"Undercover Boss" TV Show Gives Corporations Free PR and Is No Substitute for Worker Organizing

The second season of "Undercover Boss" is well underway, and one thing is clear: For featured companies, this program isn’t about genuine concern for the working women and men that make our businesses strong. It’s about free advertising, and lots of it.

First, let’s recall a few of the notable corporations ‘starring’ in the show’s debut season.

There was Roto-Rooter Plumbing & Drain Service, which recently settled a class-action lawsuit for $2 million brought by its plumbers in California over complaints of unpaid overtime and working without meal breaks. And who could forget Waste Management, which was featured in the show's pilot episode. The company’s folksy COO Larry O'Donnell witnessed many of the dangerous and sometimes humiliating experiences that the sanitation workers at his company face everyday, including a shocking lack of bathroom breaks.

Not exactly a stellar track record for companies that, thanks to the show, get the equivalent of millions of dollars-worth of free ’undercover advertising‘ on network television.

But is this season any better?

True to form, the premiere episode revolved around Steve Joyce, CEO of Choice Hotels, who has publicly come out against healthcare reform and legislation to protect workers’ rights to form unions. Then there’s DirecTV CEO Mike White, who makes over $15 million a year while his employees have to pay out of pocket for required equipment. Nationally, the satellite TV giant has actively campaigned against workers in several states who tried to exercise their rights to join a union to improve working conditions. In Montana, the company went as far as unlawfully firing Mark Smith, a Missoula call center worker, because of his pro-union stance.

The worst may be yet to come. Chiquita Brands International -- one of the "Undercover Boss" corporations appearing later this season–-has been found responsible for illegally funding foreign terrorist organizations. Between 1997 and 2004, Chiquita made over 100 payments worth an estimated $1.7 million to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), a right-wing paramilitary group designated by the U.S. government as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. In 2007, the company had to answer for its nefarious dealings, pleading guilty to “engaging in transactions with a specially-designed global terrorist” organization in federal court.

It’s no wonder these corporations need a PR boost, and "Undercover Boss" promises exactly that.

For those who haven’t watched the show, the storyline is consistently the same: the CEO confronts the harsh reality America’s working people face on the job through encounters with a handful of stressed and deserving employees. Right on cue, the boss has a wake-up moment, and rewards these men and women for their hard work by the end of the episode. That’s undoubtedly a good thing. And it’s encouraging to hear that, following his stint on the show in mid-October, Frontier Airlines CEO Bryan Bedford decided to roll back pay cuts for all of his workers.

Off camera, it’s less clear what service the show is doing for its supporting cast -- the hardworking employees that keep these companies on the road to success. What we’ve seen is that, even when their boss has gone ‘undercover’ at a handful of worksites, it typically takes workers’ unions to bring workplace problems and solutions to the fore. For example, despite Waste Management’s COO’s pledge in a letter to The New York Times to "address the issues and frustrations of our workers -- without going undercover," the company’s unionized Seattle trash collectors had to strike for better workplace safety and wages. Similarly, much of the workforce at Frontier had a voice on the job and a process in place to deal with the wage cuts, and many were already expecting their pay to be restored as a result of ongoing negotiations.

So no one should mistake "Undercover Boss" as promising a new era of respect and fair treatment for workers in corporate America. The race-to-the-bottom mentality that drove our economy into the ground, and has left record numbers of Americans living in poverty, is the same business model perpetuated by many of the corporations highlighted on the show.

What we need instead is a concerted push for a different way of doing business. Employers who see their employees not as liabilities, but as partners committed to the success of their business. Believe it or not, that vision isn’t just a pipe dream. Across the country, a growing number of employers are working together with employees and their unions to tackle tough business challenges and respond to the rapidly changing economic climate. And they’re doing it all with a shared sense of responsibility for the company’s future.

Without a doubt, it’s entertaining to see a CEO scrubbing a toilet. But what our country really needs is a sure path for all nine-to-fivers -- with or without the assistance of an ‘undercover’ boss -- to get the fair shake they’ve earned.


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