[Updated] Obama Crossed the Picket Line, Some Striking Writers Say

Screenshot of Obama speaking on camera
Screenshot of Obama speaking on camera
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Not sure Studs Terkel would’ve been on board with this homage.

Updated 5/26/2023, 7:17 P.M. ET: The Writers Guild of America-West posted a tweet endorsing President Obama’s statements in support of the union and strike effort on Friday afternoon, following initial publication of this article.

The Writers Guild of America is currently on strike against against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. Screenwriters are battling the Hollywood studios for higher pay, better working conditions, and contract protections from AI replacement.

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In the midst of the ongoing labor dispute, some striking writers have accused Barack Obama of crossing the picket line. The former president participated in a live event promoting his recently released Netflix docuseries on Thursday.

The discussion, led by journalist Ira Glass and hosted on LinkedIn, centered around Working: What We Do All Day—a show narrated, starring, and co-produced by Obama. The series was inspired by labor activist and historian Studs Terkel’s classic oral account of workers in the U.S., and follows people in different professions as they navigate their day-to-day lives. Gizmodo is aware that the irony here is thiccc.

Obama began the discussion with a ~3 minute statement outwardly of in support of the WGA strike. “I know that there are many studios and streamers who feel a little bit embattled—that there’s been a little a little bit too much of a glut of product and they’re looking at their bottom line. And they’re experiencing shareholder pressure, etcetera. But the fact is that they wouldn’t be around if it weren’t for writers who were creating the stories that matter,” he says in a recording of the event.

“My hope is that, as someone who’s really supportive of The Writers’ Guild and as somebody who believes in story telling and the craft of it— I’m hoping that they will be compensated, and the importance of what they do will be reflected in whatever settlement they arrive at. So I’m very supportive of the writers and the strike, and I’m hopeful that they get a fair share of the fruits of their labor,” Obama adds.

Then quickly, the conversation pivots. “Let’s talk about the TV show,” Glass says. And they do, for more than an hour.

Though Obama’s preamble might seem like solidarity, it doesn’t exactly erase his decision to promote a Netflix series while union workers are actively striking against the streaming giant. For many WGA writers, the move amounted to a transgression against the union code.
“President @BarackObama, if you want to make a statement about the value of work, please don’t cross the @wga picket line to do publicity for a struck company,” Javier Grillo-Marxuach, a screenwriter best known for his work on shows such as Lost, Charmed, and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, wrote on Twitter, ahead of the scheduled event. The post has since been retweeted hundreds of times, including by numerous other writers and media workers. Marxuach wasn’t alone in taking to social media to voice his frustration with the former president.

Though Obama may not be a WGA member (fun fact: his daughter is), and is not technically a screenwriter in an official capacity, many still view the move as in poor taste.

“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,” Hamilton Nolan, labor journalist and author, wrote in an a Substack entry, published Friday.

Obama could have made a statement by opting out of his scheduled show promo, Nolan points out. Such an action might have offered a meaningful boost to The Writers Guild and demonstrated the stakes of the strike to Netflix and co. But the former president chose not to, and in doing so flubbed an opportunity to exercise his massive influence.

Perhaps it shouldn’t come as any surprise. Despite Obama attempting to position himself as an advocate for workers in his post-presidency semi-retirement, he was not exactly a reliable labor ally during his presidency, as some pointed out online. While in office, Obama forcibly shut down multiple strikes, effectively neutering the collective organizing efforts of Philadelphia’s transit workers, West Coast port workers, and freight rail workers nationwide.

Gizmodo reached out to The Obama Presidential Center, The Office of Barack and Michelle Obama, and The Obama Foundation for comment. None offered a response by publication time. Spokespersons from Netflix and from WGA-West also did not immediately respond to questions.

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