The Alan Sondheim Mail Archive

February 13, 2010

Five oud solos for Maria Damon

(Turkish tuning)

Q. What was the occupation of the Vates?
A. The study of philosophy and the works of nature; and, indeed, every art
and science that could contribute to excite the astonishment and fix the
_veneration_ of the people, who regarded them as demigods, _endowed_ with
more than mortal wisdom and _illuminated_ by _celestial inspiration._
(From Pinnock's Catechism of the History of England, 1836)

-----Original Message-----
From: Portside Labor [mailto:labor-moderator@PORTSIDE.ORG]
Sent: Saturday, February 13, 2010 6:24 AM
Subject: Reality TV Gives Corporate America a Big Wet Kiss

Reality TV Gives Corporate America a Big Wet Kiss

by Mark Brenner

Thu, 02/11/2010 - 4:26pm

Want to know what chutzpah means? Look no further than
TV's newest reality show, "Undercover Boss." Apparently
the titans of industry aren't satisfied that they burned
our economy to the ground and got nothing but a slap on
the wrist from Washington. They want us to like them,

"Undercover Boss," which debuted on CBS after Sunday's Superbowl, is a
corporate charm offensive. For one week the CEO of a major company goes
"undercover," performing a variety of jobs at the bottom of the corporate


Over the course of an hour we discover that the CEO is
really a nice guy. We see just how ready top brass is to
reward hard-working employees and to clean up problems
on the front lines.

It's a blast from the Reagan-era past: CEO-as-hero.

The first episode features Larry O'Donnell, president of
Waste Management, the nation's largest trash and
recycling company.

In fine superhero tradition, O'Donnell adopts an alter
ego (that sounds strangely like a porn star)--Randy Lawrence--and spends a
day each doing various jobs at Waste Management: sorting recycling; picking
up trash at a landfill; cleaning port-a-potties in an amusement park;
shadowing the manager of a landfill; and riding shotgun on a residential
garbage truck route.


You can't help but enjoy O'Donnell's ineptitude doing blue-collar work. He
struggles to snatch cardboard off a recycling conveyor belt in Syracuse
while his supervisor chuckles that he's working on the slowest line in the
building. Almost on cue, O'Donnell misses a big piece and completely jams
the machine, forcing everyone on an early lunch break.

In Florida O'Donnell gets fired for the first time in
his life. His supervisor, Walter, cans him after he
repeatedly fails to fill a trash bag with litter in less
than 10 minutes. Walter can fill two bags of trash in
that time--and he's been on dialysis for more than 20

And it wouldn't be reality TV without an over-the-top moment--in this case
O'Donnell vacuuming out the business end of a port-a-potty. For dramatic
effect, the producers blur out images of a dirty diaper that O'Donnell
excavates from one toilet.

We get a good laugh but the joke's on us, because Larry O'Donnell still goes
home at the end of a year with a $3 million salary.


O'Donnell is pitch-perfect as CEO-hero. He's unfailingly
polite and full of aw-shucks Southern charm. A dedicated
family man, he's also got a personal tragedy that neatly
ties back to his job. The O'Donnells' daughter Linley
suffered brain damage as an infant--apparently due to a
doctor not following proper procedures. Now Boss
O'Donnell says he makes safety a top priority.

Out in the field our CEO-hero oozes earnestness. We see O'Donnell soaking up
life lessons, as Walter talks about staying positive while living with
dialysis. He marvels at Fred, who has joked and high-fived his way through
10 years of shoveling shit (literally).

And he loses sleep fretting over Jaclyn--the harried
landfill manager who's doing the job of three or four people--but who still
finds time to invite O'Donnell over for family dinner in the dream home
she's struggling to hold onto.

O'Donnell does a lot of hand-wringing over the company's productivity
standards--his pet project inside corporate headquarters--when he discovers
that Janice, the garbage driver, is forced to pee in a coffee can if she
wants to finish her 300 pickups within the 12-13 hours allotted.

Viewers never see O'Donnell in his natural habitat,
crowing about squeezing more work out of his "team." On
an investor conference call he held in March last year,
he bragged that in 2008's fourth quarter the company
shed more than 800,000 "driver hours" compared to the
same time the prior year. UNION? WHAT UNION?

What we also don't see is any sign that workers at Waste Management have
ever heard of unions. Although Teamsters represent thousands of workers at
Waste Management, that piece of reality didn't make it onto TV. No surprise,
since the company has been aggressively trying to break the union for years.

During O'Donnell's watch, the company has been forced to
pay an $8 million legal settlement after locking out 500 Oakland garbage
truck drivers in 2007.

Although failing to wring concessions out of drivers in Oakland, the company
got its way in Los Angeles, where workers turned down a bad contract and
struck for 12 days but were forced to take a sub-par health package or face
permanent replacement.

The company also provoked a four-week strike in
Milwaukee in 2008, forcing workers to dump their
traditional pensions and swallow 401(k)s.

In that conference call with investors last year, Waste Management blandly
reported that "labor and employee benefits costs improved by $59 million in
the quarter ... with most of that cost related to the withdrawal from the
Teamsters' underfunded Central States Pension Fund."

But far from showing any resentment over corporate
policies that are running them ragged and stealing their retirement, the
workers on this show are bowled over with gratitude for a bit of attention
from the top brass. "I'm going to remember this day forever," Janice says
after her debrief with O'Donnell. "This is really awesome."

"It means a lot," Walter notes. "Because most people in
a position that high--you never see them, they won't take
the time out to come down and see what you're doing or
even say hello."


On the show the dirtiest part of the job is the trash
and human waste. But when the cameras aren't rolling
there are far worse things to see. Despite O'Donnell's
repeated avowals of his commitment to safety, Waste
Management workers are three times more likely to get
killed on the job than firemen, and 60 percent more
likely than police officers.

One victim was Raul Figueroa, who was cut in half two
years ago by a malfunctioning hydraulic arm on a garbage
truck. His family later discovered that his supervisor
had refused his requests for extra assistance and denied
him access to a ladder so he could work more safely.
After he was killed the company back-dated safety
records and placed a ladder on the scene.

(For more on the health and safety problems at Waste
Management read the report In Harm's Way commissioned by
the Teamsters.)


Despite O'Donnell's professed conversion experience--"I
have got to change the way I go about my own job"--we
find precious few specifics of what will change at Waste Management once the
cameras go dark.

During the show O'Donnell "struggles" with the fact that
his commitment to doing more with less forces Janice to
pee in a coffee can. But when they sit down face to
face, he doesn't promise to lower the number of garbage
cans drivers have to pick up--he says he'll launch a task
force to make Waste Management a more female-friendly workplace.

When Janice talks about supervisors in white pickup
trucks who surveil drivers, O'Donnell says, "Route
managers go around and do these observations, but I
don't want our drivers to feel like they're being spied
upon, because that's not what this is all about."

What is it all about, then?

The CEO-as-TV-hero can't utter that other p-word:
profits. O'Donnell waxes eloquent about productivity,
but never connects it to what he and everyone else at
the top of Waste Management are focused on, fattening
that bottom line.

O'Donnell does put Jaclyn on salary and folds her into
the company's bonus program--for doing the work of four
people managing an upstate New York landfill. But how
many other workers could get a pay bump from that $8
million they spent trying to break the union in Oakland?
If Waste Management didn't pay managers to spy on
workers and buy cameras to track their every move?


What is the viewer supposed to take from the show? CEOs
are good people with families. Workers are dedicated and hardworking, and
the suits in corporate can't do what they do. But, as out-of-touch as
decision-makers are, when they find out about problems they'll fix them.

So "Undercover Boss" is really a sequel to the
management fads of the 1980s and 1990s--employee
involvement and team concept. Those programs told
workers to "work smarter, not harder," and bosses
everywhere promised to listen to workers about how to
run the company.

What we learned from Corporate America's first charm
offensive (dissected by Mike Parker and Jane Slaughter
in Labor Notes' Working Smart) is that yes, management
wanted workers' ideas--so they could use them to
institute speed-up and tighter management control as
well as to cut jobs.

Larry O'Donnell is just a tourist in the
management-by-stress workplace that his predecessors
perfected over the last 30 years.

Here's hoping that Waste Management workers set their
sights higher than a corporate pat on the head. After 30
years of getting dumped on, U.S. workers have a right to
be angry.

If a few of them break out the pitchforks and torches,
that would make for some great TV.

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