Back before Michael Moore was crazy, he had a great television show, which highlighted the separation of upper management of companies from the ground level workers. There was one memorable scene when he stood outside of IBM with a megaphone and a big floppy disk in his hand and demanded that the CEO format the disk.
"Format the disk! Format the disk!"
Last night after the Superbowl, Steve put the leftover chili in the fridge, and I snuggled on the sofa reading tweets on my iPhone and watched a new show, Undercover Boss.
Undercover Boss is a new reality show that follows around CEOs of companies as they go undercover and do the work of the line workers in their own companies. On the first episode, the CEO of Waste Management Company vacuumed out porta-potties, sorted trash on conveyor belts, picked up blowing pieces of litter on a hill, and helped out in a small office. He worked with remarkably cheerful, able employees who struggled to keep to quotas. They did backbreaking work with little complaint.
At the end, he reveals himself as the CEO to the astonished workers and plays fairy godmother by giving raises and changing unfair policies. He realizes that some of the rules that he set in place were being cruelly implemented. Other policies needed to be put in place as he learns from a female worker who had to pee in a can during her route in order to make her daily quota of trash pickup.
While these were certainly positive developments, the show was manipulative. There was too much advertisement for the company. The boss was on his best behavior and is portrayed as a savior to the working man. The line-workers were very carefully chosen for the show. They found the one person in the world who was able to vacuum out poop from the porta-potties with good humor and zeal. This was very scripted reality TV.
The best moments of the show were the glimpses we caught of the daily lives of these garbage workers. They were spied on by low level management on security cameras. They had work quotas. Their jobs involved intense physical labor; even those with medical conditions did hard work. It's was very Barbara Ehrenreich. Most of my friends have never had jobs that involved punching clocks or meeting quotas or dealing with bodily waste. It's very important that we understand these jobs better.
Undercover Boss is a sanitized Michael Moore. The themes are hero line workers and a well-meaning, but unaware CEO. When the CEO learns of errors in his company, he heroically makes changes. The only bad guys are low level management, but they get very little camera time.
The bigger problems go unsaid. For example, there is no mention of the salary of the CEO in relation to the poop-vacuumer. At the end of the show, I was hoping that the CEO would give himself a pay cut and distribute the savings to his workers. That didn't happen.
There is also no mention of how a guy is able to take charge of a company without having an inkling of knowledge about what his staff does. Perhaps before that MBA takes over spreadsheet making for a company, he should actually do some of the work himself. Maybe that would be a good thing.
Undercover Boss is sentimental and populist, but without asking the real tough questions about capitalism and our class-based world.