Ever watch this show Undercover Boss on CBS? The premise is simple: the CEO of a company goes undercover, disguised as an ordinary worker, at his company for a couple of weeks. And thus he discovers what it is to really work at (almost always) his company. My daughter loves it for some reason, so I watch along sometimes. The show I saw last week, for example, was at a novelty company based in Kansas, I think–I got pineapple chotkes from them for my daughter’s “Hawaii themed” 5th birthday party. The jobs, of course, suck–these are working class jobs, and they aren’t fun, nor do they pay particularly well. And the CEO gets humanized by this–frequently, he’s pretty lousy at doing the job himself (not surprising, he’s never done it before). He staying in some off-highway Motel 6 for a couple of weeks, instead of his usual five star downtown hotel. This CEO from the novelty company, with his undercover wig and braces, goes home and tells his wife and kids that he’s been working a 10-6 night shift, and–props to Charles Murray!- his 16 year old daughter asks, “Do people actually work at that hour?” Nice girl, but she’ got no clue–why would she? They live in a suburban palace.

And the workers are mostly decent, hardworking people (the jerks get edited out, I guess, except once in awhile, they keep a jerk in for dramatic effect–boy will he be surprised when he sees that novice worker to whom he was trashing the company is really the boss!). And then, at the end of the show, the boss reveals his identity to the workers, and he beneficently gives them money to help with their sick kids or parents, or a new workrule that doesn’t really change much of anything, e.g. free gatorade during the hot months at a particularly oppressive factory, or, sometimes, a promotion if they’re really good. Even a 25 cents per hour raise for the folks on this shift–$500 per year before taxes. Woohoo!

Even though it’s not very much–low five figures in money usually–it matters, of course, to these people a great deal. And they are deeply grateful–any of us would be in their shoes. And they frequently cry–and the boss looks good (sometimes he cries too) and the company looks good. End of story.

And I’m thinking: this is really poignant, yet pathetic: this is the story of the working class today. Dependent upon the kindness of strangers (nobody EVER recognizes the boss–they usually don’t recognize him even after he takes off his
disguise). Happy for handouts from the boss fairy. Of course, they really need a union–an institutional voice that speaks for all of them, not the ones lucky enough to unknowingly work with the boss for a couple of weeks. And they certainly need universal health insurance–there is always a theme involving sick relatives- just to get thru the emergencies in their lives. Sports drinks when the workplace feels like an oven?! They’d get more than sports drinks if they could collectively bargain with the boss–maybe a new ventilation system. And they used to have that voice, they used to have those unions. But those days are gone. Now it’s like winning the lottery–if they happen to find out the “undercover” boss was on their shift, then they get a few bucks, and a week’s vacation (another popular “gift” item). It’s sentimental and evades any serious questions about power relationships in this country. It’s humiliating for a great country to produce stuff like this as “entertainment”, and it’s deeply depressing, too.

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