In today's economic climate, America's workers need more than an "Undercover Boss."
Though the CBS hit 'reality' show has wrapped up its first season, the real problems facing working people continue.
For the uninitiated: "Undercover Boss" features CEOs who work incognito for a few days in front-line jobs within their own companies, only to reveal their true identities by the end of each episode. The series garnered huge ratings this year - and no wonder. Its formulaic recipe for success was a perfect mix of shock and schmaltz: allowing viewers to indulge in a little schadenfreude as the "Undercover Boss" failed at basic tasks, only to wipe away tears when the transformed CEO handed out prizes to deserving employees.
While it may make for entertaining television, few observers can mistake "Undercover Boss" for a documentary about problems in the workplace. Likewise, no one should confuse the show for evidence of a new era of respect, empowerment, and fair treatment by corporate America for employees. Instead, we should see the show for what it really is: undercover advertising for corporations under the guise of reality TV.
In fact, the corporate puffery of "Undercover Boss" has ignored real labor issues in some of the very companies the show featured this season. Roto-Rooter Plumbing & Drain Service recently settled a class-action lawsuit brought by its plumbers in California for $2 million over complaints for working without meal breaks and unpaid overtime. A similar lawsuit is now pending in federal court in the Eastern District of New York. 1-800-Flowers is currently fighting a sex-discrimination lawsuit from a female former executive attorney, who said senior management referred to women as "babes," praised her coffee-fetching skills and subjected her to offensive comments about their sex lives.
Then there is Waste Management, whose folksy, charismatic COO Larry O'Donnell was featured in the show's pilot and witnessed some of the dangerous and disrespectful issues experienced by sanitation workers. Despite his pledge in a letter to The New York Times to "address the issues and frustrations of our workers -- without going undercover," his unionized trash collectors in Seattle are now deciding whether to strike over a lack of progress with Waste Management in addressing concerns for better workplace safety and wages.
The true nature of our nation's deplorable job standards was exposed through actual undercover work that Gabriel Thompson did for his book "Working in the Shadows." The book describes what it takes to do back-breaking work picking lettuce in the fields of Yuma, Arizona; mind-numbing and body-destroying work tearing apart chicken meat in a factory in Alabama; and risking life and limb as a food delivery bike courier in the crowded streets of New York City. Most of the people who do these jobs work far from the glare of "reality" TV cameras, for very little pay, and out of reach of America's pathetically weak worker protection laws.
And that is what makes "Undercover Boss" so troubling - it is corporate whitewashing in a time when corporations are increasingly depressing wages, rights, and protections for workers.
The National Employment Law Project found that more than two-thirds of low-wage employees surveyed in 2008 lost 15 percent of their pay on average due to growing "wage theft" by U.S. employers.
An astounding 62 percent of workers surveyed by Nebraska Appleseed Center in 2008 said they had been injured on the job [pdf] in the previous year.
How did we get here? We're working harder and longer for less pay and less security than previous generations. Meanwhile, policymakers take campaign checks and look the other way as corporations flush job standards down the toilet and evade labor regulations.
Let us be clear: television has the power to do a lot of things. One recent, terrible example was the worst American mining disaster in a quarter century and its aftermath, which millions of us watched while glued to our TV sets, praying for a miracle that never came. Yet we must not forget that this disaster was preventable. We hope that those 29 West Virginia miners did not die in vain -- and that the notoriously anti-union Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship will be held accountable, with improved safety standards on the horizon.
It doesn't have to be this way. We can push for better labor reforms, and ensure new jobs created in the economic recovery are good jobs. We can also press Congress to improve workers' rights to form unions to give men and women a voice in fixing their jobs, while the administration can favor vendors who respect workers' rights.
Workers in unions can be empowered to negotiate with their employers as equal partners to improve workplaces and job conditions.
In the meantime, "Undercover Boss" reruns will generate great ratings and companies will compete to go undercover next season. But make no mistake: "Undercover Boss" won't be bringing meaningful change to a workplace near you anytime soon.
Kimberly Freeman Brown is Executive Director of leading labor policy and advocacy organization American Rights at Work, www.americanrightsatwork.org. Gabriel Thompson is the author of "Working in the Shadows: A Year of Doing the Jobs (Most) Americans Won't Do," http://workingintheshadows.
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