Zombies need a union

Organizing Work occasionally runs reviews of movies and television shows that depict organizing. Here, Chelsea Harris reviews an episode of CBS’s Evil in which workers attempt to organize a union at an Amazon-like company.

It is rare for a popular television series to depict characters who are trying to unionize. So it was something of a bold choice for Evil, in their second season episode “Z is for Zombie,” to not only show workers organizing a union but to compare Amazon workers to oppressed zombies and their bosses to evil slave-drivers. And more impressively, in the organizing scenes, they kind of got it right. 

Subtlety is not really Evil‘s thing. The hour-long horror/drama/comedy centers on a team of three hired by the Catholic Church to investigate mysterious occurrences of the potentially demonic variety. David is a priest-in-training, Kristen is a skeptical psychiatrist, and Ben is the tech guy; so for every spooky case they’re called in to investigate, David offers a spiritual explanation while Kristen and Ben counter with science. It has an obvious X-Files formula; David and Kristen have their “will they or won’t they” Mulder and Scully vibe, and the truths often stay out there. Whether or not supernatural evil exists in this world, regular old human evils definitely do.

Which brings us to the zombies. Kristen has four daughters and one of them, Lila, is friends with the girl next door, Alex. Lila and Alex are watching zombie movies online when they hear a ruckus outside and see a dark, slow-moving figure. It disappears into the shadows but the next day they see blood on the sidewalk. A van that says “CongoRun” pulls up next door and the driver delivers a package. Alex tells Lila that her dad works for CongoRun, which is “like Amazon” (in case the audience didn’t get that). When we see Alex’s dad, Brandon, home from work, he has a gnarly bite-like wound on his hand and a blank look on his face. “That wasn’t my dad,” Alex tells Lila. “I looked into his eyes, and… that wasn’t my dad.” Alex later says that her dad “just stares at the wall” when he comes home from work. 

Convinced that CongoRun is turning Brandon into a zombie, the two girls do an online search for CongoRun zombies and find a video on the “threat of unionization at CongoRun.” Says one worker on the video: “CongoRun turns its employees into zombies.” Other workers have the same “bite” on their hands as Brandon — a “workplace injury.” The slow-walking and bloody trails the girls saw before? Also workplace injuries. The video tells us CongoRun workers have no sick leave, worker’s comp, or time for breaks — and apparently no time to stop bleeding. 

When Lila talks to Kristen, who is becoming an expert on all things evil, Lila asks her if monsters really exist. Kristen vaguely answers, “There are people who do monstrous things.” 

Having found their culprit, the girls turn to the corner magic shop, where a voodoo magic woman of some sort offers the girls two vials of liquid, one blue and one green. She tells them the origin of zombies: enslaved people on plantations in Haiti were often worked to death by the slavedrivers, and the enslaved were killing themselves to escape. So, the slavedrivers perpetuated zombie legends to warn them that there was no escape even in the afterlife and they would be slaves for all eternity. “Flash-forward to today,” she tells them, “the CongoRun factory is physically and emotionally toxic and, like slavery, can turn the workers into zombies by making them dead inside.” 

Comparing Amazon, er, CongoRun workers to undead zombies and victims of plantation slavery is hyperbolic to say the least. And all workers are wage slaves in that we are forced to work in order to survive, making us “dead inside” whether the workplace is “toxic” or not. But the horrors of work at Amazon are well-known: injuries, mandatory overtime, the notorious lack of bathroom breaks, and abuse. Supervisors have even emailed workers things like “YOU CAN SLEEP WHEN YOU’RE DEAD.” We get the point. Amazon is Evil.

One of the vials of liquid is to be given to the slave, i.e. Brandon, and the other to the “slavedriver.” After the girls sneak the blue liquid into Brandon’s food, he oversleeps for work and misses a gas leak at the warehouse that sends all forty workers to the hospital with lung damage. The injured workers are terminated. This is the final straw for some remaining workers, including Brandon. Brandon hosts a meeting at his house. 

The workers at the meeting are fired up. “The question isn’t whether or not we’re angry”, says Brandon. “The question is do we have enough support to unionize? Our power is in a union!” The girls are watching the meeting from the stairs and are happy to see Brandon coming back to life. “Think your dad’s not a zombie anymore,” Lila says to Alex. Zombie stuff aside, this scene pretty accurately captures the excitement of workers who are realizing they’re not alone. Brandon and his co-workers are alive as they passionately complain about work with co-workers who are going through the same thing and have the power to do something about it.

But Brandon and his co-workers were so eager to unionize they jumped to having a large meeting instead of having one-on-one conversations first. Having one-on-ones would have allowed Brandon to build relationships with his co-workers and find out where they stand on the issue of organizing their workplace. A group meeting should really only be with co-workers you know to be union-friendly – and who you know won’t tip off the boss.

So like what often happens when agitated workers hold a meeting, the boss finds out and crashes it. His name is Mr. Hamlin and the girls recognize him as the “slavedriver.” No one seems happy to see him, but in true boss fashion, this guy knows what to say and he’s got the anti-union talking points down: “A union is never the answer,” he says. With a union you’ll “trade the face of the boss you know for one you don’t. Because the union becomes your boss — a boss you’ll have to pay. You’ll have to pay dues and go along with their rules or they won’t protect you. But the thing is, you don’t need any protection — CongoRun will always take care of you, like a family.” The dialog here sounds like the exact script a boss would follow. 

The workers aren’t falling for it, and Mr. Hamlin takes Brandon aside and threatens his job if he doesn’t lay off the union talk. “Disband your little communists,” he tells Brandon, using the classic red-baiting tactic. Brandon asserts that he can’t be fired for organizing but is told that he could be fired for missing work on the day of the gas leak. This is a common occurrence during an organizing drive: pro-union workers can be fired for minor infractions since they can’t legally be fired for supporting the union. Mr. Hamlin is kicked out, but not before the girls spike his pocket gum with the green liquid for the slavedriver. 

But the next day another boss shows up. This boss, much nicer than the last one, tells Brandon that Mr. Hamlin showed up to work inebriated (from the green liquid?) and was fired. Mr. Hamlin’s job can go to Brandon, with a much higher salary — if he stops organizing. “Nice” bosses can be more dangerous to organizing than a mean boss. A mean boss is easier to rally against, while nice bosses dissipate workplace anger with pizza parties and a sugary demeanor. But they serve the same function.

The threats against Brandon’s job didn’t work, but the promotion does. In the next scene, Brandon is happy, working from home by watching the warehouse workers remotely and barking orders at them. The slave has become the slavedriver. This is also a common union-busting tactic: identify leaders and co-opt them to the employer side.

This is not the solution the girls wanted, and they’re defeated. They’ve lost their interest in zombie movies. Were the vials of liquid magic, just some kind of strong booze, or nothing and the results were coincidental? It doesn’t matter; the results are the same. The only thing that could have possibly saved the CongoRun workers was continuing to organize, but if Brandon was their only leader, then they’ve been bested for the time being. 

Rather than a David vs Goliath relationship between the good-hearted workers and their evil boss, this episode shows the corrupting evil of capitalism. Is Brandon now evil or just a guy trying to provide for himself and his family? Again, it doesn’t matter. “People do monstrous things.”

The methods used by CongoRun to squash worker organizing are in the playbook of bosses everywhere, and barely scratch the surface of the tactics used by Amazon to beat recent unionizing efforts. When considering the ways Amazon uses pervasive technology to spy on and intimidate workers and the influence they have over law enforcement and governments, Evil doesn’t begin to describe it. 

Some of this might feel familiar if you’ve seen the movie Sorry to Bother You, a dystopian dark comedy about a telemarketing worker trying to survive a corporation’s bizarre tactics amidst a unionizing effort. It makes sense to see workplace narratives veering into the realm of horror, given what modern workers have to deal with. 

There are few depictions of union organizing on TV and they are usually on workplace comedies — The Office had one episode, Superstore had an excellent several-episode plot — and the characters are usually unsuccessful. Showrunners don’t want to depict the workplace changing much. The drudgery and humiliations of modern jobs are why the humor works, and at the same time the jobs can’t be too terrible or no one would want to watch.  The workers are plucky enough to want to stand up for themselves but not able to defeat the powers that be, so the work and the laughs continue. 

But obviously not every organizing effort results in a loss. Depictions of workplace organizing are rare in large part because it’s an alien concept to American audiences. Evil does a good job of showing the evil of bosses and the system they uphold, which is important. But audiences also need to see wins, and they’re probably not going to see that on TV. 

Chelsea Harris is an Evil watcher and member of the Industrial Workers of the World.