In Obama’s Working, There Is No Way Out
The cognitive dissonance becomes overwhelming around twelve minutes into the first episode of Working, a four-part docuseries by (and sort of starring) Barack Obama that premiered on Netflix on May 17. Each episode looks at a different category of job, ascending up the ranks: “Service Jobs,” “The Middle,” “Dream Jobs,” and “The Boss.”
The first episode follows three people who do service work: hotel housekeeper Elba, home care aide Randi, and delivery driver Carmen. At minute twelve, we follow Carmen as she delivers meals for Uber Eats. The camera zooms in on her phone’s display, where we can see the app’s interface. Carmen accepts a delivery order that the app tells her is $16.61 including the expected tip.
“They say that, but sometimes you don’t get a tip,” Carmen tells us, her voice edging into frustrated sarcasm by the end of the sentence. “Also, you don’t have their address, so it’s not like you have an idea of how far you’re gonna go,” she adds.
In other words, a driver might accept an order only to then learn that the cost of gas to deliver it is greater than the money she will make from the order. But by that point, it’s too late. Efforts are underway to change this by requiring a minimum trip payment for delivery drivers, but thus far, Carmen’s powerlessness is the norm for gig workers.
In the series, the only mention of the idea of minimum trip payments comes when Carmen says, “It would be nice if you got at least minimum wage,” only to continue, “but they don’t do that.” There is little discussion of such policy questions about Uber or its gig-economy counterparts, much less their right to continue on with a business model whose main innovation comes down to labor arbitrage.
It is hard not to conclude that Carmen is powerless to change anything. Apparently, so is Obama — which is odd, since the gig economy as we know it today was effectively created during his administration. Uber was founded two months after Obama’s inauguration. The company launched Uber Eats in 2014. And many of Obama’s former staffers have played a key role not only in expanding the gig economy in general, but in the growth of Uber specifically.
David Plouffe, Obama’s 2008 campaign manager and a senior advisor to the president, joined Uber as a senior vice president of policy and strategy in 2014, using his access to the president’s circle to combat what Uber’s then CEO Travis Kalanick described as the company’s opponent: “the Big Taxi Cartel.” Plouffe also worked these connections to export the company’s labor arbitrage abroad, playing a key role in Uber’s global lobbying effort.
Jim Messina, Obama’s campaign manager in 2012 and the president’s deputy chief of staff, helped too. He introduced Plouffe to Kalanick, advising the company on how to smooth over frictions as it expanded into new markets. Kalanick also considered hiring Jay Carney, the president’s former press secretary, to lead the company’s communications strategy; instead, Carney joined Amazon as senior vice president of global affairs in 2015.
Yet here is Obama, showing us the consequences of his milieu’s actions, his failure to institute even relatively tame protections for workers as Uber and other gig-economy companies spread across the United States, burrowing into the marrow of our cities and towns until they were so entrenched as to become almost unavoidable and untouchable. We hear no mention of his former vice president’s disinterest in this issue either, as gig companies’ continue apace with their efforts to ensure their workforce’s lack of protections by creating a nonsensical “third category” of worker, a nefarious middle ground between worker and independent contractor that allows bosses to better exploit their employees.
Lest we forget, Obama reneged on his commitment to prioritize the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which among other things would have instituted “card check.” This would mean that when a majority of workers have signed union authorization cards, the union would be certified without having to submit to the onerous process of holding a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election that is lopsidedly stacked in bosses’ favor.
Without even going into the corporate-friendly bailout over which he presided during the Great Recession, Obama also backed out of all sorts of other commitments he made to the working class to win their support. To name just one, here’s a speech he gave during his first primary campaign in 2007 to a crowd in South Carolina: “If American workers are being denied their right to organize and collectively bargain when I’m in the White House, I’ll put on a comfortable pair of shoes myself. I’ll walk on that picket line with you as President of the United States of America.”
Obama did not, in fact, join anyone on a picket line during that first term — not even as Wisconsin gutted unions under right-wing governor Scott Walker.
Unions do show up in Obama’s show. One of the three workplaces the series follows from the lowest-level employees up to the boss is the Pierre Hotel in New York City. The hotel is unionized (though the show never mentions which union; it’s the Hotel and Gaming Trades Council, an affiliate of UNITE HERE) and it’s why the lower-level workers we meet at the Pierre have been at the same job for decades, unlike their counterparts at nonunion jobs.
“I don’t work for tips because I know I can count on my paycheck,” says Elba, the housekeeper we follow in the first episode, explaining that she makes around $4,000 a month. “You have to be a member of the union here.”
As she and her coworkers discuss the threat automation might pose to their jobs, they’re interrupted by the arrival of Beverly, one of the hotel’s switchboard operators and their union representative. “We’re talking about what happens when they replace you with a machine,” one worker explains to her.
“It’s not that easy to take us out, that’s the reason why we have a union,” says Beverly. “Look at the other hotels that closed for good. A lot of the places where there is no union, those people walk away with nothing.”
The scene leads into a narrated history lesson by Obama. A hundred years ago, explains the former president, there were factory jobs, and they were terrible. Then, Franklin Delano Roosevelt “pushed through new protections for workers: the New Deal.” Obama notes that “a conservative Supreme Court tried to block these changes from taking effect.”
“Factory work was still hard, but the jobs were better,” says Obama. The catch, though, was that domestic and farmworkers were excluded from these protections. “Service workers,” says Obama, are the “direct descendants of the legacy that undervalued certain types of work. A lucky few work at union shops like the Pierre, but with most domestic care jobs or in the gig economy, you’re still on your own.”
So it’s luck that makes some workers union members and others not. Too bad — yet another path that could resolve this problem turns out to be a matter of chance, rather than, say, something Obama himself could have worked to change during his two terms in office.
What is going on here? The show’s title, Working, is an homage to Studs Terkel, the fantastic chronicler of working-class life in America. In addition to his radio broadcasts, Terkel published numerous books of oral history, and Working is his most well known. In the show’s opening minutes, Obama tells us that he discovered Terkel as a young college student in Chicago, which was Terkel’s city too.
The former president describes the book as “a chronicle of people from every walk of life and what it was like for them to work.” We hear a quote from Terkel about the method of his characteristically winding interviews, which in Working (the book) often elicit specific, lively gold: “There is no one way to begin, it’s arbitrary. But you want to find that quintessential truth. The essence of a truth.”
What truth is Obama trying to get at? From the first episode, one might reasonably conclude that the message is: none of us are stronger than the system in which we live, and the best we can do is bear witness to the suffering of American workers. Spoiler alert: that remains one of the takeaways throughout the series.
At the end of episode one, Obama joins Randi, the home health aide, on a grocery trip, listening to her explain that she now works at a private, adult-supervised living home for the handicapped, a job that gives her some flexibility as a single mother but which only pays her $1,400 a month.
“A month?” Obama asks her.
“Yeah,” she responds. “I can get by but—”
“But at the end of the month, it’s tight,” says the former president, finishing the sentence.
“It’s tight,” agrees Randi.
It’s a good start to an in-depth conversation about the poverty wages Randi earns, but we don’t get much more. And this is about as curious as Obama gets, which is one of the central problems with the series. Labor reporting requires interest in the lives of working-class people, and one of the more astonishing aspects of Working is that one gets the sense that Obama is not actually interested in the people around him.
By contrast, Terkel’s curiosity about the people he interviewed was unmissable. He resented the indignities and violence to which capitalism subjected them. As he writes in the first sentence of Working’s introduction, “This book, being about work, is, by its very nature, about violence — to the spirit as well as to the body.” This is a stronger moral judgment about wage labor than anything we get from Obama, whose line of inquiry throughout the series concerns whether jobs are just a paycheck, or a source of meaning for people now, too. But surely he made it that far into Terkel’s book?
Yet even with Terkel’s disdain for the wrongs inflicted upon human beings by capitalist work, he never reduced his interview subjects to mere suffering, as Obama’s Working sometimes does; workers’ personality and, most importantly, intelligence shone through in his interviews. It’s what makes them classics of the form.
Obama’s show seems more concerned with the former president himself. Isn’t it odd that this great man is speaking to regular people? Isn’t it funny that he went from president to television producer?
“This is Barack Obama,” he tells Beverly, the switchboard operator at the Pierre Hotel when calling down to order room service. The scene would be cute if surprising average people with the fact that they’re interacting with the former president weren’t the part of this gig that he seems to enjoy the most. The problem is that if you’re bored of talking with working people, the onscreen results will be boring, and Working makes labor reporting dull. Thanks, Obama.
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Alex N. Press is a staff writer at Jacobin. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Nation, and n+1, among other places.
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