where we evaluate the “union episode” of a television show.
The Simpsons debuted in 1989 and is the longest-running scripted primetime television series in the U.S. This animated show features the daily life of a working-class family—parents Homer and Marge, and their children Bart, Lisa, and Maggie—along with dozens of oddball residents of the town of Springfield.
I always remembered the great union episode from season 4, “Last Exit to Springfield,” which regularly appears on various lists of top Simpsons episodes. (The title comes from the book and film Last Exit to Brooklyn, which has a subplot about a factory strike.)
The episode is structured around two intertwining plotlines. Homer’s union at the power plant—Local 643 of the International Brotherhood of Jazz Dancers, Pastry Chefs, and Nuclear Technicians—is in contract negotiations. Meanwhile, Lisa needs expensive braces. The boss, C. Montgomery Burns, wants to eliminate the dental plan in the union contract, setting up the key conflict.
HOMER BECOMES UNION PRESIDENT
Early in the episode, Burns’ assistant Smithers says the union rep “hasn’t been seen since he promised to clean up the union,” followed by a quick shot of a body buried at a football stadium.
Leafing through the contract, Burns complains that it contains too many benefits, and pines for the old, pre-union days. In a flashback, a child laborer at the power plant tells a young Burns, “You can’t treat the working man this way. One day we’ll form a union and get the fair and equitable treatment we deserve! Then we’ll go too far, and get corrupt and shiftless, and the Japanese will eat us alive!”
Lisa’s dentist tells her she needs braces. When Marge informs Homer, he says they “won a dental plan in the strike of ‘88” and brags about the scar he got. (In a flashback we see him struck by a food truck awning as the union chants, “What do we want? More equitable treatment at the hands of management! When do we want it? Soon!”)
Burns has offered to supply a free keg of Duff Beer at union meetings in exchange for eliminating the dental plan. Workers at the meeting cheer this idea, until Homer remembers that Lisa needs braces. He makes a passionate speech, and the workers elect him union president.
Burns identifies Homer as a firebrand. Homer is told that his new role pays nothing, “unless you’re crooked.” Lisa argues, “This is your chance to get a fair shake for the working man.” But Homer daydreams about a glamorous life of organized crime.
LISA WRITES A PICKET LINE SONG
Homer says they can get back the dental plan if he’s a better negotiator than Burns. But then Bart tricks him into trading a doorstop for his danish. At the dentist, Marge and Lisa see the terrible braces they’ll get without the dental plan.
Homer and Burns have a negotiation session. Burns hints at a bribe, but Homer thinks Burns is hitting on him and turns him down. Lisa gets the cheap braces.
At home, Homer is grabbed by goons and brought to Burns for more talks. When Homer asks for the restroom, Burns thinks he is being a tough negotiator. Afterward, Homer tells Marge he wants to quit.
At the next union meeting Homer gives a farewell speech: “I’ve been meeting with Mr. Burns day and night, and I’ve had enough.” But his co-workers mistake this for a militant speech and vote to strike.
The picket line features Lisa playing guitar and singing a strike song,
Come gather ‘round children, it’s high time ye learned,
‘Bout a hero named Homer, and a devil named Burns.
We’ll march till we drop, the girls and the fellas,
We’ll fight till the death, or else fold like umbrellas.
The song ends, “So we’ll march day and night, by the big cooling tower. / They have the plant, but we have the power,” a refrain that echoes several times before the end of the episode.
BURNS AND SMITHERS TRY TO SCAB
The strike drags on. Burns attempts to bring in strikebreakers, “the kind they had in the ‘30s,” but only gets Grandpa Abe Simpson and a few of his geriatric pals. “We can’t bust heads like we used to,” says Grandpa. Instead his best tactic is telling long, boring stories. Burns turns water hoses on the strikers.
Anyone who has watched managers try to run things during a strike will appreciate the next scene. Burns tells Smithers, “You and I can run this plant ourselves.” What follows is a hilarious 30-second montage. They even bring in “100% Loyal” robot replacement workers who immediately turn on them.
In a TV interview, Homer is introduced as the “union kingpin” and told that “organized labor has been called a lumbering dinosaur.” Burns follows through on his threat to cut power to the town. But instead of backing down, the workers continue singing Lisa’s picket line anthem.
When Burns realizes the workers are sticking together and won’t be defeated, he mimics the famous ending of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Burns and Homer finish negotiations and restore the dental plan. But Burns demands that Homer resign.
Only after Homer agrees and does a goofy dance does Burns realize that his opponent may not be such a “brilliant tactician.” The episode ends with the whole family at the dentist office as Lisa gets better braces.
HOW DID THE SIMPSONS DO?
The Good Stuff
This is ultimately a pro-union story. Homer’s power plant workers win a militant strike and beat back a demand for concessions.
The episode includes many accurate moments. Because the workers have a union, Burns can’t unilaterally take away the dental plan, the way a boss could for the nonunion 94 percent of the private sector workforce; he has to negotiate. But negotiations stall and it takes a strike to beat the concession—also true to life. The B plot about Lisa’s braces offers a sympathetic example of why it’s worthwhile to fight for a good union contract.
It’s perhaps no surprise that Homer is unsuited for the job as union president. He’s unfortunately similar to many real union officials in that he believes the outcome will be determined by who is the most skilled negotiator. But the show deftly skewers this misconception.
Management union-busting is portrayed. Burns spies on the workers and hires goons and strikebreakers. The replacement robot workers reflect real anxieties about automation. When Homer gets interviewed on TV, the media trivializes the labor dispute—as often happens.
There are lots of funny details: Lisa’s picket line song, the weak chant, and the complicated, amalgamated union name.
Admittedly, the Simpsons mocks everything. But Homer’s union and unionism in general are subjected to a lot of clichéd ridicule.
The child laborer’s speech about unions eventually going “too far” and becoming “corrupt and shiftless” repeats standard conservative talking points. And the episode is saturated with references to corruption and organized crime. Maybe these jokes are fair, given the real history of organized crime and the labor movement. But they’re a bit lazy and predictable.
A clear unfair labor practice—Burns insisting that Homer quit as union president in return for the restoration of the dental plan—is treated as a reasonable compromise.
Worst of all, the workers are depicted as an excitable mob. They almost trade their dental plan for a keg of beer!
Overall, the episode portrays unions as somewhat incompetent organizations of passive members controlled by bungling or corrupt union bosses. The members of Local 643 could really use a Labor Notes training!
Why a Union Episode?
In 1988, the year before The Simpsons premiered, there was a five-month Writers Guild strike—likely referenced when Homer mentions “the strike of ’88.” Show creator Matt Groening is a Writers Guild union activist and supported the organizing of animation writers.
A 2018 interview with some of the show’s creators on the episode’s 25th anniversary featured commentary on the union issue.
“As a person who’s in multiple Hollywood unions, I’m very much a labor person,” said Wallace Wolodarsky, one of the writers. “So that was fun to put the labor message out into the world. As it’s been the case for many years now, labor has been crushed every which way. It was fun to see labor as the hero.”
Regarding the union jokes, Wolodarsky said, “There was never a moment of, ‘I don’t want to make fun of unions because I believe in unions.’ Because I do believe in unions. And unions can be corrupt and cynical organizations. We never limited ourselves in terms of who we were going to go after.”
The mockery is at least even-handed. Burns is framed as an evil capitalist who resorts to cutting off the power to the city to get his way.
Even if it does reinforce some stereotypes, the successful strike makes this a great union story.
What makes the difference in the end isn’t the skill (or ineptitude) of the negotiator, but the workers’ solidarity and fortitude on the picket line. It’s a reminder that, whatever our deficiencies, if we come together collectively, “we have the power.”
Labor folks will appreciate the victory and laugh at some jokes along the way. I give “Last Exit to Springfield” a rating of 4 out of 5 Duff Beer kegs.
Eric Dirnbach is a labor movement researcher and activist in New York City. He has published in Jacobin, New Labor Forum, Organizing Work, and Waging Nonviolence.