Pluralistic: Bad King Richard got rich by exploiting workers at King's Faire (25 Oct 2023)

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Striking workers in front of a factory, being fired on by teargas. Between them and the factory are a pair of jousting knights in the style of a medieval tapestry. Behind the factory looms a giant, ogrish boss in a top-hat, chomping a cigar. He is pulling on a lever made from a stylized dollar sign. In one gloved hand, he holds aloft a medieval night, who is bent over in supplication.

Bad King Richard got rich by exploiting workers at King's Faire (permalink)

King Richard's Faire is the largest renfaire in New England, and its owner, Dick Shapiro, extracts a reported $400k/day – a sum that is only possible thanks to systematic and likely illegal worker misclassification, which lets him pay performers sub-minimum wages and deny them benefits:

Many of the performers at KRF are absolutely unpaid – these are the "villagers" – who mill about looking picturesque in exchange for free admission. They even have to buy their own turkey legs.

When the faire is rained out, all workers – "volunteers" and paid workers – are sent home without any compensation. Attendees are also sent home with rain-checks, many of which go unused (there's no refunds in the land of King Richard).

Staff work from 8am to 730pm and are paid a day-rate that works out to $6/hour. After heavy weather events, staff are ordered to show up early to do cleanup, but are not paid for their time. Staff don't get health benefits – instead, local community groups like the Elks put on fundraisers to cover the health-care costs of the performers.

Now, King Richard's worker mistreatment is not an outlier in the medieval reenactment industry. Think of how the knights at Medieval Times – who put on nightly, potentially lethal performances to generate profit for their employer – unionized in the face of exploitative labor relations. To add insult to injury, Medieval Times sued the union, arguing that its name – "Medieval Times Performers United" – was a trademark infringement:

This trademark wheeze is the latest desperate tactic to be deployed by the ruling class in the face of a surging labor movement with broad public support. Starbucks – one of the world's most notorious unionbusters – is doing the same thing to its union, Starbucks Workers United:

These moves are wildly out of step with the current of public opinion, which has swung hard for union rights in a manner not seen in generations. The outpourings of public support for striking entertainment industry workers were handwaved away as exceptions driven by the public's love of actors and writers. But that doesn't explain the strong, ongoing support for the UAW in their strike against all of the Big Three automakers:

Bosses have always tried to smash worker power by dividing workers – by race, gender, or "skill" – but workers are workers and solidarity is the source of worker power. That's why the whole labor movement backed Equity Stripper NoHo, the first strippers' union in a generation:

Creative workers are part of a class of workers who suffer from "vocational awe," the sense that because your job is satisfying and/or worthy, you don't deserve to get paid for it:

(Think of joke about the father who finds his runaway son at the circus shoveling elephant shit: "Son, come home!" "What, and quit show-business?")

Creative workers have long been encouraged to see themselves as "independent businesspeople" – LLCs with MFAs – and this mind-zap is augmented with our bosses' repeated insistence that the unions are for big burly blue-collar workers, not ethereal dreamers and pencil-pushers. Our bosses tell this story because it discourages us from forming unions and demanding fair pay and good working conditions (obviously).

Think of J Edward Keyes, the cartoon villain who serves as editorial director of Bandcamp. When the workers Keyes managed formed the Bandcamp United union, Keyes called them "white-collar tech workers…appropriating the language of the legitimately oppressed," adding "Fuuuuuck Bandcamp United":

Keyes's contempt notwithstanding, it's clear why Bandcamp workers need a union – after the company was flipped twice in rapid succession, its new owners, Epic Games and Songtradr, fired all its unionized workers. Keyes responded to coverage of this mass firing by calling the Pitchfork reporters who wrote about it "absloute amateur journalists."

The attempt to divide-and-rule "knowledge workers" from "industrial workers" is a transparent bid to shatter solidarity and make it easier to abuse and exploit all workers. Thankfully, workers are wise to that gambit, and understand that when all kinds of workers struggle together, they win.

Take the UAW strikes: for many years, the UAW was an objectively bad union, ruled over by a dirty-tricking clique who sold out the membership. It's normal to blame workers for bad leaders, but the UAW old guard had rigged union elections, making sure that they would stay in charge. It's not workers that like corrupt unions – it's bosses.

Before the UAW could fight back against their bosses, they had to fight back their bosses' minions in the upper ranks of their own union. That's where the the Harvard Grad Students' Union comes in. After years of worsening exploitation and working conditions, the Harvard Grad Students organized under the UAW, then joined forces with reformers in the union to oust the corrupt leadership.

During the leadership struggle, Harvard Grad Students helped their comrades from the auto-sector master the union's baroque constitution, so when the old guard tried to prevent motions from reaching the floor, the grad students were able to cite chapter and verse back at them. In the end, grad students and auto-workers together won the victory that paved the way for the strikes:

A strong, unified labor movement is necessary if America is to save itself from inequality, racism, the climate emergency – the whole polycrisis. The idea that creative workers aren't workers is bullshit – and so is the lie that all workers are uncreative. The "Worker As Futurist" project recruits Amazon drivers and warehouse writers to write science fiction about a future without Amazon:

They call this a "belief that rank-and-file workers, whose bodies and minds are exploited by capital, might have access to some knowledge about capitalism that is beyond even the most brilliant theorist or analyst of capitalism."

All workers can and should tell their own story. Doing so isn't just a way to change the narrative – it's also a way to change policy. The new merger guidelines from the FTC and DOJ Antitrust Division explicitly incorporate labor-market effects into antitrust policy. As Brian Callaci and Sandeep Vaheesan write for The Sling, the testimony of workers and unions can help produce the evidentiary basis for blocking the mergers that lead to monopolies:

The rising labor movement is a force for profound change in every part of our economy and politics. Workers can be our knights in shining armor.

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