Obama, You Bum, You Are the Past and Unions Are the Future
An old rich guy basks in his irrelevance.
As I am quite sure you know, the Writers Guild of America (my union) is on strike against the Hollywood studios. For weeks now, there have been pickets from coast to coast. They’ve picketed the studio lots. They’ve picketed the corporate headquarters. They’ve picketed the upfronts. And they’ve shut down production on tons of movies and TV shows by picketing where they are being shot, and then having the heroic workers in other unions like the Teamsters and IATSE refuse to cross our picket line. It’s been big. It’s been on TV. It’s been in all the papers. Maybe you heard about it.
The power of a picket line is that people of good faith will refuse to cross it. There’s a song. What’s it called? Oh yeah: “Never Cross a Picket Line.” That one. Sums it up pretty good. In the case of the WGA strike, it has been heartening to see many, many big movie and TV stars refuse to cross our picket lines. This is one of the only things that has ever made me momentarily rethink my reflective loathing of celebrity. They may be famous, but they ain’t too famous for the union. The union comes first.
Then there’s Obama. Another famous guy. Semi-retired guy who has a big deal with Netflix—one of the main companies that we are on strike against. Obama—the guy who couldn’t even get card check passed during his eight years in office—has made a big shiny new series with Netflix called “Working: What We Do All Day,” which is supposed to be an homage to Studs Terkel, and which is supposed to celebrate the working class. And yesterday, Obama did an online discussion to promote the show, which is, my friends, effectively crossing the picket line, on behalf of a struck company.
This motherfucker crossed a picket line in homage to Studs Terkel. Bitch!!!!!!
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This is one of those things that prompts people to say “If you wrote this in a TV script nobody would believe it,” which is ironically the sort of hack saying that people tend to say more when they have no writers to write them better lines because the writers are on strike. You can quibble or be pedantic about the exact contours of our picket line and the specific obligations of non-members with respect to our strike, but it is clear here that Obama violated the spirit of the strike by carrying on with his promotional duties for Netflix right now, something that a zillion very fancy and powerful Hollywood showrunners have stopped doing in order to help the union. It is equally clear that the simple gesture of not doing that single promotional event would have been a profound act of solidarity with a union on strike. And Obama, I assure you, has more leverage to tell the company “I’m not gonna do this now” than anyone else in the entire industry. Netflix will not fire him. I promise. He had very little to lose by making the tiny gesture of not doing this promotional event. He just didn’t care. The good thing, I guess, is that rather than typing out the entire disappointing history of the Obama administration and organized labor, you can just say, “Imagine a guy who would get paid millions of dollars to make a show called ‘Working’ in homage to Studs Terkel, and then cross a picket line for it.” That is as good a summary as you will find.
Rather than spend thousand of words here railing against Obama (which is my natural tendency), I want to suggest to you a sunnier takeaway from this incident. I was mad when I first heard about this, but the more I thought about it, the more I smiled. Rather than feeling like some devastating blow to the WGA and its power, this wanton act of selfishness feels, instead, like a mistake made by someone cocooned in a bubble of the past. With respect to labor, the Obama Era—with its tight embrace of neoliberalism, its old Democratic Party view of unions as ATM machines that should just be satisfied that the Republicans weren’t in charge—is over. It’s fucking over, man. The labor movement is ascendant. We are everywhere. People want unions. People are organizing in places that never organized before. People are pissed at the grinding inequality that was, incidentally, helped along by Obama’s conservative response to the last financial crisis. People have finally and fully shed their post-PATCO fear of striking. People are ready to hit the fucking bricks. Strikes are big news now. And most of them fucking win. We win, Obama. We don’t come begging the Democrats like “Please sir, a crust of bread, please, a tiny marginal improvement in labor law to allow us to be ground down to dust slightly less often, sir.” Compared to the day Obama left office, the labor movement now lives in a different world. While Obama sits in his Martha’s Vineyard mansion and toys around on Richard Branson’s private island, the labor movement is moving. Forward. Dragging the Democrats along.
The work of the labor movement is, to a large degree, to fight to correct the inequalities that Obama failed to fix.
Look, I take a backseat to no one in cataloging the failures of organized labor’s institutions. Nor am I a big Joe Biden guy. But let’s not get so far down in our leftist hole that we lose sight of the world around us. The US labor movement of 2023 has energy and legitimate power in a way that Obama in 2015 scarcely would have recognized. The power comes not so much from the big unions themselves as from the uncontrollable upsurge of regular people who have lived through a lifetime of inequality and then lived through a pandemic on top of that and have decided that they have really and truly had enough of this shit. That’s why Amazon and Starbucks and college campuses and fast food restaurants and a ton of places in between are organizing unions. These things spread. This is our time. And Joe Biden, for all his flaws, is in fact the first president in my lifetime who truly respects the power of unions and is spending some political capital to bolster it.
There’s a scene in Goodfellas where Billy Batts gets out of jail and he sees Joe Pesci in a bar and treats him carelessly and Pesci tells him, “No more shines. Maybe you didn’t hear about. You been away a long time. They didn’t go up there and tell you. I don’t shine shoes any more.”
Obama, you been away a long time, playing Hollywood and getting rich. Maybe you didn’t hear about it. The unions don’t beg for pennies any more. You used to ignore us because you could. Now, you still envision the working class as a TV show, starring yourself. Sad. Your time has passed.
One of the largest quantities of angry comments I ever got for something I wrote was for the 2018 piece “Obama Sucks As a Post-President.” I was right though.
If you’re looking for the real modern day Studs Terkel, you should be listening to the Working People podcast by Max Alvarez. And here are 40 volumes of stories from unemployed people that Gawker published during the Obama presidency.
If you want to argue about labor power and pathetic political bootlickers, my book will be available for pre-order this summer. Wow! In the meantime, please consider becoming a paid subscriber to How Things Work: Where Getting Mad and Yelling About the Labor Movement lives.