TV’s “Undercover Boss” — 5,000,000 Ways to Save a C.E.O.

Posted February 11, 2010

Late Sunday night, like millions of other people, I found myself basking in the brilliance of the historic New Orleans Saints Super Bowl victory. While it was a far cry from seeing a just reconstruction with real opportunities for displaced people to return to the city, it did feel like a victory for the people. In lean times like these, these “superficial” victories can still mean a lot.

But then, something strange happened. Right after the post-game show, CBS premiered their new reality show, “Undercover Boss.” With a mix of dread and curiosity, I decided I had to watch. The opening sequence laid out the premise of the show: an executive of a large company will take entry-level jobs in his/her company and work for one week (I imagined the show producers pitching this to the CEOs, dramatically pacing out the words “for one…whole…week!”).

The Coup – 5 Million Ways to Kill a CEO

We’ve got 5 million ways to kill a CEO
Slap him up and shake him up and then you know
Let him off the flo’ then bait him with the dough
You can do it funk or do it disco…

Tell him it’s a boom in child prostitution
When he show up at the stroller give him lead restitution
You could throw a twenty in a vat ‘o hot oil
When he jump in after it watch him boil
Toss a dollar in the river and when he jump in
If you can find he can swim
put lead boots on him and do it again! …

Tell him that boogers be sellin like crack
He gon’ put the little baggies in his nose, and suffocate like that
Put a fifty in the barrel of a gun
When he try to suck it out, a-ha, well you know this one
Make sure you ain’t got no priors
Don’t tell ’em that we conspired
We could let him try to change a flat tire
Or we could all at once retire.

-from The Coup’s “5,000,000 Ways to Kill a C.E.O.”

The first episode featured the President and Chief Operating Officer of Waste Management, Larry O’Donnell, as he takes jobs at a recycling facility, at a landfill, picking up trash, and cleaning port-a-potties. His $13 billion company is one of the largest in the North American sanitation industry, with 21,000 collection trucks, 20 million customers, and hundreds of landfills, transfer stations, and recycling plants. Cruelly duped workers were told that “Randy” (a.k.a. Lawrence O’Donnell III) was featured in a different kind of reality show, where a contestant tries to make it in all sorts of entry-level jobs. O’Donnell had no risk of being recognized on the shop floor. The real owners and decision-makers of society are often invisible to workers. They live in gated communities, frequent exclusive country clubs and restaurants, and are more likely to take a chauffeured limousine than the bus. Even when we discuss them, it’s done in the abstract: “the bosses,” “capitalists,” “super-rich,” “ruling class,” and so on.

Far from “class suicide,” though, O’Donnell is hardly exposed to the everyday conditions that make this industry difficult for workers. For example, the yearly average of workers killed doing waste collection is higher than that of policing and firefighting combined. O’Donnell’s very short stint on the recycling plant line sorting out reusable materials from trash, is quickly interrupted by his inability to keep the pace required by his own standards. Within minutes of attempted sorting, a large piece of cardboard escapes his grasp and stops the machine, giving everyone an early lunch break. When his frustrated employee told the undercover boss that it was “the slowest line in the plant,” I couldn’t help but grin. This happened again and again as O’Donnell played newbie, never managing to meet production quotas at any task.

Undercover Boss

The accidental nature of “Undercover Boss” is that there are two competing narratives: a producer-intended narrative that promotes “mutual understanding” between bosses and workers, and a submerged unintentional narrative that exposes the blatant unfairness of work under capitalism. While the first narrative one had my stomach hurting (well, that and the Super Bowl nachos I’d been devouring for hours), the latter made me want to laugh, grin, and pump my fist in the air, especially every time workers told O’Donnell how he “just wasn’t cutting it” or barked orders at him to pick up trash or clean toilets faster and faster.

Who hasn’t fantasized about forcing their boss to meet their own unreasonable production quotas? Ask anyone who has ever worked an assembly line, stocked shelves, or loaded boxes. Back when I spent a short time on the night shift at a major grocery chain stocking shelves, I would often dream of role reversal—except in my show, the boss would be there against his will for an indefinite time (you know, like the entire working class), would be supervised by a recently laid off worker, and would be the only one required to negotiate his own contract without any union assistance. These dreams were sometimes accompanied by revolutionary hip-hop group The Coup playing on my MP3 player, until the supervisor took it away as punishment for not keeping up with the quota. Back to reality…

In the producers’ intended narrative of the show, bosses finish the show as enlightened messiahs as a result of their week in the trenches. At the end of the episode, O’Donnell attempts to prove himself not only indispensable to society, and his company’s image has been but rehabilitated from any greed that may have driven the economic crisis. Otherwise, why would companies agree to do it? Scenes of penitent reflections on their time in the trenches (“But wait…I was the one pushing higher production quotas the hardest!”) are littered throughout the show. If there was any vague lesson to learn coming out of the crisis, they need you to understand that they’ve learned it and are ready to move forward into the bright (jobless) recovery future.

The grand finale exposes “Randy” as Larry O’Donnell to the shock of his employees. Here, O’Donnell gets his chance to shine, to represent all the misunderstood bosses everywhere. One worker, nearly driven into eviction by Real Life O’Donnell’s fervent allegiance to profit, finds out that CBS’s O’Donnell has pledged to save her house from foreclosure with a raise and promotion–a long awaited reward for enduring so much for stockholder returns. After tossing several more crumbs to the few workers he met, “The Passion of the Larry” is complete. “Undercover Boss,” in this intentional respect, is just another facet of capitals frantic efforts to save itself from the years of recession, bad press, and that nasty Michael Moore film that dared name the system. Now that bosses been bailed out, they’re out to win your hearts and minds.

What about the thousands of other Waste Management workers not portrayed on the show? Well, they get to deal with Real Life O’Donnell…the one that demands egregious contract concessions from his Teamster-organized employees, forcing them onto the picket lines constantly. The Real Life O’Donnell that pits safety measures against impossible production quotas. The Real Life O’Donnell that sends spies to observe his garbage collection workers even without the help of CBS.

If “Undercover Boss” won over a sizable number of its 36 million viewers last Sunday, it was likely due to the underlying narrative of exploitation and endurance. Next Sunday, millions will tune in again to watch the boss of Hooter’s undoubtedly “touch lives” and “clean up his company’s act” (Hooter’s is an Atlanta-based restaurant chain known primarily for requiring female workers to wear skimpy, revealing uniforms, and serving straight guys who “just go for the wings”).

How many people believe Hooter’s can really “clean up,” though, when it’s very marketability relies on barely clothed female workers who are forced to politely flirt with veritable troglodytes? Just as Hooter’s market relies on appealing to base sexism, capitalist firms can’t survive without exploiting the labor of workers. Without organization (and often with it, in this sad state of low bargaining power), we’re limited to nothing but a pittance and a guarantee of unmitigated on-the-job harassment.

Since the revenge fantasies of my shelf-stocking nights aren’t exactly doable without racking up multiple felonies and discrediting the workers movement, our best bet lies in the final line of the Coup song quoted at the beginning of this article, “we could all at once retire.” The value of all things produced comes from our labor. Management “ingenuity,” like the kind expressed when Larry O’Donnell pushes higher production quotas or cuts back on workplace safety regulations, does nothing more than organize production in ways that are favorable to capitalist profits. With independent and militant organization, we can withhold our labor and the profits capital depends upon, making the bosses “redundant” once and for all.

This radical will continue to watch “Undercover Boss,” relishing the cracks in the narrative and cheering every time a boss reveals his basic ineptitude to millions. Just like we encourage workers to read between the lines of company propaganda, we can also encourage a critical look at this ostensibly pro-boss TV show. What kind of conversations have you had about the show? Please share by posting a comment below!


3 responses to “TV’s “Undercover Boss” — 5,000,000 Ways to Save a C.E.O.”

  1. Chloe Avatar

    Recently Extreme Home Makeover targeted the home of grassroots leader of PUSH Buffalo, a group that works with community residents to wage campaigns for decent affordable housing. The leader, Delores Powell, had applied independently to get her broken down house fixed up.

    She and the staff organizer of PUSH did a good job of trying to insert power-conscious language into the show. (At one point she, the organizer and her kids chant “real people, real power.”)

    But ultimately the take-away message seems to be that human suffering can be relieved through seemingly spontaneous acts of charity, and that we should sit tight and wait for Ty Pennington to knock on our door. (The show also sends her and her kids to Disney World while the work gets done and sets up a fund for their college tuition).

    But the fact that it’s so gripping — and nearly impossible not to cry at various points — reflects how deeply these shows strike a cord.

  2. R Avatar

    In Peter Camejo’s 1970 lecture, “How to Make a Revolution in the United States,” he proposes an experiment to find your local ruling class:

    “Get all dressed up, put on a jacket and tie, and walk into some corporation and say: ‘Hello, I’m a sociologist, I’m here to do a study. Could I just walk around and talk to people?’ And then you walk up to somebody and say: ‘Who’s your supervisor?’ And he’ll point to someplace, and you find someone with a little name plate, and it’s a supervisor. And you ask him: ‘Who’s your supervisor?’ And he’ll point to a different place, and you walk in and there’ll be a rug. And you say to him: ‘Who’s your supervisor?’ And he’ll point to a different floor, and you’ll find it gets harder and harder to get in the doors. There’s more and more secretaries, and phones, and the rug gets thicker and thicker. Eventually you have to make appointments. And then you hit the sound barrier. Here is where you switch from the people who carry out decisions to people who make the decisions. And that’s your local ruling class.”

    Great lecture overall, find it here:

    Also, I should have included an anecdote that I heard from a friend of mine who has an uncle that’s an executive at UPS. Every time the Teamsters threaten a strike, his colleagues send him a UPS uniform as a joke, implying that he’ll have to load trucks or deliver packages as his workers are on the picket lines (fat chance, unless CBS is there to document it and make it into a passion play!).