Tuned In

Looking for the Union Label

  • Share
  • Read Later

Working man Archie: Those… were… the… days! / CBS Photo Archive

I don’t know why I remember Skag, but I do. Airing in 1980, when I was a kid, it starred Karl Malden as a steel-mill foreman, who suffers a stroke and has to rebuild his life. Among the storylines in the show was his trouble getting help from the steelworkers’ union. Labor advocates called creator Abby Mann anti-union for the story, but in retrospect, what seems quaint about the show now is that it took unions seriously enough to criticize them.

Skag ran six episodes on NBC and disappeared. The next year, Ronald Reagan fired the air-traffic controllers, and, coincidentally or not, in the subsequent decades it’s been rarer and rarer to find stories about unions, and the kind of people who tend to belong to them, in primetime network TV.

I’ve been thinking about this as, ironically, the Writer’s Guild gets closer and closer to a strike against the networks and studios. In the Norman Lear ’70s, it was not unusual to see sitcoms and dramas that dealt, matter-of-fact, with labor issues and how they affected ordinary people’s lives. It was normal to see an episode of All in the Family, say, where the Bunkers had to deal with the consequences of a strike at the dock where Archie worked. But as TV, especially sitcoms, became increasingly white-collar and Frasier-ified going into the ’90s, labor issues, especially blue-collar ones, tended to fade away. In the ’90s, Roseanne was a rare, occasional exception; by the 2000s, the shows like The King of Queens that had blue-collar characters were not exactly steeped in labor economics.

Certainly I don’t blame writers, or writers alone, anyway, for what was part of an overall change in the business of TV. In the three-network era, there was simply more money in going for a large overall number of viewers, whatever the color of their collars. In the cable era, as absolute ratings numbers got smaller, demographics became more important, which meant more upscale shows about upscale characters: cab riders, not cab drivers. Whatever their interests, primetime TV writers were writing more and more about people closer to their own income brackets. (To say nothing of TV journalists.)

I suppose in theory there may be as many unionized workers in primetime as there ever were. All those cops, nurses and CSIs are theoretically covered by unions, right? But shows that really immerse themselves in labor and working-class themes have become–like so much else–more and more a niche business, handled on cable shows like HBO’s The Wire or The Sopranos and Showtime’s Brotherhood. (And even HBO has been more interested lately in the kind of proletarians who have SAG cards.)

TV’s a big business, of course, and I’m sure there are exceptions I’ve passed over–feel free to mention them in the comments. And I can’t blame TV writers for selling what TV executives are willing to program. But at exactly the time when the writers are going to be looking for public sympathy for their own labor cause, the longtime fading of labor from primetime TV is, at least, striking.

[Update: Ronnie asks in the comments, “Do they even have unions at Harvard?” Which reminds me of The Simpsons, and in turn of my favorite TV union ever, the International Brotherhood of Jazz Dancers, Pastry Chefs, and Nuclear Technicians. So there’s one.]