Another View of the Undercover Boss

The really great people at Labor Notes also noticed this show. Definitely read their take on it.

The Labor Notes essay reminded me of one of the real problems of the show (and the co-operative difference).

The narrative follows a fairly old plot device: The King is bored and feeling insecure about his subject’s love for him so he dons the clothes of a peasant and heads out to the realm to see how life really is. Along the way, he finds corrupt Sheriffs acting in his name, a damsel in distress, and other failures that he never dreamed existed because his royal court kept him sheltered from it all. In the end, he returns to the castle, uplifts the noble peasants who were kind to him, throws down the corrupt, marries the damsel and nestles back into the world of comfort, wealth and power.

That is essentially the plot of this show. Like the ancient narrative that it follows, it ignores reality serving instead to instruct the peasants that it is “hard work” being the decider!

Shakespeare had the most honest version of it in Henry V. Never one to trust the mob, Shakespeare allows his disguised Henry to defend the power of the King and to exonerate the King from the blood of war:

So, if a son that is by his father sent about
merchandise do sinfully miscarry upon the sea, the
imputation of his wickedness by your rule, should be
imposed upon his father that sent him: or if a
servant, under his master’s command transporting a
sum of money, be assailed by robbers and die in
many irreconciled iniquities, you may call the
business of the master the author of the servant’s
damnation: but this is not so: the king is not
bound to answer the particular endings of his
soldiers, the father of his son, nor the master of
his servant; for they purpose not their death, when
they purpose their services. Besides, there is no
king, be his cause never so spotless, if it come to
the arbitrement of swords, can try it out with all
unspotted soldiers: some peradventure have on them
the guilt of premeditated and contrived murder;
some, of beguiling virgins with the broken seals of
perjury; some, making the wars their bulwark, that
have before gored the gentle bosom of peace with
pillage and robbery. Now, if these men have
defeated the law and outrun native punishment,
though they can outstrip men, they have no wings to
fly from God: war is his beadle, war is vengeance;
so that here men are punished for before-breach of
the king’s laws in now the king’s quarrel: where
they feared the death, they have borne life away;
and where they would be safe, they perish: then if
they die unprovided, no more is the king guilty of
their damnation than he was before guilty of those
impieties for the which they are now visited. Every
subject’s duty is the king’s; but every subject’s
soul is his own. Therefore should every soldier in
the wars do as every sick man in his bed, wash every
mote out of his conscience: and dying so, death
is to him advantage; or not dying, the time was
blessedly lost wherein such preparation was gained:
and in him that escapes, it were not sin to think
that, making God so free an offer, He let him
outlive that day to see His greatness and to teach
others how they should prepare.”

So it is with the CEO of modern commerce. They are the Dukes and Kings of our era and act much in the same manner. There decisions are just by the fact that they made them. Any consequences on the people cannot be laid at their feet. People are responsible for themselves, after all. Larry O’Donnell professes safety, but cuts hours without any realization that speed-ups affect safety. His company, according to Labor Notes, is a “safe” workplace where “Waste Management workers are three times more likely to get killed on the job than firemen, and 60 percent more likely than police officers.”

Of course, taking a week off work to see how the plebes survive isn’t the same as being one. At least the kings in the old stories actually risked their lives, but the CEO can jump safely back to the corporate office at any time. Undercover Boss is the modern grim fairy tale of corporatized America. Worker Co-operation is the reality anti-dote.

About John McNamara

John spent 26 years with Union Cab of Madison Cooperative and currently helps develop co-ops in the Pacific Northwest. He holds a Ph.D. in Business Administration and Masters in Management: Co-operatives and Credit Unions from Saint Mary's University.
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