Monday, September 7, 2009

Working Stiffs in SPAAACE !!!

Space Station Construction Workers
In North America this is Labor Day. I had vaguely assumed that it was ginned up early last century to keep May Day, with its lefty connotations, from catching on in 'Murrica. Good old Wikipedia set me straight. 'Our' Labor Day originated decades earlier, in Canada, while the call for a workers' holiday first arose in Australia.

If there are large numbers of humans in outer space, most of them will be workers. They will be working as researchers and assistants, engineers and technicians, administrators and support staff. Perhaps there will be Belters with singleships, but the great majority of people in space are likely to live in complex habitats, kept functional and alive by hundreds of specialized trades, professions, and crafts. And a great deal of plain hard work.

'Spacer' is, in essence, a skilled blue collar trade. Spacers (or whatever term emerges for them) operate heavy machinery, some of it very heavy and much of it exceedingly powerful and dangerous. They deal with precision devices, some of them exceedingly fine and delicate. On this blog I casually discuss large interplanetary spacecraft with plasma electric drives rated at a gigawatt, instruments that measure nanometers, and life support for hundreds of people. Someone builds and operates these fabulous and complex vehicles, and those someones are spacers: workers.

Given the high costs and resulting high automation there probably won't be full time potato peelers aboard spacecraft, but someone will end up peeling them. And once things get somewhat established, the necessary scut work won't get evenly distributed. Universities, the military, and big civil engineering contractors offer three different models of how things can get done, and none of them is the least bit egalitarian. Some sort of hierarchy of work is likely to emerge.

Science fiction has long been aware of this, and there have been a fair number of stories about labor unrest in space. Given 'Murrican political culture, in the rocketpunk era such commie stuff might be tucked well into the background. All those rebel colonists have to be rebelling over something, and it probably is not all abstractions about liberty and independence. At least not to start. More likely it begins with disputes over pay and working conditions, then spreads to the question of why someone who has never been to Ceres is making decisions instead of the people who live and work there.

Those who plan the human presence on Ceres, and those who pony up the money to get it built, also have their rightful claim. But since they generally appoint the decision makers, their claim rarely goes unheard. The working crews are expected to be content with their paychecks - not entirely unfair, presuming they signed on by choice, but not the whole of the story. They create a value above and beyond what they get paid for. (If they don't, why were they hired?)

The workers in space will have a stake in the work they do, and ultimately the biggest one, since they will build the human presence in space. And will be the human presence in space.

Image of space station workers from NASA, via RobiNZ Personal Blog.


Anonymous said...

Well, yeah, you've just described the real way nations are built.


Citizen Joe said...

Keep in mind that the 'Boss' is likely to be at Mission Control safely sipping his morning coffee and has full control over whether or not you survive. Additionally, if you decide one day that you've had enough, your lack of work may result in your death as well as the death of all your crewmates.

Anonymous said...

"if you decide one day that you've had enough, your lack of work may result in your death as well as the death of all your crewmates."

Just like any other skilled blue collar job then. My friend has more nightmare-fuel stories from his time on the railway than his time in combat arms. He figures he could kill a few thousand people just by derailing a single rail car.


flatd said...

great stuff! thanks for all of this!

Jean Remy said...

Despite being somewhat unhinged, and completely out of touch with reality, Karl Marx's idea are grounded on one true fact: the guys making the decisions and the guys making the infrastructure come from different background. Not necessarily as a result of birth, however, but as the result of education. In the most liberal of settings, that educational path is a choice, but it still exists.

When I was an aerospace engineering student at the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University those differences were clearly marked. The university was divided into three distinct curricula. On the first side, you had the engineers: the guys whose concern it was to put fantastical idealized flying artworks onto paper. On the opposite side you had the mechanics, the oil-and-dirt engineers, the guys with the toolbox and the stained overalls. In the middle, you had the pilots, who had to look at the guy in the white coat gazing at the clouds, and the guy in the dirty smock holding a roll of duct tape, and then get into the plane those guys built.

The mechanics complained that the pilots always found ways to break the one unbreakable item that was in the middle of the engine and that required them to strip it completely, because of the poorly conceived design that put a hundred useless items between them and their broken parts and no easy access.

The pilots complained that the mechanics never fixed their planes right, and that every time it went into maintenance it would come out with a funny new noise. They also wondered if those seats really had to be that uncomfortable, or the controls that finicky.

Of course the engineers wondered what the pilots and mechanics found wrong with their obviously pristine creations, and would point at the neat paper schematics to prove it could never break down.

The stereotypes were of course:

The Dumb Pilot: couldn't add 2+2 and perhaps not even write, and who was he to complain about the work, it's not like his life depended on the work of the two others. Right?

The Frustrated Mechanic: He grumbles that the pilots mistreat the machines and the engineers can't design a practical engine that can be fixed without taking the plane apart.

The Ivory-Tower Scientist: out of touch with anything resembling reality, living in a paper fantasy. Also, they don't have girlfriends.

Most of this was, of course, in good humor, and satirical articles appeared regularly in our school paper. Overall everyone knew that the engineers had to have the head for dizzyingly obscure mathematical formulae, the mechanics obviously knew their way around an engine and would slap you upside the head if you did something really boneheaded, and the pilots? These guys had balls of steel.

These broad strokes are of course present in every aspect of life. When the various classes realize the interdependence of their skills, and that everyone is better off doing what they were taught to do (ideally because they chose to do exactly that) then the society is stable is functional. If any of those classes start to feel cheated, or fail to realize that everyone's job depend on the others doing theirs right, Bad Things Happen. Where Karl Marx was wrong was in suggesting the proletariat (the mechanics) could do without the political leaders (the engineers) and that the latter should be overthrown. Given that the engineers were doing a piss-poor job at it, we can understand his frustration. The mechanics did screw things up royally, mainly in letting another school of engineers take over who spoke well, but weren't mechanics either, and though they were arguably better than the previous batch, their brute-force approach to design led to some unfortunate results.

The revolution on Ceres will be started with malcontent mechanics, but it will not take off, or be successful, unless a cadre of (competent) administrators takes the discontentment to heart and puts shape to it.

Anonymous said...

It's when the Engineers, Mechanics, and Pilots sit down and cooperate in coming up with a solution to an ongoing problem that is comfortable, practical, and eligent that lasting institutions are evolved from. Most people who have a direct stake in their community, tend to have a better take on what needs to be done to deal with whatever issues come up; that there are peope who don't have that intimate connection to a community who still believe that they are more capable of solving problems (even those they've inadvetantly caused) better than the people who actually have first hand knowledge of the situation. Sadly, those know-it-all people will probably always be with us and the rest of us will always be rebeling against them to lesser or greater degree.


Rick said...

Ferrell - Exactly so, and the way space will be built if/when it happens in real life.

Citizen Joe - The boss in Mission Control could end up being a union shop steward. Which relates to Jean's point.

Ian - Space is railroading at multiple km/s, with million horsepower locomotives, in vacuum.

flatd - Thanks, and welcome to Rocketpunk Manifesto!

Jean - The revolution on Ceres will be started with malcontent mechanics, but it will not take off, or be successful, unless a cadre of (competent) administrators takes the discontentment to heart and puts shape to it.

And then get the scientists to design their superweapons.

This blog deals with space opera, however tarted up to look Realistic [TM], and bad labor relations are great for space opera. But they would not be very good for space.

Rick said...

Ferrell - Oddly, there's something to be said for the outsider know it alls, too. In practically any field, the opinion of good honest nonexperts tends to be worthless, and there is evidence that this is true of public administration as well.

On the other hand, Lord Salisbury:

No lesson seems to be so deeply inculcated by the experience of life as that you should never trust experts. If you believe doctors, nothing is wholesome: if you believe the theologians, nothing is innocent: if you believe the soldiers, nothing is safe. They all require their strong wine diluted by a very large admixture of insipid common sense.

But on the third hand, expertise is what skilled work is all about. And for that matter all the work we call unskilled because people don't need years to learn it, but is actually complex and extremely difficult to automate.

California is not going to have robo field hands and hotel maids for a long time to come. So it has to make some kind of place for the human ones.

Jean Remy said...

Labor issues are not very good in real life. France has very lax strike laws, allowing basically anyone to strike without them running afoul of the law, and labor unions are very powerful, and not in a Jimmy Hoffa "connected" sense. The leaders of major unions are as famous and recognized as politicians, and wield almost as much "voting power". They're all more or less aligned with a political party or another (and we have at least 3 to 4 significant party given the times, and about six more that can tip the scales of a partite alliance), so when they "suggest" to their unions to vote a certain way, you can be assured they have a LOT of clout. This power also can be wielded like a club, and strikes in all sectors are common. Postal employees, nurses, flight controllers, rail and small rail employees, can and have gone on massive strikes, and have paralyzed transportation and critical institutions. Compared to France, there are few strikes in the US, and the labor unions are weak and helpless when faced with corporations. I have never here been faced with a total regional paralysis due to a strike, when it wasn't uncommon for me to be unable to get to school because the trains weren't running. Those strikes are rarely very long, and act as a sort of safety valve, a display that something is wrong, and a way, if you will, to vent.

I have no doubt that it would be Realistic [TM] to have labor issues IN SPACE. In the current trend of the US federal government going to "security contractors" is it so hard to see the rebirth of the Pinkerton Agency, used as strike breakers against the Ceres working stiffs? And once we are so deeply into space we have an outpost on Ceres, I doubt we can go back. Sure there could be an isolationist backlash, but that might just encourage more people to leave. There is a very good reason people left Europe and migrated to the US, even when it was just a wild frontier. I strongly doubt the frontier spirit that has guided so much of human history has simply died because of the comforts of modern technology.

qwert said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
qwert said...

Wear in mind however, that, at least during the near future, space workers will probably be better trained, educated and paid than their bosses.

After all there are only a few in good enough fisical shape to whitsand harsh conditions, willing to risk their lives and with the required tecnical and scientific knowledge needed for such work.
Much more people can lead operations safely from the ground.

I suspect they will behave more like today´s pilots than yesterdays proletarians: The airline depends on you (at least here in Europe), so you can safely milk it and get ironclad contracts with golden retirement plants and lots of holydays.
An ocasional strike, preferably when you are most needed, may be necesary in order to remember your boss who is realy dependent on who.

M. D. Van Norman said...

There have already been strikes in space.

Isegoria said...

If they're spacers, I doubt they're handling any heavy equipment. Massive? Sure, but not heavy.

More seriously, labor isn't Labor, in the classic sense, unless the supply of laborers outstrips the demand for laborers, and wages get driven down to subsistence levels -- which was true throughout much of human history until the Industrial Revolution led to productivity growth that outpaced population growth.

Anonymous said...

I think that it depends on what you mean by strike; going about the ordinary day-to-day work of your colony/outpost (except for shipping whatever it is that you produce back to Earth) vs. stopping all work (including operating the life support plant) vs. even just one section going on strike (like the life support plant) to resolve some dispute or issue. The first is colony vs. company, the second is a form of mass suicide, and the last is rebles vs. colony. Strikes in space aren't the same as on Earth...'breaking' a strike on a Ceres colony may well be more like a war than the traditional take of miners vs. Pinkertons...


Rick said...

Fascinating article linked by MD van Norman about space morale and the Skylab strike. (Which broadly speaking sounds like a 'true' strike, even if it was about working conditions, not wages.)

There are a couple of strike variations that space workers could follow. They can continue doing regular maintenance tasks, but not whatever brings in the revenue (say, loading outbound cargo).

Or they can 'work to rule,' following to the letter all the regulations that are tacitly ignored in normal operation.

Isegoria - Welcome to the comments thread! And LOL about 'weight.' But workers can feel labor grievances even if they are highly paid. (Think about major league baseball players!)

Jean Remy said...

Great article!

I think it's those types of conditions that make full-blown colonization more likely than elitist scientific/engineering outposts. Not only are you going to have to pay these guys right, but also pamper them. That outpost could have a McBurger's franchise, a movie theater running the latest Sci-Fi blockbuster from Earth and run by a corporation. They'll put a bar (probably with strict rules on consumption) and why not a duty-free store to replace the horrible corporate-issue gray linens with some fancy silk sheets. Added to that you'll need some hefty safety measure, perhaps even creating a safe enough place for families to move in. After all engineers sent on rebuilding programs have brought their families to Iraq... not the safest of places. Pretty soon you can work up a sort of micro-economy around, which will attract competitors as Burger Archduke tries to shoehorn in on the overpriced McBurger monopoly...

Before you know it, you have an actual function microsociety, one that's getting lip from the home office. Enter Pinkertons in SPACE (and their Laserstars)

Citizen Joe said...

Not to be political, but I believe that communism only works in groups small enough that everyone knows each other. At the point that everything goes into a nameless larger fund, to be divided amongst people you don't know, communism breaks down. The anonymity of the situations allows people to behave in non-productive ways. That being said, the crew of a ship or a space station is small enough that everyone knows each other. Thus, a communist relationship could work within that group.

Products coming in or going out would need a different system because the members no longer know the recipients of the labor.

Anonymous said...

Citizen Joe: "Not to be political, but I believe that communism only works in groups small enough that everyone knows each other. At the point that everything goes into a nameless larger fund, to be divided amongst people you don't know, communism breaks down. The anonymity of the situations allows people to behave in non-productive ways. That being said, the crew of a ship or a space station is small enough that everyone knows each other. Thus, a communist relationship could work within that group."

I don't disagree with you...until the last two sentences...a spacecraft would need a hierarchy the ones on commercial sea-going vessals of today. Running a ship by committee would lead to death, so you need a well recognized authority system during an emergency...or even when ordinary decissions are needed quickly.


Rick said...

I mainly agree with all three of the last points. On Citizen Joe's, I'll note that the most familiar example is the family; internal distribution in the family has nothing to do with the marketplace.

Ferrell - Note that 'democratic' systems can actually work aboard ship, so long as authority is clear in an emergency. In medieval ships, the crew often had to agree to put to sea, a custom retained later by both fishermen and pirates.

Jean Remy said...

In fact most pirate ships during in the Caribbean in that period we most associate with piracy, were indeed run very democratically, and far more fairly than any other government in the era. Racism had no place, and in some cases even sexism didn't prevent inequalities on board. Famous captains like Roche Basilliano and William Kidd, were elected by their crew. Decisions about destinations were also voted upon. Plunder was divided rather equally, and the share of the captain, while larger, was an agreed upon number of individual parts of the treasure. If the captain was judged incompetent or cowardly, he might be marooned while the next most popular crewman or officer took his place.

Yet, once tactically engaged, command authority by the captain was absolute, and no one question the chain of command during battle.

It is not impossible to operate a ship on a communal, consensual manner, as long as a chain of command is established for emergencies. In can in fact be very effective: during the period of the Caribbean pirates, the officers on warships were nobles, a lot of them with little experience and a lot of arrogance, while the pirates were led by trained, competent talent respected and even chosen by their own men. The fact that this period of piracy stands out is proof of that very success.

Jean Remy said...

Errata "sexism didn't prevent inequalities on board" I meant of course sexism didn't CAUSE inequalities, as there were a few famous women pirates, including two on Jack "Calico" Rackham's crew.

Rick said...

Nice point about the skill level of elected pirate commanders versus royal officers chosen for social rank, and how it contributed to the durable popular image of 'pirates of the Caribbean.'

Anonymous said...

You might find this interesting ...

Rick said...

Belatedly found this comment on Libertatia - interesting!