Boots Riley’s 2018 film Sorry to Bother You follows the journey of Cassius Green, a working-class citizen of a present-day dystopian Oakland. Four months behind on rent, Cash begins a new job as a telemarketer at RegalView. Squeeze, a co-worker and labor organizer, approaches Cash to discuss unionization. Cash initially helps organize, but, after being promoted, crosses his ex-coworkers’ picket line. Later, a powerful CEO attempts to enlist Cash in the CEO’s plan to subvert his workers’ organizing rights and turn them into the most profitable workforce in history. Throughout STBY, Cash must balance his interests with those of his coworkers and friends, and decide whether to aid the labor movement, or oppose it.
STBY’s plot is exciting, at times bizarre, and worthy of the in-depth explanations it’s garnered. STBY should also be praised for masterfully raising issues beyond and related to the labor movement, such as corporate greed and race. (See, e.g., Cash’s forced rap at Steve Lift’s demand). This post, however, will focus on the labor dimensions of STBY’s social commentaries. STBY resonates with a generation of workers who might not otherwise recognize labor’s role in their workplaces and leaves them with a straightforward command: recognize problematic working conditions imposed on you, and wake up to labor’s potential to counter those conditions.
Even Corporate Workplaces can be Organized
RegalView is a typical office environment: workers sit in cubicles. They are promoted based on performance. Signs on the walls remind workers that a manager is on duty and to “stick to the script.”
During a company-wide meeting, workers are introduced to their new team leader, Diana DeBauchery. In her introductory speech, DeBauchery uses HR buzzwords like “synergy” and “media (digital, paper, otherwise)” to explain to workers they are not mere employees to her; they are family. Cash asks will they get paid more, since they have to be excited about work now. DeBauchery admits they won’t, but social currency is more important than capital these days anyway. DeBauchery doesn’t want the team to be scared, but this is a “new world.” RegalView represents the prototypical workplace of DeBauchery’s new world: why would workers want to organize against management, when they are family?
After the speech, Squeeze informs Cash of workers’ organizing efforts. Squeeze notes obviously they can’t talk more about organizing while at work. He appeals to the common fear of discussing organizing at work, even if the workers and management are “family.”
STBY demonstrates how traditional organizing methods can be relevant in RegalView’s corporate-yet-team-run workplace. After garnering enough support, Squeeze hosts an organizing rally. There, workers agree to a work stoppage. They cease calls for 20 minutes during prime calling time. The energizing work stoppage conveys the message that, yes, strikes can happen against a backdrop of cubicles – and not just in a factory. True, Squeeze’s role as an experienced organizer is essential to the work stoppage and later, strikes. And Riley does not wade into virtual organizing, made popular during recent Facebook-group-fueled teacher’s strikes. But STBY offers a captivating depiction of the modern workplace as host to labor activism.
Employer Interference is Alive and Well
Cash is promoted to a power caller position after the work stoppage. The organizing drive quickly escalates to strikes by the low-level telemarketers, but Cash’s new job, and its irresistible high salary, cause him to cross the picket line. The strikes grow increasingly violent throughout STBY.
Power callers sell, among other heinous things, slave labor for RegalView’s biggest client, WorryFree. WorryFree is STBY’s analog for the omnipresent corporate conglomerate (Amazon, Google, Facebook – take your pick). WorryFree workers sign their freedom away through lifetime employment contracts in exchange for corporate-owned housing and meals. Steve Lift, WorryFree’s CEO, catches wind of Cash’s unparalleled success and wants Cash to work for him. He reveals to Cash the next stage of WorryFree’s reign: Lift recognizes human labor’s limitations. In order to “make humans stronger, more obedient…and therefore more efficient and profitable”, WorryFree will inject its workforce with a serum to turn them into half-human, half-horses called “equisapiens”. Lift hopes equisapiens will make WorryFree the most profitable company in human history. He also hopes the workforce will “gripe a lot less.”
But Lift’s plan doesn’t end there. He knows the equisapiens, like all workers, may want to organize, they may “want to rebel.” And that’s where Cash comes in: Cash will act as a worker, someone the equisapiens can relate to. He will be the equisapiens’ “Martin Luther King Jr.”, but one WorryFree creates and controls.
An equisapien workforce may seem like one dystopian universe away from our current labor environment, even given claims of actual corporate giants monitoring workers’ physical necessities to meet productivity requirements. But Lift’s plan to coopt workers’ organizing efforts is not science-fictional. §8(a)(1) of the NLRA makes it an unfair labor practice for an employer to “interfere with, restrain, or coerce employees in the exercise” of their §7 rights.
Lift’s plan would clearly violate §8(a)(1) by interfering with workers’ self-organizing, assuming equisapiens have §7 rights. Cash and STBY viewers sense the unethical dimensions of Lift’s plan, and labor law puts a name to its illegality.
Labor Movements Force Society to Consider Working Conditions
Lift proclaims that his desire to literally dehumanize workers in order to extract every drop of profitability from them “isn’t irrational.” Indeed, after Cash reveals Lift’s plan to the public, the media praises Lift as a genius. WorryFree’s stock soars. Senate leaders join Lift to ring the market’s opening bell. Viewers shouldn’t be surprised: earlier in the film, we learn a historic ruling cleared WorryFree and its lifetime employment contracts of slavery charges.
Cash, on the other hand, is dismayed to learn Lift’s plan didn’t fail after Cash revealed it. Squeeze offers Cash a poignant moment of truth about society’s reaction to Lift’s plan: “If you get shown a problem but have no idea how to control it, then you just decide to get used to the problem.” Herein lies Riley’s ultimate homage to labor’s power: collective worker action prevents society from “getting used to it.”
STBY’s climax takes place during one last strike against RegalView. Cash, once again on the workers’ side, is violently struck and locked in an armored truck. Just as the battle seems lost, the valiant equisapiens arrive. They free Cash from the truck and proceed to triumph over RegalView’s security and, of course, oppressive management.
Riley frames the most oppressed workers, indeed those subjected to the most inhumane conditions, as STBY’s ultimate heroes. Viewers watched as the STBY universe normalized WorryFree’s lifetime contracts and equisapien plan from questionable working conditions into welcome promises to provide steady employment, housing, and a blissful life. The striking RegalView workers had a clear vision of what they wanted their workplace to provide. They must hold on to that vision, warns Riley, because, if not for the equisapiens collectively standing in solidarity with RegalView’s workers, perhaps they all would have instead just gotten used to the problem.