Undercover Boss

Undercover Boss is a new, incredibly popular TV show on CBS where CEOs of some of the biggest companies go undercover as regular workers. The show is based on the classic “The Prince and The Palper” tale where the mighty prince goes in disguise to walk among the peasants to see how the other side lives.

In the show, CEOs of 7-Eleven, Churchhill Downs, and White Castle discover the truth about the work life of their regular employees: how tough it is, how inflexible the company rules are and the meager pay. Then a magical transformation takes place, the bosses promote workers, increase pay and vow to make improvements so all of the company’s workers are treated better.

As Adam Cohen explains in his New York Times column,

At its core, Undercover Boss sells a false idea of why many workers are in the position they are in and what can be done about it.

It is the relentless focus on the bottom line, as well as out-of-touch executives, that causes workplace wrongs to flourish.

The show simply glosses over the fact that it is not corporate benevolence that protects workers but also the legal protections that arose out of the New Deal — minimum wage and maximum hours laws; energetic enforcement of Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules; and strong unions.

In the season finale, Christopher McCann, CEO of 1-800 Flowers, went to visit several of his Long Island stores to see the inner workings of his company. One glaring part of his company was absent, though: the flower workers who make his business possible. Our Friends at the International Labor Rights Forum(ILRF)  have issued an invitation to Mr. McCann. Vanessa León of ILRF notes:

Knowing of the grave violations that these workers are forced to endure, we thought it only fair that Mr. McCann take a trip to the fields and farms of Colombia and Ecuador so as to truly be on the most frontline position in the flower industry.

On a recent episode of Real Time with Bill Maher, the topic of Undercover Boss came up. Host Bill Maher and guests Arianna Huffington and Andrew Ross Sorkin discussed the tragic truth of what so many Americans face at work.

Arianna: There is something fascinating in portraying what is happening to people who are just working hard and not being rewarded… Something good may come from it which is waking people up to the huge discrepancy in this country.

Bill Maher: We’ve squeezed the middle class. What about companies who are doing really well? How do they squeeze more profit? How do they make their stock go up even more? The only place to squeeze is the people.

Even in this recession, productivity went up 5%. You know, we keep knocking people off the treadmill and the people who are left on go harder and harder. I don’t know when the breaking point is going to be.

We’re far beyond the breaking point. It’s beyond time to do the things we need to rebuild our crumbling middle class. It’s time workers have the freedom to join together to bargain for good wages, benefits, and fair treatment in their workplaces. It’s time to reign in Wall Street and start creating the millions of jobs our country desperately needs.


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