Why Unions Are Giving Drew Barrymore Major Flak For Crossing the Picket Line

For me, the question is: Why does the Drew Barrymore Show need writers at all?

Why Unions Are Giving Drew Barrymore Major Flak For Crossing the Picket Line
GlynLowe.com from Hamburg, Germany, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Drew Barrymore finds herself in an unfavorable spotlight lately, as her daytime talk show faces criticism from the WGA union over plans to continue taping episodes during a potential writers’ strike. Barrymore defends her decision as necessary to prevent job losses for her crew. But the uncompromising response from the WGA underscores a range of factors–from union rules to economic pressures and industry reputations risks–that explain the harsh union resistance Barrymore now confronts.

Barrymore is drawing ire for looking to violate clearly codified WGA strike policies. The union’s playbook prohibits member writers from working on struck productions. The WGA believes Barrymore’s show falls under this jurisdiction given its daily format relying on writers to craft guest segments and scripted moments.

Looking back at past strikes lends useful context. During the 1960 writers' strike, many episodic comedies and dramas completely shut down production rather than attempt to film episodes without writers. Variety shows and early talk shows like The Tonight Show relied on hosts and guests riffing without prepared scripts. During the 2007-2008 strike, late night talk shows like “The Tonight Show” and “The Late Show” went into reruns initially, but eventually returned with hosts writing their own jokes. This would seem to be something Barrymore could do.

In contrast, Barrymore is exploring using non-union writers and reality TV staffers to circumvent strike orders—a tactic that would draw the WGA's ire and threats of picketing. Other producers have treaded carefully during strikes, wary of crossing virtual picket lines. But high-profile Barrymore trying to skirt union rules could embolden more showrunners to follow suit. Even beloved stars cannot flout the guidelines.

There is also genuine concern that if Barrymore successfully keeps the cameras rolling, it undercuts the union’s leverage at the bargaining table. Work stoppages are the WGA’s main mechanism to force concessions from the deep-pocketed media conglomerates they negotiate with. Letting Barrymore’s show go on unimpeded during a strike would cost union writers significant lost residuals. Barrymore is seen as shamefully siding with studio interests over the financial plight of working writers.

This perceived betrayal of writers comes with reputation risks for Barrymore. Crossing virtual picket lines alienates union allies and casts Barrymore as “anti-writer”–a damning label in liberal Hollywood circles, where solidarity is valued. Past examples like Johnny Carson refusing to cross picket lines during the 1988 strike earned him respect for supporting his staff writers. Stars like Jay Leno also opted not to undermine the union during strikes, unwilling to risk their brand as pro-labor. While Barrymore aims to protect other jobs, being branded a union-buster could do lasting damage to her goodwill as a producer.

The intense WGA condemnation reflects complex power dynamics as well. The likes of Carson held more leverage as beloved institutions who could influence public opinion. Barrymore has bankable celebrity, but is still lower on the Hollywood food chain than the media behemoths the guild battles. She lacks the leverage to entirely buck the unions that govern industry labor. And pragmatically, enduring some short-term losses to avoid permanent stigma may be the wisest career path.

Earlier eras saw unions able to exert stronger pressure on stars to fall in line with labor actions. But contemporary Hollywood has seen declining union power amidst consolidation and technological shifts. This frustration may add an extra edge to the WGA's response—a sense they can't allow Barrymore's defiance to encourage further erosion.

In her defense, Barrymore’s desire to prevent crew layoffs appears earnest. But the financial and reputational pressures aligned against her explain why the WGA cannot afford to let transgressions slide. Barrymore is learning that when talent gets caught between unions and studio dollars, there are often no easy answers. Her talk show woes illustrate how quickly one can end up in precarious territory during Hollywood labor disputes.