Alien — Sci-Fi Meets Labor Exploitation

"In space, no one can hear the picket line scream"

You’re busy, so TLDR:

  • Alien is more than a cult-classic. It’s a warning about a future without sufficient worker protections.

  • Despite the anti-left rhetoric, Americans are receptive to the themes of worker unity.

  • Pro-union sentiment is growing, and the left should capitalize.

  • Keep reading for more.

Let’s be honest: Americans hate the left but adore its aims. Even politicians who espouse socialistic reforms insist they’re anything but, as D.C. consensus warns anything to the left of Joe Biden is political suicide. Yet when it comes to the left’s mission statement — to build a better world free from class, racial, and economic divisions — most Americans are aligned.

In no place is this dynamic more prevalent than cinema. From Forrest Gump, to Snowpiercer, to Nightcrawler, stories that explore the dark sides of unchecked capitalism have produced some of the country’s most revered films. Alien, the cult classic sci-fi horror film, is a textbook example of this phenomenon. Known for crowning Sigourney Weaver as the queen of modern science fiction, Alien is much more than an hour and a half of cheap jump scares: underneath the homemade flamethrowers and grotesque chest-bursting is a depiction of a 22nd century where workers are unprotected from the whims of interplanetary capital.

Deregulation & Disco

Released in 1979, Alien came at the tail end of a wobbly decade for labor. Though strikes and solidarity were aplenty, neoliberalism was surging and deregulation was all the rage. With globalization driving companies to decrease costs, bosses went scorched earth against labor, threatening to move jobs overseas if they heard anything that even rhymed with “union.” The 1980 election of Ronald Reagan, who would go on to break the 1981 Air Traffic Controllers strike and fill the National Labor Relations Board with anti-unioners, was the nail in the collective coffin of a once-empowered American labor movement.

Androids, Aliens, & Exploited Labor

Set in the not-so-distant future of 2122, Alien is far from the happy-go-lucky science fiction of Star Wars and Star Trek. There’s no space wizards or laser swords, only exploitative labor practices.

At its core, Alien is about working-class individuals just trying to make ends meet. Instead of a damp and dark coal mine or oil rig, these blue-collar men and women spend their days in the (also) damp and dark Nostromo. Instead of Jeff Bezos holding them to a quota that can only be met by peeing in water bottles, they’re under the profiteering thumb of the Weyland-Yutani corporation (which, in all likelihood, will probably be bought by Amazon). And while the workplaces have changed, capital has not, as the 22nd century still sees profit prioritized over people.

After hearing a mysterious blip, Weyland-Yutani deceives the crew into exploring an unmapped planet, knowing full well they’ll be infected by the Xenomorph and unwillingly carry it back to Earth for research and monetization. (Such behavior is no different than the Triangle Waist Company locking its factory doors or Nestlé cocoa being picked by sun-stroked children.) When Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) uncovers the mission brief, it’s no surprise her crew has been deemed “expendable”.

But just like a factory floor rife with radical fervor, Weyland-Yutani’s owners know they can’t control the Nostromo crew alone. They needed the help of someone* who looks and talks like the workers but acts for the bosses. In comes Ash, the Nostromo’s chief science officer, who is found to be an android with the sole directive of returning the Xenomorph to Earth, all other circumstances (i.e. the crew) be damned.

While workers in the 1970s and 2020s don’t have to deal with androids (on second thought, Amazon workers should probably throw water on each other once in a while), foremen and managers have long been a key cudgel in the union-busting arsenal. Just like the hourly workers who run anti-union presentations and hush organizing chit-chat, Ash does as told, sacrificing the crew to bring the profitable-but-deadly monster back to the employer.

In the end, only Ripley and her feline compatriot Jonesy escape the Xenomorph. They drift into a PTSD-filled hypersleep as their escape pod hurtles through unexplored space, fingers crossed they’re rescued by some galactic wanderer. While this is framed as a “happy ending”, the body count is anything but. Five humans suffered immense misery for the purpose of a profit they’d never reap. (Don’t worry, that never happens in real life.)

Fake Worlds, Real Problems

While the acid-bleeding, wall-crawling extraterrestrial is the draw of Alien, just like the Nostromo’s dark cargo bay, there’s more here than meets the eye. What took Alien from a forgettable flick to an American classic is its relatability.

American audiences may recoil at mentions of “union” and “labor rights,” but we all know what it’s like to be mistreated. It’s a crushing, dehumanizing feeling to have no recourse to protect our livelihoods from the whims of a profiteer. We may not always agree on the solution, but merely recognizing such predicament tugs at our heartstrings. When we see the Nostromo’s crew sacrificed for another’s financial gain, it strikes our soul, churning our hearts as extraterrestrial murder turns our stomachs. This, my friends, is solidarity — a recognition of an individual’s mistreatment and a deep want to see it remedied. While we may not be able to solve another’s predicament, we can offer compassion and aid as they endure their struggle.

Looking Up

While the defeat of the Amazon union drive in Bessemer Alabama is a disappointing data point, the pro-union trend is encouraging: 65% of Americans support unions, a two-decade high. As Alien posited, capital’s power is only multiplying as technology reaches god-like levels. While the Alien cannon never details the market operations of a rising Weyland-Yutani corporation, it’s fair to say the fictional company’s arch would parallel Amazon’s: machines urging floor workers to speed up, intrusive security checkpoints, and shady public relations like Amazon’s criminally-cringe social media “clap back” brigade.

Underneath all the facets that sparked the genre of sci-fi horror — the suspense of a fleeting motion detector, the reveal of machine masquerading as man, and the haunt of a lone distress signal chirping from the dark unknown — Alien holds a warning. Nearly half a century later, we’re just starting to hear it.

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