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Episode 187: Undercover Boss, Uber-Driving CEOs, and the "Empathetic Executive" Schtick

Wed Aug 02 2023
CEOs cosplaying as workers'Undercover Boss' TV showPR stunts by CEOsExploitation in the delivery industryCustomers Delivering Justice campaign

Description

CEOs cosplaying as workers is a self-serving project that distracts from labor abuses. The history dates back to John D. Rockefeller's image cultivation. 'Undercover Boss' TV show aimed to rehabilitate executives during the recession. PR stunts by CEOs often trivialize worker realities. The gig economy narrative hides exploitation and denies workers basic protections. Customers Delivering Justice campaign fights for better pay and working conditions in the delivery industry.

Insights

CEOs cosplaying as workers

CEOs participating in low-level jobs is a self-serving project that allows for worker surveillance and distracts from labor abuses. Delivery workers face difficult conditions and rely on their work as a necessity to survive. The trope of CEOs cosplaying as workers upholds bourgeois moral values and promotes the idea that bosses lack empathy.

'Undercover Boss' TV show

'Undercover Boss' TV show was created to rehabilitate executives amid public distrust of major corporations during the recession. It tapped into a sense of unfairness and populism in the culture at that time. The show relied on recurring character archetypes such as the Good Worker, Bad Worker, and Benevolent Boss.

PR stunts by CEOs

PR stunts by CEOs often trivialize the actual work and dangers faced by employees. They perpetuate the idea that good workers may be rewarded individually but not institutionally. There is a sense of surveillance and observer bias in these PR stunts, with executives trying to get a pulse on the union situation.

Exploitation in the delivery industry

CEOs are perfecting algorithms to exploit delivery workers and maximize profits. Delivery work in New York is one of the deadliest jobs, with many accidents reported. Workers make far below minimum wage, with almost 70% experiencing punishment for declining poorly paid or dangerous deliveries.

Customers Delivering Justice campaign

The Workers' Justice Project launches a campaign called Customers Delivering Justice to fight for better pay and prevent abuses in the delivery industry. The campaign aims to unite workers, customers, and restaurants to build a more responsible and ethical way of ordering food.

Chapters

  1. CEOs Cosplaying as Workers
  2. John D. Rockefeller and 'Undercover Boss'
  3. 'Undercover Boss' and CEO PR Stunts
  4. 'Undercover Boss' Manipulative Tactics
  5. Executives' PR Stunts and Worker Realities
  6. PR Stunts and Power Relations
  7. Delivery Workers' Struggles and CEO Empathy
  8. Exploitation in the Delivery Industry
  9. Customers Delivering Justice
Summary
Transcript

CEOs Cosplaying as Workers

00:04 - 07:29

  • CEOs participating in low-level jobs is a self-serving project that allows for worker surveillance and distracts from labor abuses
  • Delivery workers face difficult conditions and rely on their work as a necessity to survive
  • The trope of CEOs cosplaying as workers upholds bourgeois moral values and promotes the idea that bosses lack empathy
  • Public relations gambits like this are popular among gig worker companies and franchises
  • The history of CEOs cosplaying as workers dates back to John D. Rockefeller's image cultivation as a benevolent CEO

John D. Rockefeller and 'Undercover Boss'

07:06 - 14:01

  • Rockefeller advocated for everyone to be a capitalist and own industries, railroads, and telegraph lines.
  • Rockefeller worked among manual laborers and gained their respect.
  • He projected a homespun Baptist image of humility despite his immense wealth.
  • Rockefeller was anti-union and used compliments and promises of decent wages to dissuade workers from organizing.
  • The Ludlow Massacre occurred when Rockefeller's family hired a militia to break a strike held by coal miners.
  • Standard Oil became infamous for labor issues, although it had fewer workers compared to other industries.
  • Rockefeller amassed tremendous wealth through Standard Oil but is often portrayed as a benevolent billionaire due to his philanthropy.
  • 'Undercover Boss' TV show follows corporate executives who disguise themselves as entry-level workers to understand their companies better.
  • The show aims to rehabilitate executives amid public distrust of major corporations during the recession.

'Undercover Boss' and CEO PR Stunts

13:32 - 20:25

  • The TV show 'Undercover Boss' was created in response to growing public distrust of major corporations during the recession.
  • The show aimed to rehabilitate executives and address worker unrest.
  • The portrayal of CEOs as out of touch with their own companies is a convenient misdirection from the fundamental power structure.
  • During the financial crisis, top corporations laid off workers while making significant profits.
  • CEOs at the top 50 layoff firms took home nearly $12 million on average in 2009.
  • 'Undercover Boss' tapped into a sense of unfairness and populism in the culture at that time.
  • The show relied on recurring character archetypes such as the Good Worker, Bad Worker, and Benevolent Boss.
  • Good Workers often aligned their dreams with ascending within the company they worked for.
  • Bad Workers were portrayed as insubordinate or not taking their job seriously.
  • 'Undercover Boss' is seen as evil, dishonest, and manipulative by using deception for entertainment purposes.

'Undercover Boss' Manipulative Tactics

20:01 - 26:55

  • The TV show 'Undercover Boss' uses manipulative tactics to create entertainment.
  • The show often portrays bosses cutting corners and compromising quality for profit.
  • The benevolent boss trope is common in the show, where good workers are rewarded individually but not institutionally.
  • In one episode, the CEO of Fast Signs gives an employee a week of training, $15,000 for his church, and a new car.
  • The show perpetuates the idea that good workers may be rewarded with executive training opportunities.
  • Corporate messaging often tries to portray CEOs as relatable and down-to-earth, such as Uber's former CEO driving for Uber on occasion.
  • However, this messaging can be misleading and dismissive of the challenges faced by workers.

Executives' PR Stunts and Worker Realities

26:27 - 33:11

  • Uber CEO, Dara Kasar Shahi, drove for Uber as a PR stunt to reinforce the idea that it was fun and not a real job.
  • Executives of major companies have been participating in similar PR stunts, such as Air New Zealand's CEO serving water on a flight and Starbucks' new CEO planning to work as a barista every month.
  • The media has generally praised these PR stunts, but they often trivialize the actual work and dangers faced by employees.
  • A Wall Street Journal profile on Dara Kasar Shahi revealed that he realized drivers' complaints were valid after driving for Uber himself. However, driver pay remains an issue.
  • Starbucks CEO's policy of working in stores is seen as a positive move by some experts, but others argue that it doesn't address worker benefits or unionization.
  • There is a sense of surveillance and observer bias in these PR stunts, with executives trying to get a pulse on the union situation.

PR Stunts and Power Relations

32:45 - 39:43

  • There is a sense that unionization does not stem from something real or material, but rather a lack of empathy.
  • Companies like Lyft and DoorDash use PR stunts to create a positive image while making decisions that negatively impact their employees.
  • DoorDash and other apps have sued New York City to prevent app-based food delivery workers from earning more money.
  • The problem with the gig economy is not a lack of communication, but power relations and material reality.
  • CEOs' empathetic stunts are seen as tactics to control the narrative and hide the truth behind algorithms.

Delivery Workers' Struggles and CEO Empathy

39:14 - 47:27

  • CEO of DoorDash is promoting the idea that anyone can do delivery work, but it's a tactic to hide the truth of low wages and dangerous working conditions
  • New York passed a law requiring minimum wage for gig workers, and now companies are suing to maintain the distinction between gig workers and employees
  • Workers in New York organized and fought for historic labor protections, including access to bathrooms, disclosure of pay, and a minimum wage
  • Companies are fighting against implementing the minimum pay law for delivery workers in New York City
  • Delivery work has become harder for most New Yorkers who depend on it as a necessity
  • CEOs' false empathy towards employees often leads to increased surveillance and exploitation
  • If CEOs were truly empathetic, they would provide health benefits, job security, fair pay, and protection from algorithms

Exploitation in the Delivery Industry

47:12 - 55:21

  • CEOs are perfecting algorithms to exploit delivery workers and maximize profits.
  • DoorDash and GrubHub are creating new rating systems to increase profits and minimize worker pay.
  • Delivery work in New York is one of the deadliest jobs, with many accidents reported.
  • Workers make far below minimum wage, with almost 70% experiencing punishment for declining poorly paid or dangerous deliveries.
  • 85% of workers rely on delivery apps as their primary source of income.
  • The gig economy narrative obscures the fact that these workers are employees, not independent contractors.
  • Treating workers as independent contractors allows companies to deny them basic protections like minimum wage, sick leave, retirement plans, and safety protections.
  • Media coverage has been important in uncovering the truth about working conditions and amplifying worker voices.

Customers Delivering Justice

54:59 - 1:02:37

  • The Workers' Justice Project launches a campaign called Customers Delivering Justice to fight for better pay and prevent abuses in the delivery industry.
  • The campaign aims to unite workers, customers, and restaurants to build a more responsible and ethical way of ordering food.
  • Media should focus on covering the stories of workers on the front lines and their struggles rather than company PR.
  • Customers, especially seniors and those with special needs, play an important role in advocating for better pay and working conditions.
  • Restaurants also have a responsibility to ensure that delivery workers are treated with dignity and paid fairly.
  • Support the Workers' Justice Project at workerjustice.org to help fight for better labor laws and support workers' rights.
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