Undercover Boss: Despite all the feel good, the fundamental things apply
There was no way I could resist the first episode of Undercover Boss, a new "reality" show in which a senior exec goes incognito and works low-down jobs to see what it's really like to labor in the trenches. If you're looking for Barbara Ehreneich taking low-pay, no-thanks jobs and living off the pay while trying to find out what reality is like in real life, as opposed to on reality TV - which she chronicled so brilliantly in Nickel and Dimed - move along folks, there's nothing to see here.
These execs will not actually be trying to make a living at the rotten jobs that those at the bottom of the corporate pyramid work at. Instead, they get to dabble a bit.
I've only seen episode one, and it was a doozy, I must say. Not sure what the the pretext of having a film crew around in subsequent shows will be, but here the folks were told that a documentary was being made on someone learning the industry ropes from the trash-littered ground up. And that industry was the waste management biz. The eponymous Waste Management was the company that provided the exec to to do a bit of down and dirty, in their case the exec was President Larry O'Donnell.
Forget about any playing of "Hail to the Chief." Just speed it up, buddy, if you think you want to make it as a g-man.
Certainly, in terms of lowest of the low, you couldn't start much more rock bottom on the scale of crappy jobs that society has to offer than to go to a company that's in the crap business.
The jobs that O'Donnell worked - for one day a piece, thank you - included picking up loose trash at a landfill; riding a garbage truck; gleaning cardboard from tons of recycled matter as it sludges along an assembly line; and cleaning out porta-potties. (In India, I believe that this latter job is for the Untouchable caste.)
While playing drudge-worker-for-the-day, O'Donnell gets to do a bit of gleaning of his own: this is hard, exhausting work; women garbage truck drivers have no place to pee (other than a in a can); having a latter-day Simon Legree timing your every move is unpleasant.
O'Donnell isn't a bad, callous, insensitive guy, and he wants to do right by his peeps.
So, he takes the woman who has no place to pee and puts her on a task force to figure out how to make WM a better place for women workers. (Expect to see some sort of embedded potty in the cab of the garbage truck.) In awe of the trash-picker, who works a long, arduous and non-complaining day despite the fact that he's on dialysis, and Larry puts him on some sort of worker health committee. He gets rid of the petty, demoralizing, and Legree-ish rule that docks workers 2 minutes for every 1 minute they clock in late from their half-hour lunch. He rescues the poor woman who's about to lose her house by promoting her (she deserves it), so she can afford to stay put. And he takes the smile-on-his-face guy who's cleaning out those porta-potties, and has him speak to employees about positive mental attitude.
All well and good. And I absolutely want to point out that, however edited these films are, the employees with whom O'Donnell played 'lets pretend' are all hard workers, trying to do a good job, not feeling sorry for themselves that their lot in life is to work at what are some of the last resort jobs on earth. For what has got to be pretty short pay.
O'Donnell has toss and turn nights over the plight of his workers, and vows to do something about any directives that he's given that are trickling down into making life miserable for the proles.
But I would imagine that O'Donnell's hands are tied by the cold, hard fact that WM, while the market leader, faces intense competition. They're a public company. Just how much slack can he introduce into the system - 'hey, take your time cleaning out those porta-potties' - before it starts cutting into profits. Hard to imagine that the driving force - given the modern day definition of a business as an entity built primarily (if not solely) to deliver profits to the owners - is not going always to be: faster, faster, faster. Because if WM doesn't do the job as cheaply and efficiently as possible, there's someone right behind him - probably employing illegal aliens who're hired through some sub-sub-sub-contracting arrangement - who's offering to clean those porta-potties cheaper, cheaper, cheaper.
One of the little mini-sagas that came out of WM episode featured a garbage woman from upstate NY. One of the things that Janice did to make her work life a bit more tolerable was develop relationships with the folks on her route. For some of the isolated elderly and handicapped whose trash she picked up, the brief visit with Janice was an important social contact.
But, twenty-yards away, the white spy-van from corporate would lurk, watching how much time Janice wasted. If she cut out a couple of conversations each day, she could no doubt pick up another 10 garbage cans. Besides, she's not getting paid to make idle chit-chat with old ladies.
If we wanted our garbage people to have the luxury of being able to strike up conversations with the folks along the route, we might be willing to have our tax dollars going to pay actual municipal workers to do the job, and maybe have one more garbage truck per 10,000 citizens out there.
Instead, we're screeching to squeeze every buck out of that tax dollar by turning as many tasks as we can over to the lowest price bidder.
So I'm guessing that, if Joe O'Donnell lets the word go out that it's okay to stop and smell the roses along the garbage route, he's got to be prepared to lose some business. And how long before he's replaced from someone who's going to be a bit more focused on the bottom line.
Waste Management may well want to make the world a cleaner, better place. And if they can do so while satisfying their profit and growth targets, I'm sure that they will. But the bottom lines the bottom line, so I wouldn't predict that much change will come out of any epiphanies that Joe O'Donnell might have had while chasing down flying trash during a wind storm. A few feel good gestures that make a few feel good.
It did get me thinking about what might be nice to see, and here are my suggestions for some policies that might better benefit Waste Management's workforce:
- Across the boards profit sharing. Maybe Janice wouldn't feel so bad about curtailing her conversations if she knew that, if her productivity increased, she'd benefit from it directly. A lot of us might sneer at the thought of a couple of hundred dollar bonus, but it might actually mean something to those living at the edge.
- Educational funds for employees. The WM website says that they have professional development funds for employees. Maybe this is something real and meaningful; maybe it just means that, once a year, the toilet cleaners get to meet and learn about new disinfectants for an hour. But wouldn't it be nice if there were explicit funding for even the lowliest workers to develop skills that might enable them to find better jobs - within or outside of WM. Tuition reimbursement, study sabbaticals based on years worked. Wouldn't that be nice.
- Tuition funds for the children of employees. I can't imagine that there are many folks collecting garbage, picking through mounds of recycle, or suctioning crap out of portable plastic toilets at state fairs that aspire to having their children follow in their footsteps. Yes, the work is honest. But it's hard to think that there would be the same level of pride around having multi-generational trash pickers that you would have had with multi-generational assembly line workers at the Pontiac plant. So, Joe, how about putting aside a few bucks each year to help pay for post-secondary education for the children of those who are - quite literally - shit-workers.
Yup. This stuff will cost you more than setting up a task force on making life a bit easier for women working on garbage trucks. But there is no doubt some waste and inefficiencies that could be wrung out of Waste Management that could be used to help make some truly offal jobs less awful.
On balance, Undercover Boss is interesting, but, if Episode 1 is any indication, it's essentially shallow, trivializing, and skirting the main issues that are facing the bottom , under-educated workers in our society. I'm not suggesting that a TV show should try to solve those problems. Hell, if our politicians can't have a serious conversation about it without screaming socialism, we can't expect CBS to.
That's show biz, I guess.