Revisiting The Simpsons Union Episode Through a Leftist Lens by Steven K. Hutchinson
As a member of that big generation (giant, really) born after 1980 now notorious for blowing our McMansion down payment on avocado toast, it’s fun being a part of this massive wave of people entering their early 30s who reject whatever their parents’ generation told them about almost everything. These days I wouldn’t take a baby boomer’s advice on how to pour a bowl of cereal, much less accept their opinions on macroeconomics. This also means that I’m inherently a Simpsons fanatic and, moreover, a specific kind of Simpsons fanatic. I only watch, discuss, and reference seasons 2–8 and, incredibly, this now constitutes less than 30% of the series. There are some hardcore fans who still consume it all (why?) but there’s a more identifiable contingent of us who give a nod and a smirk to each other when we insist we’re “Golden Era” fans only. Any episodes beyond that run are dead to us.
Within that realm of Simpsons fandom there’s a particular episode that stands out as a timeless classic. And if we want to get even more granular, this episode is also positively noted as essential among the pro-labor crowd and Marxist nerds. The episode I’m talking about is season four’s “Last Exit To Springfield” or, in layman’s terms, the one where Homer becomes the head of his union at the power plant to save their dental plan — aka “Dental plan! / Lisa needs braces” (repeat x8).
Full disclosure: I hang out with Marxists millennials and (shocker) a lot of us are really into old Simpsons episodes and obscure Italo disco records. But why is “Last Exit To Springfield” (s04e17) one of our favorites to reference? Well because it’s about workers standing up to the owners of capital, naturally! C. Montgomery Burns may be the most iconic character created in my lifetime to symbolize the cruel capitalist ruling class and the perfect foil to Homer Simpson as the everyday working class hero. The episode is one of those evergreens that feels like the script could have been written yesterday or 100 years ago. It’s still relevant and funny as hell from beginning to end.
However, when I recently re-watched “Last Exit”, I couldn’t help but notice that it’s not entirely pro-union the way I remembered it -at least not in a way I could describe as unapologetic. There are some gags throughout that poke fun at unions and leaves one with that “both sides have their faults” sort of vibe reminiscent to what makes much of South Park’s politics so noxious and off-putting. Keep in mind “Last Exit” first aired in 1993, a year when Third Way neoliberalism was really hitting its stride in America, as the Democrats re-claimed the White House after a pro-capitalist re-branding, and just 3 years before Bill Clinton declared that “the era of big government is over.” It was also written and directed by Ivy League grads (Jay Kogen and Wallace Wolodarsky) who may or may not have had any firsthand experience with working class organized labor.
That said, there is a fantastic scene that I’ve been dissecting lately with anyone who will listen. It is both hilarious and a little problematic at the same time, as the kids say. The premise of the episode is the Springfield power plant trade union in the middle of renewing its contract with Mr. Burns. The episode opens with Burns sitting at his desk lamenting at all of the demands from his unionized employees (they want a green cookie on St. Patrick’s day, for example) and he reminisces back to a simpler time when the owners of capital could treat and pay their employees as poorly as they wanted. “It didn’t used to be this way, Smithers”, he bemoans.
Flashback to 1909 Springfield where we see a child Burns dressed like Little Lord Fauntleroy at his grandfather’s atom smashing plant as the workers are literally splitting atomic particles with sledgehammers. Mr. Burns’s grandfather is the classic, ruthless robber baron who has just ordered his goons to physically remove a young worker after he’s accused him of stealing atoms. As the worker is dragged away he yells, “You can’t treat the working man this way! One day we will form a union and get the fair and equitable treatment we deserve!” he continues, “Then we’ll go too far and get corrupt and shiftless. And the Japanese will eat us alive!”
So a few things to note here: the overarching gag is the worker summarizing the story of the “rise and fall” of the American labor movement. And like with any great gag, there’s some truth in it. In the later parts of the 19th century and early 20th century the owners of capital, like Burn’s grand papa, took advantage of loose regulations, monopolized the hell out of every commodity possible and paid their workers slave wages under the most brutal of conditions. So, in response, the workers formed unions to fight back against their oppressors. For instance, in 1912 about 20,000 textile workers led a massive strike in Massachusetts to protest additional cuts to their slave wages along with their children who were forced to leave their schools to work alongside adults prior to child labor laws. A prominent investor in the American Woolen Company responded to that strike with naked cruelty and earnestly said, “Any man who pays more for labor than the lowest sum he can get men for is robbing his stockholders.” For decades there was a huge war fought between owners of capital and workers. Lots of people died.
From there, according to current hegemony, things get a little murky in the American labor story. The popular narrative still held by many is that the unions overplayed their hand, elected corrupt leaders, became associated with the mob, and squandered all of the sympathy they once had with the general public. Then the capitalists sent all their jobs to other less regulated countries where they could continue the exploitation they’re so good at.
When I first watched that Simpsons episode as a child, then hundreds of times more as a teen and young adult, this narrative was pretty much my entire understanding of American organized labor. My public high school sure didn’t teach me anything about the history organized labor, which I and many others find that omission from the standard curriculum as dubious and/or outright intentional. If one isn’t born into a pro-union environment in The United States, learning about the history of organized labor is left to one’s own devices. I was lucky enough to meet some leftists during and after college who were well versed and turned me onto literature, documentaries, and other media detailing the heroics of international labor leaders from centuries past. There’s other (admittedly very funny) digs further into “Last Exit” that go back to the same well of the stereotypical image of the slovenly and boorish mentality of blue collar workers — Mr. Burns is able to successfully entice many of his employees to forfeit their dental plan in exchange for a single keg of beer. But now anti-union jokes like those described in this episode make my brow furrow and my head tilt a bit.
I shouldn’t need to dive into the details about all the “perks” we now take for granted that were created by unions a century ago in order to prove their value to society (the 8 hour work day, weekends, lunch and bathroom breaks, ending child labor, Social Security benefits, lifesaving safety regulations, etc etc). No one should forget that these essential rights did not come without a human cost. Today all multistory buildings are required to have fire exits. Only after a massive fire at a garment factory in 1911 where 146 workers were trapped and died is that regulation now a common reality. This unprecedented tragedy also pushed the growth and momentum of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union.
So it must be said that the pop culture cliché of unions run by Tony Soprano is misguided and intellectually boring at this point. The characterization of union organizers as nothing but selfish troublemakers trying to allow workers to be lazy is ignorant at best and intentionally dishonest at worst. It’s categorizations like these that helped decimate the labor movement in the United States and poisoned its perception to the public. The idea that a sizable amount of the United States population can despise public school teachers simply because they are collectively represented by a union is unfortunate and infuriating. And yet despite all that, I still laugh every time I watch “Last Exit”. The flashback to Burn’s grandfather is my favorite scene in one of my favorite episodes of the entire Golden Era and it always will be. I’m even entertaining the idea for a new “hired goon” tattoo (please don’t @ me).
To those hardcore Simpsons fanatics who also don’t know much about the history of our labor movement: please don’t let the jokes about unions in The Simpsons be your only interpretation of them like they were for me for so long. The history of our unions is actually a fascinating story that too few people know about. It’s something that self-identified Simpsons nerds can really obsess over once they get a taste (all kinds of cool stories about anarchists and bombs and stuff!). Do you know how the international holiday May Day came about? It came from the Haymarket Affair.
Take some time to learn about the IWW and the Wild Cat Strikes, William “Big Bill” Haywood, Mother Jones, and Eugene V. Debs. Learn the lyrics and how to play a traditional labor song on the piano or the guitar. And on the next May 1st, join your local May Day march for the real Labor Day. I would also highly recommend taking in a good dose of some chill Simpsonwave played softly in the background before easing into the Laborwave genre like a warm bath.
Right when he returns from that childhood flashback, even Mr. Burns admits, “If only we had listened to that boy instead of walling him up in the abandoned coke oven.”