TV Review: The Class Struggle at Superstore
The hit NBC show Superstore ran for six seasons before being cancelled after star America Ferrera departed. It won praise for showing problems faced by retail workers such as low wages, poor benefits, short staffing, racial and gender discrimination, automation, and the challenges of serving as essential workers during the pandemic.
The show was also unusual in that it presented two major labor disputes—a strike and a union organizing campaign. Now that the show has concluded (its last episode ran March 25), I assess how it depicted this organizing. Labor Notes and Jobs with Justice previously reviewed season one.
Warning, this analysis contains spoilers!
Set at “Cloud 9,” a Walmart-like big box store in St. Louis, Superstore features workers from diverse backgrounds, focusing on two main characters. Amy, a floor supervisor, is a Latina mom who has been with the store for 10 years. Jonah, a new hire, is a white, liberal, business school dropout.
At the end of season one, Amy and Jonah are upset that Cloud 9 won’t provide paid maternity leave for pregnant co-worker Cheyenne. They call headquarters to ask about it and casually mention that union workers would get this benefit—but that nobody is going on strike. Alarmed executives send a “labor relations” manager to the store.
The next scene features a classic captive audience meeting, in which workers are forced to listen to the bosses’ anti-union arguments on company time. Cheyenne ends up giving birth while working, and Glenn, the sympathetic store manager, gives her six weeks of unauthorized paid maternity leave. In response, the company fires Glenn, and Amy and Jonah lead most of the workers in a dramatic walkout to protest his dismissal. The assistant manager Dina fires all the strikers and runs the store during the strike.
Season two starts in the middle of the strike. The district manager Jeff arrives and agrees to rehire Glenn and any worker who returns to work.
But when corporate demands that returning workers sign apology statements, the strike continues. Community members come out in support of the workers, also complicating matters by bringing their own demands. (It’s funny to watch the strikers attempt to inflate what they think is Scabby the Rat, but turns out to be a big teddy bear instead.) Cloud 9 brings in workers from another store to scab, and the strike collapses as workers give up. Amy and Jonah are the last ones picketing, until they go back in to fight another day.
Back at work, Jeff agrees to hear the workers’ concerns, but Glenn interrupts to prove he’s a tough boss. Then an accident injures one of the workers, and everyone focuses on helping him instead of raising their issues with Jeff. Frustratingly, that ends this labor dispute.
THE UNION CAMPAIGN
The end of season four introduces the union campaign. Amy, now store manager, and Jonah use fake accounts to tweet photos of the store in disarray, hoping to get corporate to allocate more work hours. After another worker Sandra is falsely accused of the tweets, the others think she is a badass. Loving the attention, Sandra claims credit for the tweets and calls for the workers to rise up and unionize.
The workers organize over the next few episodes. They hold a meeting at the store with a union organizer and sign union cards. Amy is ambivalent, worrying corporate will close the store if they find out about the union, and Jonah supports her. She shows the workers an idiotic anti-union video, hoping to discourage them. Alarmed by the campaign, corporate calls an ICE raid on the store. One of the workers, Mateo, is undocumented, and everyone attempts to protect him during the raid, but he’s caught. Amy and Jonah are now on board with the union campaign.
Season five opens a 10-episode arc featuring union organizing in most of the episodes, including several union meetings. To get the warehouse crew to sign union cards, Jonah chugs a bottle of ranch dressing. Workers at another store also sign cards.
In episode 10, they enter contract negotiations. Jonah and Sandra meet with a union negotiator and present their demands, which prioritize health benefits and wages. The company plays hardball at the table and there is some conflict on the union side as the negotiator walks back their proposals too quickly. Jonah threatens a strike, and the company agrees to all the workers’ terms.
Victory? So they think. It turns out management settled because Cloud 9 has been bought by a tech company, Zephra, which will not recognize the union or the agreement. There is no discussion among the workers of fighting that decision or reigniting the campaign. Jonah moves on to participate in a Raise the Wage campaign (like Fight for $15), but organizing at the store never resumes.
HOW DID SUPERSTORE DO?
The show contains a lot of good, real-world organizing, but some problems weaken its portrayal.
The Good Stuff
The sheer amount of labor organizing, including two full labor disputes, is impressive and nice to see in a mainstream show. The walkout scene in season one is one of the most compelling of the entire show, and the workers sustain a strike for two days. (A transcript of the episode where they are out on strike is here.)
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Perhaps this large, spontaneous walkout is somewhat unrealistic, but it shows the strong bonds of solidarity among the workers. Moreover, it’s great to see workers hold union meetings, talk to co-workers about forming a union, and aggressively bargain contract terms with management.
The ICE raid resulting in Mateo’s detention is presented as an injustice and a union-busting tactic. It is clearly part of management’s extensive anti-union campaign, which also included materials in the management manual, conversations among the executives, the captive audience meeting, and the video. The workers accurately identify and call out all the company’s union busting.
Unfortunately I found that the way the organizing was presented was at times problematic. The show often relied on the “heroic organizer” model, where Sandra and Jonah gave inspiring speeches to rile up the workers. But little attention was given to the one-on-one organizing conversations, based on patiently listening, that are more often the foundation of a successful union campaign. Problems at work are often briefly brought up, but the workers are rarely shown seriously discussing issues and deciding priorities to fight for in a sustained way.
The workers organize, but never win any improvements. For example, when the workers walk out in support of their manager Glenn (perhaps a strange cause to focus on, but one which does happen in real life, as in the big strike at grocer Market Basket in New England in 2014), they risk their own jobs but never identify other issues to fight for. They ultimately win back their jobs (and Glenn’s job), but nothing else.
It’s also extremely frustrating, but realistic, that Glenn obstructs their effort to raise other issues, fearing for his own job as manager. The workers allow that to happen, and he suffers no criticism for it. Also, Dina is never called out for her union busting. This kind of framing reinforces a theme that ultimately workers and managers are really all in this together, just doing their jobs, deemphasizing class conflict.
Another chronic problem is that workers undervalue their potential power and don’t believe in themselves. During the strike, when Amy doubts the company can replace them all, a co-worker responds that these are easy jobs to do. Another worker later in the show says it’s impossible to change corporate policies. The workers feel replaceable and powerless throughout the show, even when engaging in collective action. Toward the end of the show, even Jonah, the relentlessly positive and committed activist, ultimately feels that he wasted his time on the union effort.
Then there’s the unrealistic way they win their union—cards signed and then straight to negotiations. Did they get card-check recognition? Unlikely. Was there an election? It’s never mentioned. And when the new parent company takes over, it’s disappointing that the union effort is abandoned with no discussion.
Why Did They Show Union Organizing?
The show was committed to featuring many aspects of working retail, and with Fight for $15 and Walmart organizing in the news over the years, it made sense to include a union plotline. An interview with star Ben Feldman, who plays Jonah, discussed the union issue as “an important story to tell” and stressed the difficulty of challenging corporate power.
The Bottom Line
Superstore deserves recognition for raising many issues about retail work from the workers’ perspective with humor and compassion, though it perhaps doesn’t treat workers’ concerns as seriously as they deserve. While the union and the workers are subjected to some ridicule, so is management, and this is after all a comedy.
With so little union content in mainstream shows, I’m tempted to view the show’s extensive class struggle story as positive in itself, even if the workers ultimately lose. Moreover, the accurate call-out of all the union-busting and the sensitive way the immigration raid was handled breaks significant new ground.
It’s not necessarily a problem that the strike gained little and the union campaign was lost, which happens in the real world. What’s disappointing, however, is that the show presents the workers as ultimately incapable of standing up for themselves. The world of Cloud 9 is one of futility in the face of corporate power. The problems are clear, but collective action doesn’t work, workers can’t find their voice, and nothing really improves.
The show raises many compelling worker issues but doesn’t want to solve them. When Amy first meets Jonah in season one, she complains that nothing ever changes at the store. Five years later, Amy has moved up to a corporate job, but the rest of the workers are in essentially the same place they started. But that’s all too often life under capitalism.
Still, I recommend the show. Labor folks will appreciate the strike and union content, and retail workers may enjoy the depiction of struggles at a big box store.
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. He has previously reviewed union episodes of The Simpsons and The A-Team for Labor Notes.