Deep Space Nine’s Union Episode Showed the Power of Solidarity in Sci-Fi

Deep Space Nine’s Union Episode Showed the Power of Solidarity in Sci-Fi
Rom and his fellow employees enter a very brief bargaining session. (Screenshot: Paramount)

Deep Space Nine did so many things to examine the shadows cast in the Federation’s idealised utopia. In presenting its distinctly alien setting on the titular station — primarily staffed and lived on by non-Federation peoples — and in confronting the Federation’s position through conflict and the harsh realities of post-war rebuilding, it challenged Star Trek to weather hardship and come out the other side stronger and more hopeful than ever. And perhaps few stories nail quite how uplifting it that is than “Bar Association.”

Star Trek’s idealised vision of a united future rarely had the need to tackle labour rights. After all, the Federation was a post-scarcity society — an individual’s labour, whether it was signing up for the military/diplomatic/scientific hodgepodge that was Starfleet, or running your own restaurant (as Captain Sisko’s own father did), was offered without the need for financial recompense, but instead to serve for both personal satisfaction and in the betterment of those around you. But Deep Space Nine’s non-traditional setting allowed the franchise to tackle topics that simply wouldn’t otherwise work through the lens of Star Trek’s typical Federation heroes, and so season four’s “Bar Association” — which sees Max Grodénchik’s put-upon Ferengi bar assistant Rom decide he’s had enough of his brother Quark’s abuse and forms his own worker’s union — gave us a chance to see the importance of labour rights even in a future as progressive as Star Trek’s.

Framed through the often comical relationship between the two brothers, “Bar Association” slowly but surely radicalizes Rom to concepts that are anathema to Ferengi culture and its excessive, indulgent love of capitalism. After Quark docks Rom’s meager wages from working at the bar when he becomes sick on the job — collapsing mid-shift, much to his brother’s chagrin — the Ferengi realises that his brother’s, and his own, adherences to the “Laws of Acquisition” comes at the exploitation of those without financial leverage. Learning from figures like Sisko and Bashir (representatives of the Federation’s own idealised approach to labour), and O’Brien (who proudly totes his family’s pro-union history), Rom dives into the history of socialist worker movements, pushed further and further by his brother’s increasingly cruel treatment of not just Rom, but everyone who works for him at his bar. When Quark decides to uniformly cut wages due to a quiet period of trade — telling Rom, Leeta, and all the other workers they can accept the cut or be fired — Rom finally decides to step out of his brother’s shadow, convincing his fellow workers that together they can take a stand against Quark’s abuse and advocate for their own selves by forming their own union.

“Bar Association” escalates largely through a personal level — it is, first and foremost, a story about Quark and Rom’s relationship with each other, and how the former has neglected his brother so much that he’s unable to see the latter step out of his shadow and take a handle on his own life before his eyes. But it frames this brotherly conflict through the labour issues that Quark’s exploitation of his brother’s love has created, especially after Quark tries to cast aside that relationship from his position of power, telling Rom “In this bar, you’re not my brother, you’re my employee.” When he first learns that Rom intends to unionize the bar staff, an apoplectic Quark goes to his brother and tries to revive that relationship, offering Rom the individual gain of more latinum in exchange for stopping his unionization effort — the only way Quark can view their relationship, a transactional cost rather than a familial one. He’s rebuffed by the most powerful leverage Rom has ever had over him: a self-actualized believe in his worth as a worker (with a little help from a famous Marx quote).

Screenshot: ParamountScreenshot: Paramount

As things escalate further — Brunt, a Ferengi Commerce Authority official played with loving relish by DS9 stalwart Jeffrey Combs, is brought in to violently bust Rom’s fledgling guild — the power of that value never falters. For the first time in DS9, we really get to see Rom stand up for himself and the role shaped for him on the station by his brother’s exploitation, and how in finding that worth, he decides not to take the Ferengi stance of keeping that value to himself, but to leverage it to empower his friends and colleagues. As Quark’s attempts to use holographic scabs to replace his striking workers fail, and Federation officers like Sisko, Bashir, and O’Brien support Rom and his colleagues by refusing to cross the picket line at the bar, the power of collective action becomes clear not just to the Ferengi, but everyone on Deep Space 9. No matter how hard things get, no matter how close he comes to losing his brother forever, Rom finds power in his solidarity in a way that is genuinely transformational for the character.

Brunt’s brutal escalation — and how he even turns on Quark in the process — sees “Bar Association” end with the dissolution of Rom’s union, but not in a tragic way. In exchange for formally shuttering the union so the FCA will get off Quark’s back, he agrees to all of Rom’s demands effective by the end of the week: securing better wages, guaranteed paid sick leave, and less exploitative hours for the entire bar staff. And while it’s perhaps not true to real life union drives — where contracts have to be negotiated time and time again, and one-off improvements don’t suddenly end labour disputes — it works for Rom’s personal arc on Deep Space Nine, as the drive allows him to take stock of his place on the station. He quits working at the bar, joining the Bajoran engineering crew on the station as a technician, following his passion for technology. His work on the union brings him closer to Dabo girl Leeta, setting the stage for their eventual romance. And above all, Rom begins to see himself as his own person, defined by things beyond his association with his brother.

Screenshot: ParamountScreenshot: Paramount

Deep Space Nine or Star Trek at large may never have returned to examine labour issues as keenly as it did after “Bar Association” aired, and never had the chance to show the work of labour movements as continuous, enduring acts of solidarity, defined not by single victories but repeated vigilance. But even then, in showcasing the value of unions, it championed one of Star Trek’s most ardent of ideals: that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, and that there is power in standing together to improve the lot of all.