Red & Black & Porous Is He: Worker’s Rights & Trade Unionism in Spongebob Sqaurepants
This article will focus on season 2’s episode Squid On Strike, first aired October 12th, 2001.
Within the context of the cartoon, we must accept Spongebob’s base and unchangeable nature. He is permanently the nice guy, with an ocean of optimism and an unshakable eagerness. Therefore, as a worker, his demands must meet his hyper personality. Namely, he just enjoys working at the Krabby Patty, for him that is the ultimate achievement, if he could, he would work at the fast food restaurant for all eternity.
The episode opens with the frugal owner Mr Krabs deciding to actively charge his staff for wasting time (Breathing $1, Existing $2 etc).
I assume Eugene Krabs would be an ardent supporter of the Coalition’s policy of workfare. ♪Counting me money, money sweeter than honey, money, money, this, money, money, that, profits will make me wallet fat! ♪ he sings to himself.
The cashier and permanently grumpy character Squidward decides to take industrial action. Krabs hires scabs.
Squidward takes the role of a Union official co-ordinating strike action with the reluctant Spongebob (though technically in the episode they are fired from work and therefore picketing the injustice). However after realising being on strike with Spongebob is a frustrating affair, he decides to prematurely end the strike. The negotiations between Krabs and Squidward are never revealed, they take place offscreen and without any input from the worker, Spongebob.
Meanwhile, inflamed by Squidward’s words, Spongebob decides to literally tear apart capitalism by wrecking his old workplace. He grabs his tools and smashes the Krabby Patty to ruins! Direct action!
Everyone has the right to a living wage, decent working conditions and not to be bossed around by a boss, something Squidward mildly fights for when it suits him and his conditions are threatened.
In 2012, The Daily Mail ran an article suggesting the German ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ slogan is “somewhat tainted by its connection with Nazi concentration camps, but its essential message, ‘work sets you free’ still has something serious to commend it.”
This was quickly removed, but serves to prove a feeling prevalent in the 21st century recession. Be thankful to work, if you don’t work you are worthless, or even worse, a benefit claimant and therefore a parasite to society. Better to work for no pay (workfare) or for poor conditions (zero hour contracts) than not work at all.
The Mail article make a disgusting comparison:
“There is dignity to be gained from any job […] whether that is on the factory floor, on a supermarket till or in the contemporary hard labour camp of a merchant bank or law office.”
Employment is still wage slavery, and while a capitalist would say we are freed by our privilege to work, that freedom is a binding of chains forged in working hours, payslips & being forced to book holidays.
We can, and should, fight like Squidward for small changes to our working conditions. We can, and should, pressure our employers and not only resist attacks to our labour, but also demand a better living. But Squidward requests longer chains and a bigger cage.
Take Spongebob and his good-natured heart. The poor, charmed chap would happily work forever. He doesn’t even realise he’s in a cage.
In the end of the episode, Spongebob does get what he fought for…the opportunity to work forever. To this happy yellow worker, his dream has come true, his demands are met. The final shot shows them, silently, as two eerie cursed skeletons still working at a derelict Krabby Patty. They will spend an eternity enslaved to their workplace.
But then look how easily Spongebob is quick to anger, quick to turn to direct action, quick to be radicalised.
In the episode, Spongebob listens to a vinyl record which sounds not dissimilar to an underwater Utah Phillips. According to a transcript of the episode, the lyrics go: ♪Hey, Mean Mr. Bossman, I’m a-quittin’ this here job You’ve been outside gettin’ tan And I’ve been gettin’ robbed My life is worth so much more Than a dollar ‘n’ ten an hour Wakin’ up by the quarter to four And I’m startin’ ta turn sour So, Hey, Mean Mr, Bossman, I’m a-quittin’ this here job I’m sick of eatin’ old bran And living like a slob. You’ve got me living like a slob! ♪
We are worth more than a “dollar ‘n’ ten an hour”. No price is high enough to enslave our lives and labour. There is no victory in winning the battle to wake up at 4.45am or even 9.45am. So long as we accept out role as employees, they with hold the crippling power to employ.
“I can’t just sit here, it’s time for action! I will restore the working man to his rightful glory! I will dismantle this oppressive establishment board by board! I will saw the tables of tyranny in half. I’ll gnaw at the ankles of big business!” cries the little yellow sponge.
Bio: Henry Raby is a York-based. performance poet, theatre-maker, play-wright, workshop facilitator and associate artist of Red Ladder Theatre Company www.henryraby.com @HenryRabyPoetry
Synopsis: The first time I learned about Michael Jackson, Citizen Kane & Soviet Russia was watching The Simpsons. Many children’s first experience with cultural references are through cartoons and film/TV. Ash Ketchum and Luke Skywalker and the lessons they have taught us mean a lot more to a lot of us than Jesus or the Prime Minister. So if a programme aimed at children does deal with a politically important subject matter, in this case Trade Unionism, it bears some analysis, because that child’s parents could be striking the following week, or that child could one day be in that position when industrial action is an option placed before them in the battle for worker’s rights. Plus, y’know, it’s fun to rewatch old cartoons from the early 00s.