Full disclosure: I’ve spent most of my working life as a union member, and several years working for unions. I’m also passionate about the struggle to defend workers’ rights and build safer, more respectful workplaces today.
So you can bet I can find a lot of awesome in “Bar Association”, the DS9 episode with a story pitched by two women (Barbara J. and Jenifer A. Lee), wherein Rom starts a union at Quark’s.
It’s a comedic episode, like most of the Ferengi-centred ones are, but the underlying message is that employers should treat their workers fairly. In the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion, Armin Shimerman says:
“People think of this as a comic episode. And it is, of course. But in truth, it’s really about union-management problems. The irony of it is that I play management in the episode. So, I thought that to make Rom have a reasonably hard job as a union organizer, I would have to be tough about it, to show the struggle to the audience. Although you don’t see it on TV very often, this is something that goes on in America all the time.”
Being denied sick days, vacation and overtime? Being sexually harassed by your boss? Threatened for trying to unionize? This shit happens now, people. Making the Ferengi the ones doing it in the future was a way to address it within the utopian Trek vision.
1. The Worf/Dax suplot
I wouldn’t say I’m a Dax/Worf ‘shipper but I’m fond of their relationship. By the time of “Bar Association” they’re close as friends but they’re not together, per se. The subplot of this episode is that Worf is having trouble sleeping on the station and decides to go live on the Defiant. There are some cute exchanges between them and the episode reinforces that Dax is interested in Worf, but also has her own needs, which she’ll speak up about. Other than that, though, the sub-plot is really pretty boring.
Anywho, let’s get a little more into the important points of the episode from a feminist perspective, shall we?
2. Leeta’s Role
One of the things I really like about this episode is that Quark shows a range of bad boss behaviours, including disrespecting Leeta in a way that’s distinctly sexist.
“I don’t pay you to think,” he snaps at the beginning, when she expresses concern at how sick Rom looks. A little later he says, “Just because you happen to be intimately acquainted with Doctor Bashir’s bedside manner doesn’t make you a medical expert. Leeta replies firmly, “What I do during my time off is no business of yours.”
On the other hand, if we were applying the Mako Mori test to this episode it would fail because Leeta’s story in the episode is mostly just there to support Rom’s role.
Leeta references multiple times that she’s seeing “Julian”, in a way that irks me slightly because it’s as if she’s running her responses through that filter (e.g. “I don’t think Julian would approve”).
Near the end, Rom has earned Leeta’s affection to the point where she kisses him on the head. Overall I like that Leeta ends up going for the guy who has a good heart, who’s loyal and helps others, rather than someone who’s sexier but ignores her needs. But by this early episode she’s still coming across as less than competent herself, relinquishing all her ability to lead and make choices to Bashir and Rom.
It would’ve been nice to get to see her doing more, instead of just standing behind Rom. They could’ve added a short scene, for example, with her persuading the other dabo girls to join the union, or talking to a customer about their cause.
3. Leeta the Almost-Damsel in Distress
Near the end of the episode, Brunt contemplates how best to get at Rom, and contemplates having Leeta attacked by his Nausicaan thugs:
Quark: I don’t want my brother hurt.
Brunt: I wasn’t thinking of him. Attack the leader of a movement, you risk creating a martyr. No, Rom must not be touched. Our target must be someone unexpected, someone he cares about. Like that dabo girl.
Quark: Leeta? But she’s not even Ferengi.
Brunt: I know. That’s what makes it so memorable. But she has such delicate lobes. I’m afraid I couldn’t bring myself to give the order.
I have a hard time believing the Bajoran government would let Brunt get away with attacking one of their citizens on their property, so it seems unusually dumb for Brunt to even mention this possibility. The only explanation I have is that the writers thought it would be titillating to throw that possibility in there and have creepy Brunt draw attention to her “delicate lobes.”
In the scene where he breaks into the union meeting and threatens the Ferengi, he gets distracted by her as well, in true Ferengi creepster fashion.
4. Final Random Thoughts
- The fact that Rom gets himself off? Not sure how I feel about that.
Rom: It’s not Quark’s fault that I got sick. I forgot to get my bimonthly ear scan. And besides, I’ve probably been getting too much oo-mox.
Leeta: Really? Who’s the lucky female?
Rom: No female. Just me.
Leeta: I’m sorry.
Rom: Sorry enough to do something about it?
Leeta: I don’t think Julian would approve.
This dialogue is also obviously there for humour and we’re supposed to react, like Leeta does, by thinking it’s pathetic. But dude, I say give yourself all the oo-mox you want. Just, I don’t really want to have to think about it. Also the “sorry enough to do something about it?” line? Creepy and coercive.
- I contend that the writers made a fatal flaw in the bar brawl scene: Worf would never cross a picket line.
The scene where Sisko reams the three guys out in the holding cell is hilarious, but I need a good reason for Worf to cross a picket line. For one, he doesn’t like Ferengi or socializing, so why would he choose to be at Quark’s? Why was he not in his quarters sipping replicated prune juice and listening to Klingon opera? Or even, more understandably, at the replimat, where he’d have less to disapprove of?
Also, and this is the big one, it’s not honourable. The fact that he gets into a fight with O’Brien shows he didn’t make a mistake, so why would he think it befitted his honour to stick up for a single Ferengi exploiting his workers?
- The verdict from a union perspective
This is a great episode from a labour activist perspective. It clearly shows many reasons workers today want and need to join a union, and the challenges they face getting there.
Now unfortunately at the end, Rom makes a deal to dissolve his union officially, in order to get the Ferengi Commerce Authority off Quark’s back. But Quark has to agree to all the workers’ demands.
I totally get why they did that, though. They needed a compromise to be made to bring Quark and Rom’s relationship back together, and they needed to get things at Quark’s more or less back to normal for future episodes.
Overall, I think it’s one of the more successful Ferengi comedy episodes in terms of its attempt at social commentary combined with humour. And I love how all the Starfleet folks (except Worf, [again, WTF?]) support Rom’s campaign for fair treatment because it’s just common-sense in the 24th century that no boss should be as bad as Quark is being.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: Fail
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I saw a tweet that ‘Worf crossed a picket line’ and had to read more about this episode!
“WKRP in Cincinnati” has an episode bluntly entitled the ‘The Union’ (1981) and it has the very same ending: even through forming a union is shown as fully morally justified, it is not done to preserve ‘family harmony’.
These two episodes are about as pro-union as mainstream American media gets – and this is why I don’t watch US media anymore. Most Americans are like the Ferengis, even saying the word ‘union’ makes them nervous. I need art from a braver, saner culture.