The Obamas have found a way to stay culturally relevant. In 2018, Barack and Michelle Obama founded Higher Ground Productions and arranged a $65 million deal with Netflix to produce documentaries and feature films.
Former President Obama has used these films to position himself as a kind of moral observer of the nation’s problems. In Our Great National Parks, for example, he narrates beautiful scenes of the country’s most famous national parks while issuing stern warnings about our duty to protect them.
Now Obama seeks to emulate a professed hero of his, writer and historian Studs Terkel. In 1974, Terkel published his iconic book Working, which featured powerful interviews with scores of ordinary working people about what they did at their jobs and how they felt about it.
Working: What We Do All Day is a four-part docuseries intended to be an updated version of Terkel’s work for the twenty-first century. While it is always refreshing to see the lives of working people centered in our media, this series is hampered by the limitations of Obama’s worldview and political imagination.
The series focuses on three industries that are prevalent and growing in the US economy: home health care, tech, and hospitality. These industries are undoubtedly important for the US working class today, and inevitably the filmmakers would have had to make choices about what to cover in a limited amount of episodes.
Still, the industry focus of the film plays into a misguided notion of what our economy looks like today: that we are mostly a society of knowledge and service workers now, with blue-collar industrial workers becoming a relic of a bygone era. However, reality tells a much more complicated story.
Industrial employment remains an important part of the economic landscape. In particular, the logistics industry is a growing and dynamic sector of the economy. Workers in the United States move a lot of commerce through the ground, air, and sea. At companies like the United Parcel Service (UPS) and Amazon, exciting labor struggles have been taking place over the last few years that could have big implications for workers everywhere.
It would have been interesting to hear from workers engaged in blue-collar logistics work, as well as workers in manufacturing industries that have been slowly declining like automobiles.
Nevertheless, the series starts out engaging enough as it begins to profile the featured workers. We meet Elba, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic who has worked at the Pierre hotel for twenty-two years. One gets a sense of the monotony of her work as she repeatedly cleans rooms that look the same.
Viewers quickly get a picture of an economy that doesn’t work for most working people. Carmen, a delivery driver for Uber Eats in Pittsburgh, reveals the reality of gig work when she says, “It would be nice if you could get at least a minimum wage . . . but they don’t do that.”
Randi, a home care aid in Mississippi, explains, “It’s hard to find work in rural America.” Her starting pay is $9 an hour, which makes the $15 an hour she used to make deboning chicken thighs seem like great money.
To its credit, the first episode does make some positive passing references to labor unions. The housekeeper Elba enjoys a stable wage of $4,000 a month and says of the union, “They work very hard for us.” In one scene hotel workers are in the lounge discussing the threat of automation. The union delegate Beverly explains that the union can play an important role in protecting workers’ jobs.
In order to set some context for the conditions of service workers today, Obama narrates a brief history section about the rise of unions and workplace protections. He asserts the oft-cited fact that agricultural and domestic workers were left out of the National Labor Relations Act and thus shut out of union membership.
He then claims, dubiously, that today’s service workers “are descendants of the legacy of left-out workers.” This rhetorical trick is echoed in discussions of black politics, where the developments of the mid-twentieth century are ignored in an attempt to draw a direct link between slavery and contemporary dynamics.
Explaining service work today through analogies to agricultural and domestic workers during the New Deal era is a lazy evasion of analyzing the crucial changes to our political economy that have taken place over the last eighty years. It also obscures Obama’s own failures as president to effectively address labor standards in the service industry.
Before episode one is over, Obama reveals the limits of his own political perspective, which weakens the docuseries throughout. While he can often effectively name the problem, he struggles to carry that to its logical conclusion when proposing a solution. The audience is left with equivocating, mealy-mouthed ruminations on what he thinks should be done.
Toward the end of the first episode, Obama offers this:
Let’s be blunt. There’s always someone at the top of the ladder and someone at the bottom. That’s especially true with capitalism, and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise. But as a society, we do get to decide what life looks like for working people. We can make those jobs better or worse.
While throughout the series he calls for an improvement to working people’s lives, he can never reckon with the reality that a blind acceptance of the hierarchies of capitalism prevents this from happening in a meaningful way.
Episode two, titled “The Middle,” explores the phenomenon of the middle class. As is appropriate, the topic is discussed with a good deal of nuance. Like in the broader society, a very wide range of workers featured in Working are labeled middle class.
A data manager at a self-driving car company, a supervisor at a home care company, and a switchboard operator are all centered in this episode. At times, probing questions are posed about whether all these workers should be defined this way, or how the concept of a middle class can be precisely measured. But this budding investigation isn’t developed much further.
Again, the series levels general critiques without an overarching vision of an alternative. Luke, the data manager at the Aurora self-driving car company, is shown looking for houses to buy that are completely out of his price range. His parents reminisce about the days when their town was anchored by a factory that provided family-sustaining jobs and their mortgage was a manageable $219 a month.
As narrator, Obama explains that in today’s economy consumer goods have gotten cheaper but the costs of housing and education have ballooned exponentially. During these moments one can’t help but wonder if he’s reflected at all about how his time in office contributed to these problems. Obama’s tenure as president, during which he refused to even entertain tuition-free higher education or reining in the real estate industry, represented a near-complete capitulation to the forces that have made the middle-class dream so much more unattainable for working people.
The second half of the series is perhaps the most nauseating. Here the focus turns to those at the top of the economy: “knowledge workers” and CEOs. It’s a curious but revealing choice to focus such a significant amount of limited time on this elite stratum.
It’s true that in the original work, Studs Terkel interviewed some managers and CEOs. However, this represented a very small fraction of a book dominated by interviews with workers from almost every imaginable occupation. Farmers, strippers, bus drivers, waitresses, mechanics, and so many more were the centerpiece of Terkel’s attention.
Nevertheless, Obama charges on to find out, “What does a CEO’s work look like? What are the pressures and responsibilities they carry?” Though probably not intentional, the series shows that the answer to these questions is in fact: “not very much.”
There are scenes of CEOs giving TED talks, shaking hands with employees (who are busy actually working), and in board meetings with slick slide shows. One hears them utter mindless platitudes about “adaptability” and “resiliency.” But unlike the other workers featured in the series, it’s for the most part hard to pin down exactly what these corporate elites do all day.
The episode contains a historical section that blames the ballooning of CEO pay on the ideas of free-market economist Milton Friedman. But soon, inevitably, Obama reveals the real way he looks at the problem. He opines, “What if a CEO prioritized more than profit? There are different ways to lead. The CEO sets the tone. Their choices, their priorities, their values shape how people work together.”
These words explain so much about Obama’s worldview and presidency. Government has no power to do anything, workers have little agency, but individual CEOs can make choices to do the right thing. The relentless whipsaw of competition inherent to capitalism is apparently no match for do-gooder captains of industry. This ending feels like a betrayal to the working people this series was theoretically intended to honor.
It would be an exaggeration to say that there is nothing engaging or interesting about this docuseries. In our media ecosystem, there are precious few opportunities to hear from working people directly about what they do all day and how they feel about it. The stories and lives featured in Working are rare and compelling.
It’s the messenger who hangs like a cloud over the film. It becomes tiresome listening to critiques of how working people are treated in our society from a former president who did so little for them. His refusal to support the Employee Free Choice Act, repeal the George W. Bush–era tax cuts for the rich, or prosecute the bankers who wrecked the economy, just to name a few, demonstrated that when it counted the most he chose to stand with corporate elites over workers.
Hopefully Netflix’s docuseries is a sign that we’ll see more films and shows that center working people to come. In the meantime, Obama’s Working: What We Do All Day fails to live up to the gravity of its subject.