An Anti-Marxian Effect of Labor Unions

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I remember reading an interview with J.J. Abrams during the writers' strike, when he was supposed to be working on Star Trek XI. Abrams said he was coming up with great lines every day that he couldn't use in the film, because the union was on strike, and that would count as working.

One of Marx's underlying principles for thinking capitalism is bad is that capitalism alienates workers from the product of their labor. They work for someone else on a project that belongs to someone else and don't own anything to do with their project. One of the nice features of some jobs in a capitalist system is that you can identify with your project. Moviemaking is one of those jobs. J.J. Abrams has written, produced, and directed quite a number of successful productions, including Mission Impossible III, Lost, and Star Trek XI. Sometimes a writer doesn't own the characters or the story, but the writer gets credited and gets royalties from how many copies sell. There's a kind of ownership that's there even if some corporation owns the rights to the franchise.

But when the writer's union strikes, and members of the union have to refrain from using some of their best ideas, they get alienated from their work in a way that I think does count as an anti-Marxian effect of the strike. Maybe what that particular union was fighting for on that particular occasion was so important that it would be worth it to most of their members to sacrifice that kind of thing, but it does seem to be an unfortunate sacrifice, and I'm sure the Star Trek film would have been better in small but noticeable ways if he'd been able to use all those ideas.

4 Comments

That's interesting. Could the union strike and weaken the ownership of a few members during the strike in order to get more ownership for the members of the union as a whole? I'm not claiming this is what happened, just thinking about defenses from this critique.

I've always had a problem with the idea of labor unions, especially those in creative industries. I get that they work, it just seems intuitively wrong.

Jeremy,

I did not know about the writer's strike its correspondence to the early production and writing of the latest Star Trek movie. I thought the quote from Abrams, about not using early good ideas that he had during the strike, was particularly helpful as an explanatory cause. I now have a sufficient reason to explain why that movie was so bad (both from a Star Trek universe perspective, as well as from just a storyline/cinematic perspective).

Grace & peace,
- David

I don't get why he couldn't use the great lines that he got during the strike. He could note it down, could he not, and treat it as his own personal creativity which he would either then use in the Star Trek movie or file for a later project. Do writers charge by the idea?

Surely, to say, "I've been getting these great ideas that you are not going to see unless you agree to our demands" is just as effective as refusing to use any ideas from the time of the strike.

David, I don't think this is the explanation why the movie was the way it was. The explanation is almost entirely because of the writers. Abrams produced it and directed it, but the writers were the same team who did both Transformers movies, which had the same problems of having lots of great things on the microscopic level but not much to the overall story. Star Trek did have one crucial thing Transformers didn't, and that was excellent characterization and directing, and the actors and characters stood out over Transformers in addition to having the same beautiful look. But all three movies had lame stories, and that wouldn't have changed because a few excellent lines got left out because of the strike.

There were probably only a lot of little ways that it could have been better because of this. In fact, I think it's the things I most liked about the movie that could have been improved rather than the larger plot and story ways that I didn't like, since those likely wouldn't have changed. The characterization and technical aspects, including great lines here or there were already excellent but might have been even better.

Ali, search for the term "strike" in the Wikipedia entry on the film, and you'll get some idea of the kinds of reasoning he was using. It sounds as if part of the problem was that the strike occurred during the filming, and he was thinking of writing ideas during the filming that he'd normally propose as last-minute changes, but because he was on strike as a writer he couldn't use them. He wasn't on strike as a director, so production was occurring without those changes being included.

It lists some examples. One especially notable one was the idea to use Nichelle Nichols as Uhura's grandmother. A lot of the things that got left out would have been writer-improvised changes during rehearsals or even during filming. They'd have to wait until the strike was over and go back to the scenes if they even had the sets to introduce certain kinds of changes after-the fact, unless they were quick lines they could insert as audio without changing the video, which sometimes works but often doesn't, especially if you'd want to see the character's face as they deliver the line.

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