By Tim Francisco
Faculty Affiliate at the Center for Working-Class Studies
Following this year’s Superbowl, viewers who stayed tuned to CBS were treated to the premiere of the network’s new series, Undercover Boss, in which COO of Waste Management Corp., Larry O’Donnell, dons coveralls to go undercover in his own corporation.
The premise of the show according to CBS is that
Each week a different executive will leave the comfort of their corner office for an undercover mission to examine the inner workings of their company. While working alongside their employees, they will see the effects their decisions have on others, where the problems lie within their organization and get an up-close look at both the good and the bad while discovering the unsung heroes who make their company run… O’Donnell’s mission is to garner an up-close look at his company and workforce to see how and where improvements can be made from both an operational and morale standpoint.
In the premier episode, O’Donnell, alias “Randy,” cleans toilets, picks up trash and sorts recyclables alongside his workers, and in so doing he comes to realize that… wait for it…manual labor is hard! Randy is also surprised to learn that, unbelievably, when trash collectors are followed by supervisors in conspicuous white pick-ups, they feel as though they are being spied on and that when his company eliminates positions, the work load is shifted onto remaining employees who receive no additional compensation for their extra labor.
In the blogosphere the show has already attracted much attention, mostly negative, and largely deserved. The New York Post reported that unlike a “reality” show, for which participants are paid, the network has labeled the show both a “docu-narrative” and a “formatted documentary,” which CBS Entertainment president Nina Tassler tells Josef Adalian “…hits all of the same visceral high points of our scripted shows. It’s emotional, it’s funny, it’s compelling, it’s full of surprises…”
And it’s also a bargain for the network because as “documentary” CBS is not bound to pay any of the participants as it would with scripted or “reality” shows. Responding to TV Squad’s reports of the uncompensated appearances, a CBS spokesman said, “No one in the company is being paid for participation in Undercover Boss. Neither the employees, the executives, nor the companies receive compensation for participating in the show.” The blog reports that the workers in the program signed releases to be in a documentary film, which means it is not covered by the television actors’ union, thus eliding the requirement for minimum payments for TV appearances.
As incredible as the irony of a “docu-narrative” that chronicles the plight of workers without paying them might be, equally disconcerting is the meta-narrative that drives the series, described by Tassler as “aspirational…it’s wish fulfillment and it’s a new form (of reality).”
Randy/Larry rides along with a female trash collector. When he learns that under the watchful eye of the aforementioned supervisor surveillance truck, she is reduced to urinating into a tin can rather than compromising productivity by taking a bathroom break, he appears visibly shaken., Undercover Boss suggests that O’Donnell’s experience will lead to better policies, as O’Donnell tells NPR’s Linda Holmes:
I was out working a residential route, and I then found out that one of the policies that I had put in place was actually causing a lot of frustration out there in the field. So we’re working right now on improving our communication and our coaching between the supervisors and the drivers.
When pressed by Holmes to reveal “tangible” changes in corporate policy, O’Donnell responds with non-specific corpo-speak about motivational videos and better communication instead of actual policy shifts. The white truck isn’t going away anytime soon, probably because it is part of a strategy to save the company more than $100 million and increase divided to stockholders, as outlined in the company’s most recent annual report.The episode focuses on five “unsung heroes”—the trash collector, a cancer-survivor field office worker performing three jobs (due to corporate streamlining of positions also noted in the annual report) to support her family and hang on to her home, a dialysis patient who blows O’Donnell away with his positive attitude, a plant worker who must race back from lunch to avoid what appears to be an illegal pay docking policy, and a toilet scrubber who makes his job “fun.” While the first two voice complaints about corporate policies, all perform their jobs with capability and aplomb, and each (save the trash collector) is tangibly rewarded: the field office worker is promoted to a salary position, while the dialysis patient and the toilet scrubber are given temp gigs as in-house motivational speakers. Meanwhile, the middle manager responsible for enforcing the time clock policy is roundly taken to task by O’Donnell, although O’Donnell later tells NPR the whole issue was a “miscommunication.”
Absent from the narrative is union representation, which is perhaps not surprising given Waste Management’s troubled history with the Teamsters that culminated with a lockout of workers in 2007 and has resulted in at least one settlement with the union over its practices toward organized labor.
Instead, even as the show glorifies the unsung worker, it also perpetuates the myththat all workers need to improve their lots is a positive attitude and a benevolent COO, a mythology that ignores some of the stark realities of corporate culture.
Media promote that mythology, perhaps unwittingly, through a recession narrative that valorizes workers’ willingness to sufferithe necessary indignities of work life because they are, and should be, grateful just to have a job during the economic downturn.. Such stories tend to ignore the contradictions of the narrative in favor of the media friendly package.The narrative says that companies are struggling, but a recent Sagework analytics study shows that waste collection is among the industries experiencing the largest sales growth over the last twelve months.
At the same time, overall worker productivity rose 7.2 percent, according to the most recent Labor Department statistics, as employers wring more labor from existing workers and, in many cases, engage policies that CNN’s Peter Walker notes “would have been seen as too radical, or too likely to antagonize unions, before the crisis.” , Indeed, pri.org charts a rise in wage and worker’s rights violations during the same period.
The goal of the CBS program is, in itself, laudable: to connect the disparate dots between top-level policy and the daily lives of workers. But by perpetuating the “feel-good” narrative over the more complex contingencies of the real story of workers and bosses in a tough economy, the show engages in nothing short of myth-making, which as John Drakakis notes, is born of an impulse to produce
…a series of essentialist meanings which function to transform a sequence of historical and political events into a series of permanent, one might say almost literary truths, which can when deployed by the powerful constituencies, deflect resistance or challenge by framing the historically contingent as a ‘tragic’ necessity…
While Drakakis is referring specifically to instances in which pundits evoke literary frames for politically complex realities, his thoughts are relevant for cultural productions like Undercover Boss, that in mythologizing the corporate narrative, reduce complexities to what Roland Barthes has called the “depoliticized speech” of myth. The idea that bosses value their workers and care about their needs enough to change company policies is, sadly, more a myth than a reality. It reinforces another problematic myth: that labor unions aren’t necessary. If workers do their jobs the best they can, then the boss will respond to their needs.
Perhaps CBS is banking on the appeal of these myths in producing Undercover Boss, but skeptical viewers will recognize the truth in the smirks of O’Donnell’s management team when he explains that the company’s policies make workers unhappy. And the strategies outlined in Waste Management’s annual report remind us that profit always matters more than people. So much for the myth of benevolent management.
Tim Francisco is an assistant professor of English at Youngstown State University, where he also teaches journalism.
Posted February 18, 2010 at 9:22 am, in From Center for Working-Class Studies