This post contains spoilers for Sorry to Bother You.
On Monday, millions of Americans are commemorating Labor Day with backyard barbecues and trips to the beach, while a faithful few march in parades to commemorate our country’s working people. This year might call for the start of a new, cinematic tradition. What It’s a Wonderful Life is for Christmas and Groundhog Day is to Groundhog Day, Sorry to Bother You should be to Labor Day.
Boots Riley’s film, released earlier this summer, is a funny and insanely inventive trip that has been accurately described as science fiction with a dollop of magical realism. But from the perspective of workers’ rights, it’s frighteningly accurate in its depiction of the world we are heading toward.
In the film, the main character, Cassius Green—played by Lakeith Stanfield—and his friends work at RegalView, a telemarketing company. The employees get only commissions and no wages at all. So far, this doesn’t depart from what’s legal in the real world: Generally, employers are allowed to pay salespeople on a commission basis (although what they’re paid has to add up to minimum wage and in some cases overtime too). In this case, the reality of what is happening in the real-life labor market is actually sometimes worse than the fiction. For example, supermarket baggers or other similar workers have sometimes been paid only in tips, which is plainly illegal. And Amazon’s Mechanical Turk website allows people to assign tasks for as little as a penny. In such cases, many workers end up with paltry earnings. And then there are the gig economy companies that fraudulently treat their workers as independent contractors, paying only commissions to their workforce, who alone bear most of the expenses and virtually all the risk.
When the workers in Sorry to Bother You begin to organize a union, RegalView offers a promotion to Cassius (divide and conquer), relentlessly battles the union, and never considers the possibility of actually allowing the workers to have a collective voice. Science fiction, this is not.
Throughout the movie, a company named “WorryFree” comes to play a prominent role. WorryFree offers people the “opportunity” to sign lifetime contracts to work in exchange for three meals a day and a place to live around the clock in the same building where they work. Sounds kind of like … modern-day slavery. But in the movie, it’s perfectly legal, because after all, they signed a lifetime contract.
Of course, our current employment contracts don’t go nearly as far as WorryFree’s. But they do go well beyond what fairness or decency would allow. For example, some employers use contracts in ways that effectively prevent workers from leaving their jobs. The Sinclair Broadcast Group, which owns television stations nationwide, requires workers to pay money to the company if they want to leave their jobs and has actually sued workers for taking new positions. Many more employers indiscriminately (and sometimes unlawfully) use overly broad noncompete clauses, preventing their low- and middle-level workers from moving on in life and getting a better job in their field.
Our legal system has recently been headed toward a deification of any document purporting to be a contract, at the expense of other relevant considerations. The Supreme Court has repeatedly blessed employers who force their workers to give up the right to bring a court case or class action. More than half of employees can’t sue their employer in court, because of these forced arbitration “agreements,” which workers basically have to accept if they want a job. In a recent Michigan case, a worker suing for race discrimination was kicked out of court because of an arbitration clause she had not seen or received. The court found that she had nonetheless agreed to it, because there was a link to click—which she had not done—as part of the job application.
So, in the real world, companies use contracts to keep their workers in place, and important workplace rights are waived when a link is presented that isn’t even clicked on. We’re not at WorryFree’s lifetime contracts yet, but the trend line isn’t good.
In the film, the stock market’s embrace of WorryFree also echoes today’s reality. When Cassius reveals that the company is genetically modifying its workers to make them more efficient, he believes the revelation will bring shame and outrage, and cause the business to close. But of course, the opposite occurs: Stock prices surge because of the company’s effective use of its workforce. It’s the mirror image of what happened last spring when American Airlines gave raises to pilots and flight attendants: Stock prices fell. One JPMorgan analyst called it a “worrying precedent” and wrote to clients, “we are troubled by [American’s] wealth transfer of nearly $1 billion to its labor groups.” Raised wages are seen not as an investment in a company’s team or workforce, but rather as a transfer to “labor groups” (meaning those pesky outside agitators, the pilots who fly the planes.) This zero-sum, short-term shareholder-versus-worker thinking skews corporate decision-making in harmful ways, and results in phenomena like companies using their tax-cut windfalls for stock buybacks instead of raising wages.
Finally, the movie’s shocking finale is the most wild and dystopian ending imaginable, but also ultimately reflects a sorry truth. It turns out that WorryFree has also been modifying its workers’ genes to make them into equi-sapiens: half horse, half human. This allows them to work harder, faster, more efficiently and effectively.
It’s totally bizarre, and to be sure, we haven’t seen any equi-sapiens in real life (yet). But this crazy twist reveals the sad and enraging reality of how too many companies view the people who perform the work that allows their business to function and flourish. Amazon workers allegedly pee into bottles because they can’t take breaks from their working time (the company has denied this). Pork processing workers are made to kill more than 1,000 pigs per hour; the Trump administration has proposed allowing companies to speed that up even more. People are expected to work through the heat and the cold. (See Justice Neil Gorsuch’s “frozen trucker” dissent in the case of an employee who was fired for choosing to save his own life over staying with his company’s truck in freezing temperatures.) And of course, there’s no national paid family or sick leave.
Workers’ corporeal bodies, their flesh and blood and skin and faces, are an inconvenience and a terrible inefficiency to too many employers. Andy Puzder, former CEO of CKE Restaurants, the parent company of Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr., and Donald Trump’s original nominee for labor secretary, famously said he prefers machines over employees: “They’re always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex, or race discrimination case.”
Our country’s workers are not equi-sapiens, but far too often they’re not quite treated as human beings, either. They’re an expense to be minimized, not people deserving of decency and dignity, and certainly not a force to be reckoned with.
Throughout Sorry to Bother You, the RegalView workers organizing for better conditions come together and support each other, showing tremendous courage while fighting for dignity and justice. They are aiming for what nearly half of workers in a recent survey said they wanted: a union. This vision of collective action and depiction of raised political consciousness reflect some of the best things actually happening in our country today, from fast-food workers fighting for $15 to public school teachers marching on state capitols on behalf of themselves and their students.
In this way, Sorry to Bother You hits the mark not only in its depiction of what’s badly amiss in our society but also in its vision of where we’ll find the solution.