TV Review: Workers of Deep Space Unite!
This is part of an occasional series where we look back at the “labor episode” of a TV show. The Star Trek series Deep Space Nine has a great union episode with lessons about organizing in a customer service industry. Spoilers ahead for the fourth-season episode “Bar Association”!
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-1999) is generally considered the most overtly political of the Star Trek franchise. Unlike other iterations of the show, it is set not on a Federation Starfleet ship, but a space station populated by individuals of diverse races whose cultures are often in stark contrast with the post-scarcity, post-capitalist Federation.
The fourth-season episode “Bar Association”—a must-watch for Trekkies interested in unions—depicts a labor struggle at the station’s prominent entertainment spot: Quark’s Bar, Grill, Gaming House and Holosuite Arcade. Bar owner Quark (played by Armin Shimerman) is a Ferengi—a member of a non-human species whose culture is very capitalistic and misogynistic. Their behavior is strictly controlled by The Rules of Acquisition, a set of tenets like “Employees are the rungs on the ladder of success—don’t hesitate to step on them.”
The workers at Quark’s Bar fall into two categories: Ferengi male waiters (Ferengi women are forbidden to work) and “Dabo girls”—a diverse group of beautiful women from non-Federation planets who act as eye candy and encourage guests to spend more at a roulette-style game. Dabo girls experience frequent sexual harassment from patrons and Quark himself.
WHY A UNION EPISODE?
The idea was developed by pro-union writers, some of whom had participated in the 1988 Writers Guild strike.
The episode’s co-writers Ira Steven Behr (the showrunner) and Robert Hewitt Wolfe drew inspiration from their own union households. They have said that the labor organizing plotline was meant to demonstrate the benefits of unions to the viewers who might be hostile to them or apathetic about their own labor rights and working conditions.
Armin Shimerman, a co-chair of the Screen Actors Guild and prominent labor activist, and LeVar Burton, the episode’s director, decided to treat the storyline seriously, which helped prevent the usual buffoonery of the Ferengi-centered episodes.
QUARK’S WORKERS ORGANIZE
It all starts because one of the waiters, Quark’s brother Rom (Max Grodénchik), has an ear infection. Quark is characteristically unsympathetic to his brother’s pain—in fact, he promises to dock his pay for fainting while on the clock. When a Dabo girl, Leeta (Chase Masterson), intervenes, he threatens to fire her.
Rom tells the station doctor that he doesn’t have any sick days, or benefits at all, since he’s covered by a standard Ferengi labor contract that heavily favors the boss. Doctor Bashir (Alexander Siddig) suggests forming a union, which is illegal in Ferengi culture.
Things escalate when Quark announces that because business is slow, he needs to cut all the workers’ pay by a third or lay half of them off. Rom calls an all-staff meeting to propose forming a union.
The Dabo girls are excited about the idea, while the Ferengi are concerned about retribution from the Ferengi Commerce Authority, the business and law enforcement arm of their government. Rom overcomes their fears by cleverly reframing Ferengi ideology: don’t the rules require them to seize opportunities for their own benefit?
Chief Engineer Miles O’Brien (Colm Meaney) supports Rom’s efforts, sharing that one of his ancestors was killed during a famous Pennsylvania anthracite coal miners’ strike in 1902. Rom gets the idea that they may need to strike to win.
BUSTING THE STRIKE
Sure enough, when the workers confront Quark to announce their new union and demand better wages and a paid sick leave, he threatens to fire them, and Rom announces a strike. The workers set up a picket line and turn away customers; Quark tries and spectacularly fails to use holograms of himself as scab servers. Quark also offers Rom a bribe but is refused.
Then the station management gets involved. Captain Sisko (Avery Brooks) urges Quark to reach an agreement with the workers, even threatening to change the terms of the bar’s lease. Security chief Odo (René Auberjonois) says he doesn’t like “mobs” and would love to arrest them—but, per Sisko’s orders, he won’t bust the strike as long as the workers are peaceful and leave a secondary entrance open for customers.
The Ferengi Commerce Authority sends in its enforcer Brunt (Jeffrey Alan Combs) to break the strike. Brunt busts into a union meeting and threatens extreme violence and seizure of the workers’ savings accounts. One worker falls on his knees and begs for forgiveness, but the others continue the strike. In an unexpected twist, Brunt decides to send a message to Rom by having his goons beat up Quark.
In the end, Quark agrees to all the workers’ terms—but in exchange, the union must officially disband to protect everyone from the Ferengi Commerce Authority. The workers agree and go back to work, except for Rom, who decides to quit and pursue a career independent of his brother.
HOW DID DEEP SPACE NINE DO?
The Good Stuff (Lots of It!)
It’s compelling that the workers come together across racial and gender differences, and it rings true that they anchor their organizing around health care and wage cuts. It’s common for employers to cut hours or pay during slow seasons—or even, as Quark threatens, to fire part of the staff, something that many real-life hospitality workers have experienced during the pandemic.
The representation of union-busting is spot-on. Quark’s attempt to pay off his brother recalls all the times bosses have tried to direct-deal and bribe union leaders into betraying the workers (Rom responds by quoting The Communist Manifesto). The Ferengi Commerce Authority resorting to violence to break a strike is also true-to-life, as is Brunt’s line that the workers have fallen under the bad influence of the non-Ferengi “outsiders.”
Quark’s use of hologram workers as scabs is an apt depiction of the boss’s perennial dream to replace workers with automation, which doesn’t always work out so well. His decision to make the holograms in his own image is also an interesting choice—one that will be amusing to anyone who has ever watched managers try and fail to perform the labor of their undervalued employees.
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As the podcast Women at Warp mentions, the Dabo girls evoke the Playboy Bunnies’ unionization and strike efforts in the 1960-70s. Their working conditions are similar to those of the Bunnies, who had no behavioral policies for customers and no protection from sexual harassment. In the show, the women’s unwavering support for the union helps convince the other strikers to remain strong—and their absence definitely deters potential customers from crossing the picket line.
When Sisko refuses to break the strike and threatens to charge Quark four years’ worth of back rent, which would bankrupt the bar, he demonstrates the role that a powerful ally (in this case both the local government and the employer’s landlord) can play. There’s an interesting parallel here to the Pennsylvania anthracite coal strike that O’Brien mentions—it was the first major U.S. strike where the federal government mediated a settlement instead of siding with the bosses and attacking the workers.
In a rare move for Star Trek, the episode shows us how the major characters differ ideologically and in their positions as workers. It’s no surprise that the local law enforcement characters, Odo and Commander Worf (formerly the chief security officer on the starship Enterprise in Star Trek: The Next Generation, portrayed by Michael Dorn), don’t support the strike. The constantly overworked repairman O’Brien, on the other hand, deeply identifies with the union struggle. O’Brien has a great line describing his ancestor: “He was more than a hero—he was a union man!”
Though the union is short-lived, the ripple effect of the organizing drive is subtly felt through the rest of Deep Space Nine. Rom’s actions and his mother’s feminist activism plant the seeds of major reforms in Ferengi society, culminating in Rom becoming the ruling leader of his home planet at the end of the series.
The episode relies on the trope of the charismatic union leader making inspirational speeches. It would be better if the workers were shown as more active organizers who just finished a Labor Notes training!
It also suffers from a cliché of the union as a boys’ club. Only the male main characters of the series are involved in the union-related scenes; the female leads are nowhere to be seen. And while Leeta, a recurring character, takes a more central role, her own radicalism is sidelined; she is mainly a source of inspiration and empowerment for Rom.
The limited extent of solidarity across difference is evident in the workers’ demands. They focus only on shared grievances and do not include the recurring concerns of the female workers, such as sexual harassment.
A scene where Worf crosses the picket line could have been handled better. O’Brien and Bashir go into the bar to convince him to leave, and we hear afterwards that there was a fight—but there is no on-screen discussion of the ethics of crossing picket lines, another unfortunate missed opportunity.
Having anti-union enforcers beat up Quark is an unusual choice, though perhaps it reinforces the idea that a small business boss is nothing but a cog in the brutal Ferengi system.
And the final agreement is less than satisfying—while the workers win their demands, the union is disbanded. Again there’s a parallel with the Pennsylvania anthracite coal strike, where the union won some demands but not formal recognition. Though the series jokingly references the union a few times afterwards, there is no indication that it lived on—and, in later seasons, the workers continue to experience job insecurity and concerns over wages.
Overall, this is a great episode that depicts union organizing in an unambiguously positive light. Rom’s courageous decision to initiate a union campaign that defies his traditional culture and his brother is also very inspiring. We give the episode a rating of 4.5 bars of gold-pressed latinum (the Ferengi currency) and promise that, by the end of the episode, you too will be a fan of “Rommunism.”
Eric Dirnbach is a labor movement researcher and activist in New York City. He has previously reviewed union episodes of The A-Team, The Simpsons, and Superstore for Labor Notes.
Ksenia Fir is a science fiction scholar and labor organizer in California. She is a department steward and a former wildcat striker at UC Santa Cruz and recently unionized a bookstore where she worked.