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

Citations Needed | August 2, 2023 | Transcript

Citations Needed
42 min readAug 2, 2023
Starbucks CEO Laxman Narasimhan “works” alongside a barista. (Wall Street Journal)

[Music]

Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.

Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed, a podcast on the media, power, PR, and the history of bullshit. I’m Nima Shirazi.

Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: You can follow the show on @citationspod, Facebook Citations Needed, and become a supporter of the show through Patreon.com/citationsneededpodcast. All your support through Patreon is so appreciated as we are 100% listener funded.

Adam: Yes. As always, if you can’t subscribe to us on Patreon, please do. If you listen to the show, if you’ve listened to the show for a while and you like it, we do ask you to help us out there because if you help us on Patreon and helps keep the episodes themselves free for everyone, and helps keep the show sustainable.

Nima: Yes, if you can help us out that way, that would be so incredibly generous of you. We appreciate every single one of our Patreon supporters. We can’t do the show without you. It really does keep us going and has been helping us keep the show going for now. Six whole seasons, Adam, this is the season six finale of Citations Needed. And I’m so thrilled that we’ve been able to do this for so long.

Adam: Yeah, we’re really excited to wrap this season up and start another one. Come back bigger, stronger, faster, and more advanced.

Nima: Right, mightier.

Adam: For the next year.

Nima: We have the technology. So, we will be taking a short break as we tend to do in between our seasons, but we will be back with more news briefs shortly. And of course, a whole new season of Citations Needed come the fall. So thank you everyone for listening for these past six years. It’s been amazing and we’re excited to keep going. So without further ado, let’s get to the show.

[Music]

Nima: “New Starbucks CEO plans to pull barista shifts in stores every month,” announces CNN. “Uber’s CEO moonlighted as a driver and it changed the way he operates the company,” insists Fortune. “Your DoorDash driver? He’s the company’s co-founder,” smirks the Associated Press.

Adam: We hear the same stories about bold corporate executives who decided to roll up their sleeves metaphorically or otherwise and join the lowest-level employees as delivery drivers, baristas, or retail workers. Their stated goal is to “stay connected” to their employees or “better understand” the company, its customers, and its workers.

Nima: While these attempts to foster and express empathy may appear noble on the surface, they’re anything but. In reality, the CEO-as-worker stunt is an entirely self-serving project, creating a pretext for worker surveillance and a distraction from labor abuses like poverty, wages, and union busting, all the while seeking to convince the public that corporate executives are honest, hardworking folks just like you.

Adam: Today, we will be discussing the past and present of the Undercover Boss-style corporate maneuvers, looking at the ways that the C-suiter-in-the-trenches routine advances the squishy concept of empathy in order to obscure and undermine the material needs and demands of labor.

Nima: Later on the show, we’ll be joined by Ligia Guallpa, Executive Director of the Worker’s Justice Project, a community-based, workers’ rights organization in New York City.

[Begin clip]

Ligia Guallpa: These companies have the audacity to be driven by the greed that I would say has no bounds. And most delivery workers right now are not just fighting back to make sure that they have the right to earn a minimum wage but right now during long hours of work mostly by exposing their own safety while they’re on the roads through difficult weather in New York, through traffics, through snowstorms, and through most recent wildfires smokes, this type of work has become harder and harder for most New Yorkers who depend on it not as an option but as a necessity to survive.

[End clip]

Adam: So this is a spiritual successor contractually obligated to say this. This is a spiritual successor to Episode 23, “The Media’s Grim Addiction to Perseverance Porn,” which aired all the way back in November of 2018. And that trope is the guy walks 10 miles in the snow, guy at Chick-fil-A gets in a car accident and shows up to work the next day, teacher has to sell recycled cans to buy school supplies for children, that kind of schlock. This is sort of a variation on that to some extent. There’s some overlap, there’s some not, but the basic idea is it exists to uphold these kinds of very saccharine bourgeois moral values — hard work, determination, etc. And also plays into a very liberal notion that the problem with bosses is that they’re sort of not empathetic enough, right? We saw this with the Obama documentary Working, which we had a friend of the show Max Alvarez on to criticize where Obama sort of says explicitly, the problem is that some bosses sort of are detached from their workers. They’re sort of seen as aloof or separate from them, which of course, is not the problem. The problem is structural. It’s not about the sort of state of mind or the emotional state of a boss. I don’t know how to measure that, you know, I can’t feed my kids or pay my rent or buy diapers on empathy from my boss.

Nima: You measure it in joules, right?

Adam: And there are public relations gambits, they’re extremely popular, they’ve gotten more popular of late. Again, gig worker CEOs, Uber, Lyft, DoorDash does this all the time, Starbucks does this all the time, McDonald’s does this all the time, local franchises will do this with local reporters. It was so ubiquitous, we had to do an episode on it because it’s fucking annoying. And it’s schlocky, and it seems like it’s never gonna go away. And of course, it’s not new. It’s been around for a very long time. So we’re going to kick off the episode by discussing that history.

Nima: Yeah, totally. I mean, you would have thought that this had kind of reached its nadir with the Undercover Boss TV show, which obviously we will talk about, and yet it just kind of lingers on. And as you said, Adam, especially with so much focus on union organizing and labor rights in especially service industries, it really lends itself to this high-paid CEO is going to do the drudgery, is gonna get all Mike Rowe on us and like do the dirty work. So let’s talk about some of the history of this. Now, this kind of faux egalitarian executive adventurism has occurred at times of heightened economic distress before where there’s acute inequality, recessions, depressions, right? Right when people might be particularly skeptical of corporations and capitalist wealth distribution and even start considering, gasp, alternatives or efforts of mitigation, like say unionizing.

Now one of the earliest, if not the earliest examples that we found of an executive cosplaying as a worker comes from an exemplar of corporate PR, none other than John D. Rockefeller. Now, Rockefeller who co-founded Standard Oil in 1870 and became the United States’s first billionaire with a “b” cultivated an image of the good CEO, synthesizing capitalist values with a vague and definitionally incompatible sense of benevolence stating this, “I would have every man a capitalist, every man, woman and child. I would have everyone save his earnings, not squander it; own the industries, own the railroads, own the telegraph lines.” Now of course, if every man, woman and child owned the industries and owned the railroads, that sounds a lot like I don’t know, socialism, but apparently everyone’s supposed to own their own. Then apparently, you have no customers but everyone’s a small business owner or a big business owner. So you know, that sounds great. Sporadically though, Rockefeller to the delight of many a libertarian think tank and business professor ever since toiled among the manual laborers. In his book, the Myth of the Robber Barons, a hagiography of many late-19th-century capitalists, author Burton W. Folsom Jr. wrote this:

Rockefeller approached the ideal of the ‘Standard Oil family’ and tried to get each member to work for the good of the whole. As [oil buyer] Thomas Wheeler said, ‘He managed somehow to get everybody interested in saving, in cutting out a detail here and there. . . .’ He sometimes joined the men in their work, and urged them on. At 6:30 in the morning there was Rockefeller ‘rolling barrels, piling hoops, and wheeling out shavings.’ In the oil fields, there was Rockefeller trying to fit nine barrels on an eight-barrel wagon. He came to know the oil business inside out and won the respect of his workers. Praise he would give; rebukes he would avoid. ‘Very well kept — very indeed,’ said Rockefeller to an accountant about his books before pointing out a minor error and leaving. One time a new accountant moved into a room where Rockefeller kept an exercise machine. Not knowing what Rockefeller looked like, the accountant saw him and ordered him to remove it. ‘All right,’ said Rockefeller, and he politely took it away. Later, when the embarrassed accountant found out whom he had chided, he expected to be fired; but Rockefeller never mentioned it.

Adam: Ah yes, the original Undercover Boss anecdote. Yeah, so after several years of bad PR, certain barons like Rockefeller understood the importance of getting down with one’s workers and, you know, sort of this homespun Baptist image.

Nima: And of humility in the, you know, in the face of having more wealth than anyone had ever accumulated.

John D. Rockefeller

Adam: Right, because at one point, some estimates put in between 1.5 and 3% of the total national GDP was owned by one person, John Rockefeller. So that’s a lot. And so you have to sort of have this idea that, you know, you’re from this sort of bootstrapping your worker, which in this case was kind of true. You know, he didn’t go to college, born fairly poor, though, went back and forth. During the 1870s and 1880s, US workers began to form national labor unions such as The Knights of Labor as a defense against these big corporations. Rockefeller was vehemently anti-union, obviously, preferring to dissuade workers from organizing with compliments and promises of decent wages. Notably, Rockefellers family, which owned the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company hired a militia in 1914 to break a strike held by the coal miners working at the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company and unionized under the United Mine Workers. The militia killed dozens of minors in what later became known as the Ludlow Massacre, the death toll was at least 66 after men, women, and children died in the aftermath. If you haven’t read about the Colorado Mine Wars of 1914, please do. It’s a fascinating history.

And the Rockefeller family at this point, he was semi-retired. His son, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. had taken over. There’s some interesting historical context for this, but just to get to the sort of way that Rockefeller thought about such things according to the Ron Chernow biography on John Rockefeller, Titan, which was published in 1996. He wrote that during a “clash in [1892] earlier at the Homestead, Pennsylvania, steel mill, Henry Clay Frick had ordered Pinkerton detectives to fire at workers — a step that drew a rousing congratulatory telegram from John D [Rockefeller].” So, again, they want to paint this image of homespun every man. But ultimately, of course, when it comes to real worker power, it’s sending the militia out. While Standard Oil didn’t become quite as infamous on labor issues, which actually had a lot to do with the fact that oil doesn’t actually have as many workers as say things like steel or coal because by the 1860s, you’re just poking up a pipe and pumping it to the docks. So it’s more of a railroad labor issue than it is oil per se, right? Although, of course, there were oil workers. There’s far far far less than other industries. It still awarded Rockefeller tremendous wealth amassed on the backs of workers. Standard Oil became one of the earliest US corporate monopolies controlling almost all the oil production and transportation in the US and rendering JD Rockefeller, not only the US’s first billionaire but by some accounts, top 10, or even top five wealthiest people in human history. Yet the dominant narrative about Rockefeller even to this day is that he sort of developed philanthropy and leadership and giving away money. So he was kind of the original benevolent billionaire. He sort of created the model, the blueprint for what we saw since then. And part of that blueprint was this idea that he would occasionally get into the mud and grit and dirt and harvest some oil, right? Because that’s hard work.

Nima: Right? Pizza parties for everyone, but no unions. Now, no analysis of these themes, of course, would be complete without a look at the TV show Undercover Boss mentioned earlier and I’m sure highly anticipated by all listeners, to this point. Now, the show Undercover Boss carried on this legacy of the concerned working-man executive to great effect and many many episodes. The CBS reality show Undercover Boss follows corporate executives who go (what else?) undercover, usually in a comically cheap disguise as entry-level workers for the companies they own. Their stated goal is to gauge what’s really going on inside their companies and with their employees. They later reveal themselves and propose minor changes ostensibly in order to improve operations problems that they had heard about from their brief co-workers. And these changes tend to translate to selective patronizing rewards, individual personal rewards for the good workers at the bottom, the ones that they befriended or that befriended them while dishing out sometimes punishments for bad employees that were met on the job. The show based on the British series of the same name premiered in February 2010 after Super Bowl 44, in fact, and initially sought to rehabilitate executives amid the recession that had begun about a year and a half earlier, which of course, had led to growing public distrust of major corporations.

Adam: And the intro for the pilot, which features Larry O’Donnell, the president of the company Waste Management makes this clear. This is supposedly the explicit political context that prompted the show. So let’s listen to that intro right now.

[Begin clip]

Voiceover: The economy is going through tough times. Many hard-working Americans blame wealthy CEOs out of touch with what’s going on in their own companies. But some bosses are willing to take extreme action to make their businesses better. Each week, we follow the boss of a major corporation as they go undercover in their own company.

[End clip]

Nima: Even the voiceover says “in their own company.” These words for those listening, obviously, not watching this clip because this is a podcast, the words on the screen boldly state, “THEY WILL DISCOVER THE TRUTH” meaning, you know, this is the way that these lofty CEOs are gonna just come down to Earth and stay in touch with the working man.

Adam: Yeah, there’s supposedly some mystery they have to solve.

Nima: What’s going on? Why don’t people trust us?

Adam: This is all an HR dynamic, right? Because the HR approach is like Davos’s approach to inequality, right? It’s in scare quotes. It’s like, you know, labor unrest and labor discontent is not solved by actually helping their lot or solving the material problems. It’s finding better ways of for want of a better term running psyops on them, sort of tricking them into thinking they’re getting something or doing bullshit motivational employee of the month stuff, pizza parties, things like that, but like nothing that’s really going to materially rearrange the power structure, obviously, right? It’s a CBS show that is made for bosses by bosses. And note the statement of many hardworking Americans perceive CEOs as “out of touch” with what’s going on in their own companies, as writer Alex Mick Levy and a critique of the show in 2020 for the AV Club, rightfully called this focus, “misdirect[ed] — being ‘out of touch’ was hardly the primary complaint.” of workers. The characterizations of the CEO as out of touch with his own company was indeed, pretty convenient. It makes the problem one of corporate mismanagement or corporate malaise, rather than a fundamental arrangement of power of the company or the economy more broadly. As the Institute for Policy Studies, a left-leaning think tank noted in 2010, the year this show premiered, “The financial crisis that erupted in 2008 has led to the largest wave of job losses since the Great Depression. According to Forbes, the country’s top 500 firms announced 697,448 layoffs between November 2008 and April 2010. More than three-quarters of these layoffs — 531,363 to be exact — took place at just 50 firms. Each of these ‘layoff leaders’ has chopped over 3,000 jobs. These layoffs in no way rate as an inevitable consequence of red corporate ink. Of the 50 top corporate layoff leaders, 72 percent ended last year in the black.” Meaning they made money. “Overall, these top 50 layoff firms enjoyed a 44 percent average profit increase in 2009. These numbers all reflect a broader trend in Great Recession-era Corporate America: the relentless squeezing of worker jobs, pay, and benefits to boost corporate earnings and maintain corporate executive paychecks at their recent bloated levels. CEOs at the 50 major firms that have laid off the most workers since the onset of the economic crisis took home nearly $12 million each on average in 2009.” So the context of this kind of Undercover Boss approach is explicitly political. I mean, as cheesy as it sounds, because it’s a you know, CBS reality TV show but it’s supposedly meant to address some general unrest with the worker that they kind of sense that sort of is supposed to tap into some zeitgeist about how workers are upset with their bosses. There’s kind of this bubbling on populism unrest, right, this is around the time that it also began being channeled in the astroturfed Tea Party. This was about a year and a half before Occupy Wall Street. And so this was another kind of phony way of approaching this problem in a kind of pop culture context to address a real sense of unfairness that was permeating in the culture at the time.

Nima: Yeah, now the show really relied on a number of recurring character archetypes, such as the good worker, right, the bad worker, and of course, the benevolent boss. So we want to kind of play some clips from the show and get into these different tropes. The good worker one is pretty self-explanatory, right? The show often features one or more dedicated employees with dreams of their own amazing families that are just trying to work for their dreams of career success conveniently somehow, Adam, often seem to align with ascending the ranks of the very company they work for. That’s what they want most.

Adam: Yeah, it’s the epitome of bourgeois values, right? Like in this sort of traditional — I don’t even mean that in a pejorative way, that kind of John Rockefeller would tell you that he supports — it is the definition of bourgeois values, which is I work my way up and I eat shit and I don’t complain. I show up early and I leave, blah blah blah.

Nima: I take the S.W.E.A.T. Pledge, and I just do my work.

Adam: Pretty much yeah.

Nima: So sometimes the good worker, of course, even corrects a bumbling Undercover Boss on how to better do the job that the boss is actually paying them to do. Oh my, of course, we’re all supposed to say watching this show: how the tables have turned. Now another trope is, as I said, the bad worker. So in some cases on the show, a worker that we see interacting with the boss who doesn’t know is the boss, of course, is insubordinate, right? He acts rude to customers. They don’t take their job seriously. They commit some other great corporate-deemed offense, maybe not cleaning up enough, not cleaning the bathrooms enough, or just not being sufficiently deferential to the fact that they have this job. The boss, after secretly surveilling them, of course, disciplines them in some way, sometimes firing them, sometimes giving them another chance to prove their devotion and fealty to the very company that the boss owns.

Adam: So one episode from season six features Jose Costa, the CEO of an auto repair company, MAACO. Costa poses as an auto body tech and shadows another body tech, Jim, who’s repairing a dented car. Obviously, this whole thing is extremely evil and dishonest and manipulative.

Former MAACO CEO Jose Costa poses as a body tech on Undercover Boss.

Nima: It’s supposed to be fun, Adam.

Adam: Here’s a clip from that scene.

[Begin clip]

Jim: You know what, not every dent has to be 100%. You need to do that to make money, you know, cut corners. These people hopefully know that when they come here, it is, you know, a cheap paint job.

Jose Costa: I understand that he needs to move fast to make more commissions.

Jim: Another responsibility is keeping your area clean.

Jose Costa: But that doesn’t mean he needs to cut corners. That’s not the MAACO way.

[End clip]

Adam: Clearly, it is the MAACO way. If that is an actual organic representation of your — literally is the MAACO way. Costa later disciplines Jim, but he gives them a second chance, of course.

Nima: That’s right. The bad worker can be redeemed.

[Begin clip]

Jim: They can be cut.

Jose Costa: I don’t need you to cut corners. A brand doesn’t survive 42 years by cutting corners.

Jim: Again, the corners that are cut are cut every day. And I’ve worked at three different MAACOs. That’s the way it’s done. That’s the way I was taught how to do it.

Jose Costa: If that’s what you’re being told, I need to look into that. That’s not who MAACO is. Jim, you’re a good buddy, man. You talked about second chances and opportunities. So I’m going to give you 30 days to improve and show me that you can meet our standards. Do you think you can change, Jim?

Jim: Yes.

[End clip]

Adam: At the end of the episode, we learn that Jim quits.

Nima: Yeah, that’s inevitable.

Adam: The scumbag commission-based cost cutting, his number just came up. He was wrong place, wrong time. So the MAACO CEO had to make an example of him by saying that this is not the MAACO way. He’s like, no, like literally 15 other people do it. This is not who America is. By this point, I think it is. So yeah, this is the boss is a snitch, you know, sort of finding the bad apples. So the next one up is the third trope is the benevolent boss. The conclusion of every episode involves multiple good workers, capital G, capital W, who are rewarded for their compliance through money, vacation, a scholarship, always amounting to pocket change for the company. Of course, never in any institutional level pertaining to the other workers, right? It’s sort of this — it’s lotteryism, another episode.

Nima: Right, exactly, this individual benefit, whoever is being recorded for the show gets a little something.

Adam: Because you need to let them know the workers that you could be being spied on any given time by the undercover boss.

Nima: Exactly. So here’s an example of one of these instances from an episode in which the CEO of the company FastSigns speaks with an employee named Gary, a born-again Christian who’s been struggling financially, culminating in a recent eviction.

[Begin clip]

Catherine Monson: Gary, the biggest gift for me was to see a man who made a lot of mistakes and now has turned his life around in the most amazing way.

Gary: [Laughs.] Thank you.

Catherine Monson: I want to give you the best opportunity to just continue to grow in your FastSigns career. So I am going to bring you out to Dallas where our corporate offices [are] for a week and put together a customized training program for you, teaching you all the tricks of the trade, all expenses paid, as well as your salary during that week.

Gary: To have this opportunity to learn more and have it presented to me as a gift, I’m really grateful.

Catherine Monson: I know how much your church has helped you and the importance that that church has in your life. So I would like to give you something for you to give your church: $15,000.

Adam: This is so fucking cynical.

Gary: The church was about to close down because they couldn’t pay their dues. Thank you, Jesus.

Catherine Monson: And there’s something else I’d like to do for you.

Adam: Oh, my God.

Catherine Monson: I so respect that you make the long two-and-a-half-hour drive to work. And I know how difficult it can be when you don’t have a dependable car —

Adam: Oh, not this one.

Catherine Monson: So I would like to give you a new car.

Nima: We’re getting it all, we’re getting it all.

Adam: And the swelling music.

[End clip]

Adam: Little did he know, it was a 2008 Ford Fiesta, unfortunately for him. Yeah, so this is really really craven shit but again and throughout the show, they do this shit all the time. This kind of perseverance porn. You know, you can get the workers a car, this kind of benevolent dictator, you know, John Rockefeller throwing quarters out of his carriage kind of stuff, all to sort of reinforce this idea that if you’re the good immigrants, the good worker…

Nima: Maybe you’ll be taken out to corporate and do the executive training program.

Adam: If your number comes up. It’s all kind of breezy. And then of course, this is not even necessarily an undercover context, but the same premise of like the boss kind of getting with the hoi polloi. This is a trope that’s with us with corporations doing press releases, through thinly veiled business press or news articles that has been popular throughout the 2010s and 20s. This is the case back in 2015, when then CEO of Uber, Travis Kalanick, advertised on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, that he liked to drive an Uber. This was sort of his way of showing he was down with the people.

Nima: Yeah, that’s right. He’s just giggin’ it like everyone else. Let’s listen to that clip of the Uber CEO with Colbert.

[Begin clip]

Stephen Colbert: Do you ever drive an Uber?

Travis Kalanick: Of course.

Stephen Colbert: What’s your rating?

Travis Kalanick: My rating’s a 5.0.

Stephen Colbert: Really?

Travis Kalanick: All five-star rides.

Stephen Colbert: Do you really need the cash? Why are you doing it?

Travis Kalanick: I mean, for me, it’s just fun, right? For me —

Stephen Colbert: Is it always fun? What happens in the backseat? Do you ever have to sponge it out after a couple gets out? Because I’ve heard some stories.

Travis Kalanick: I mean, look, I just keep my eyes on the road.

[End clip]

Nima: I like how he avoided the like, ‘why do you do it?’ Colbert makes a joke, ‘do you need the cash,’ and he’s like, ‘oh, it’s just fun.’ It’s like, ‘Yeah, but it’s not fun for everyone else doing it.’ It’s a job. Doesn’t have to be a waking nightmare all the time. Like, sometimes it’s fine, but I’m just saying like, it’s you know, it’s fun. I’m just, you know, I’m just doing it. And you know, it’s not really a big deal, because for him, obviously, the stakes are so low.

Adam: But that’s all corporate messaging, right? The corporate message is like, oh, it’s like fun. It’s a side thing. It’s not your real job, e.g. you’re not really an employee. But needless to say, Kalanick was fired two years later for widespread discrimination, gender discrimination, and sexual harassment. And this interview aired just months after a class action lawsuit against the company was filed by drivers in California who wanted to be classified as employees. A California labor commission ruled that an Uber driver is an employee, not a contractor, which Uber was at the time appealing. So this is why he needed to go on Colbert and reinforce this idea that it was fun. It was like a side thing. It wasn’t really a job. Lyft CEO John Zimmer also drives for the company on occasion as part of these PR spectacles, posting promotional tweets and videos about doing it, “as a way of staying connected to the driver experience.” Dara Khosrowshahi, the new CEO of Uber pulled this stunt in 2021. It was internally known as Project Boomerang. Maureen Dowd wrote a fawning profile that same year in the New York Times writing, “A few weeks ago, Mr. Khosrowshahi rode a bike, delivering for Uber Eats in San Francisco for two days. ‘I was nervous at first,’ he said, adding that some of it was fun and some of it was rough. ‘I nearly got killed delivering near the baseball park. The Giants game was starting, and traffic was nuts. My hypothesis is that someone knew that I’m a Mets fan.’”

Nima: Oh, good one.

Adam: Employees almost get killed. There’s, of course, no need to spend any time considering other people may actually do this for a living might face those dangers. The article, of course, just moved on, found this all very kind of fun.

Nima: Well, and you trivialize it while also burnishing the credentials of the kind of down-to-earth everyday CEO. So it’s not just that all this work is being done outside of the corporate offices. And the ones really making all the money from this gig work just have no connection to the actual work. You get to do that whole thing where then it’s like, oh, no, well, but the corporate CEO really does know how it is. He’s just staying in touch, staying in touch with the work. Now, this is a trend. Obviously, we’ve seen this from J.D. Rockefeller all the way into Undercover Boss, which incidentally is still airing. Its 11th season aired last year and it probably will come back for more. But this trend has continued among executives of major companies, especially in recent months amid the pandemic and yet another recession with occasional exceptions. The media have eaten this right up.

One example from NDTV in December of 2020, the headline: “Air New Zealand’s CEO Greg Foran Serves Water On Flight, Photo Goes Viral.” A few months later, in March of 2023, CNN had an article quote, “New Starbucks CEO plans to pull barista shifts in stores every month.” And the article said this, “Starbucks has made over $1 billion in investments aimed at updating trainings, improving equipment and raising wages and adding other benefits for non-union employees, among other things, to help modernize the brand and make it more relevant.” Note the proposed benefits are for non-union workers stated explicitly in the CNN article. This, of course, happened at a time when nearly 300 stores — now, it is more — had already voted to unionize and in response, Starbucks had permanently closed some of those locations and fired the people that were leading the organization’s efforts. Now, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi made the news again in 2023 after an April Wall Street Journal profile on him and the company. The headline from April 7 2023 was this: “What Happened When Uber’s CEO Started Driving for Uber.” The subhead read, “Dara Khosrowshahi and other executives realized drivers’ complaints were valid. They revamped the app, helping Uber attract workers and extend its lead on Lyft. Driver pay remains a sticking point.”

Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi poses as an Uber Eats courier.

Nima: Yes, the infamous sticking point of paying your employees a fair wage if not better than just fair. The boss and workers can just agree to disagree here, Adam, even though of course, the boss who sometimes drives for Uber just happens to be the one who makes all the decisions. Fortune magazine also ran a piece on basically the same thing that happened when Khosrowshahi drove for Uber. Also from April 7th 2023, the Fortune headline read, “Uber’s CEO moonlighted as a driver and it changed the way he operates the company.” Ah yes, learning from doing and yet, you know, driver pay remains a sticking point.

Adam: Starbucks CEO Laxman Narasimhan who was featured in a CNN article we mentioned earlier also garnered glowing press for another policy. As Insider published in April of this year, “Starbucks new CEO wants senior leaders to work in stores and it’s a brilliant idea.” The article takes Narasimhan at face value quotes a letter he wrote to Starbucks staff which states, “‘To keep us close to the culture and our customers, as well as to our challenges and opportunities, I intend to continue working in stores for a half day each month,‘ and I expect each member of the leadership team to also ensure our support centers stay connected and engaged in the realities of our stores for discussion and improvement.’” The article would continue:

Narasimhan’s approach — not just visiting the stores he oversees, but working at them — is one that experts say is crucial to running a brick-and-mortar business. But it’s fallen by the wayside in recent decades as department store chains curtail the leadership training programs that installed future executives at the store level, and fewer merchants sit at the helm of big-name retailers. Which means leaders aren’t as connected to the employees that sell their products and the customers that consume them, said Lee Peterson, a longtime merchant and now executive vice president of thought leadership at retail consulting firm WD Partners.

I guess this is the expert question. He would say, ‘People in the office, they’re clueless. They’re looking at papers of what’s sold…they know where it’s sold. But what really matters is what people say, what people think, and what people feel,’ he said.” Yeah, so it matters, of course, what people feel — not worker benefits, job security, unionization. The VP of thought leadership of a retail consulting firm says so, then that must be the alpha and the omega of what is on the workers’ minds. And of course, there’s obviously a sort of subtext of surveillance to this. I don’t think many employees are going to be fooled by an executive watching over them, like it’s, you know, in the fifth grade, when the principal would come, you know, review your class, and the teacher would be on their best behavior. Clearly, there’s a bit of an observer bias here. But there’s definitely this sense of like, well, we need to get a pulse of what the union situation is going on here. Because if you read the kind of internal propaganda, which I think they somewhat believed that Howard Schultz did, he just stepped down. But when he took over, over the last two, three years, there’s the sense that unionization does not stem from something, again, real or material, but it’s like, we lost touch or we weren’t listening to them. It’s like no, no, no, like, the voice that they’re speaking in is the union votes that you’ve been ignoring and all the millions of dollars in fines of NLRB fines you’ve racked up by undermining their right to form a union. It has to be something more, you know, ethereal or abstract. And this is why they obsess over these Undercover Boss tropes. Because it’s a way you never have to admit that you’re wrong. It’s a way you have to admit that the problem is simply your lack of empathy or some other unquantifiable, squishy non-concept.

Nima: Ah yes, the VP of thought leadership, Adam, the guru we all need to listen to. So meanwhile, Lyft CEO David Risher, drove for the company in April 2023 as well. The company Lyft posted a video on its own Twitter account, in which Richard gushed about his driving experience, complete with a photo montage of him with happy passengers. Richard became CEO just a few weeks after the video was posted later in April 2023. Clearly, the whole thing was like a PR stunt because Richard was the incoming CEO when he drove for Lyft and recorded all these videos and took the pictures. They were used to kind of announce his new CEOship. And just a few weeks later, after taking the helm of the company, Risher immediately announced that Lyft had plans to lay off at least 1,200 employees. Even more recently, Adam, we were gifted with this.

Adam: Another one. They don’t fucking stop.

Nima: No, it’s really relentless. An article from the AP from just this past June — June 28th, 2023 with this headline: “Your DoorDash driver? He’s the company’s co-founder.” And here’s an excerpt from the article: “Few companies have a program as robust as WeDash, which requires thousands of salaried DoorDash employees in the U.S., Canada, and Australia to complete at least four deliveries per year. Employees are strongly encouraged to make deliveries monthly. They can use work time to complete those shifts, and they keep any money they make.” Now, buried in this AP story, 16 paragraphs in to be exact, is a one-paragraph mention that “DoorDash and others recently pushed back against a new rule introduced in New York City implementing a minimum pay rate for app-based food delivery workers that could nearly triple their average earnings in the coming years.” Now, as a fitting coda to this article, in response to the New York City law that would have cut into corporate profits, DoorDash, and other similar apps have joined together to sue the city of New York against this new law. They are actually pursuing legal action to make sure that the delivery workers can not earn more money, but their employees, right, the actual corporate employees are still urged to dash whenever they can.

Adam: Yeah, to get a sense of, you know, there’s always this kind of, again, there’s this menacing subtext of finding ways of increasing efficiencies. It’s like, well, you’re gonna do it. So you can find ways of creating more psychological tricks or ways of cutting corners and reducing the you know, the payoff to your employees, which you don’t call employees, you call Dashers — invent new words for things. Yeah, this whole thing is so dopey, and you think you’d have to like the 10th, 12th, 15th, 20th person to write the same article about DoorDash, Uber, they would be somewhat embarrassed by it because it’s been done to death. And it’s like, it’s not news, right? It’s not a news story that some corporations are having executive — how is this news? What’s the who, when, where, why? What is relevant about this? Why should the reader care, especially when it’s accompanied by these glossy photos, you know, it’s essentially like business press, but it serves a very specific PR function. And it reinforces this idea that the worker discontent surrounding the gig economy, which we’ll get into with our guests, is somehow based upon a lack of caring or that they’re not bleeding hard enough or that they don’t have enough Hawaiian shirt Fridays or enough pizza parties, that the problem is somehow that there’s a lack of communication. It’s a very liberal way of viewing the world that the problem is a lack of communication. And it’s like, no, the problem is one of power relations and material reality. And if any of these people want to know how to improve the lot of their employees, as they supposedly care about from these articles and the TV show, Undercover Boss, you would support unionization. But obviously, you’re not going to do that. Because that’s not really your concern.

Nima: But if you give one person a car, then you can make them cry, and you look like a hero.

Adam: Yeah, God forbid you gave everyone enough for money for a car, but you give them one, and you turn it into this tawdry, emotional pornography on network television so people can sit home, go *crying noises* they’re so good. It’s all very gross. It’s all very manipulative. It’s a trope that needs to die. It’s ramped up over the last few years, but it really needs to go away. We’re hoping we can put the nail in the coffin with this episode. Probably not, but we’ll do our best.

Nima: To discuss this more, we’re now going to be joined by Ligia Guallpa, Executive Director of the Worker’s Justice Project, a community-based, workers’ rights organization in New York City. Ligia will join us in just a moment. Stay with us.

[Music]

Nima: We are joined now by Ligia Guallpa. Ligia, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Ligia Guallpa: Thank you for having me.

Adam: So I wanted to begin by getting your thoughts on this DoorDash PR piece that the Associated Press published last month we’ve been talking about, among others. DoorDash, Uber, executives from those types of companies, they repeatedly do these puff pieces where they get into the mud with the hoi polloi, right? And they sort of do a shift every month or somesuch. I want to start off by sort of asking you like so what you sort of make of this trend of CEOs showing how empathetic they are to these low-wage workers who they, of course, don’t consider workers and don’t call workers or employees, they’re you know, contractors, right? I want to sort of get your thoughts and feedback on that. How do you think workers kind of view these stunts, and what do you think the sort of purpose of them is?

Ligia Guallpa

Ligia Guallpa: So LDU (Los Deliveristas Unidos) leaders and many deliveries actually have seen in the news how the CEO of DoorDash is dashing, right? And expressing a sense of empathy and kind of even promoting that this work is made for all workers and anybody can do this job. This is just another company’s tactic to take control of the narrative and hide the truth of what’s happening behind the algorithms and to hide the truth that most workers are paid subminimum wages, to hide that these jobs have pretty much taken the life of workers in the streets by being exposed to street crime, accidents, and to hide the truth that these jobs are not living wage jobs. And that promise of freedom and shared prosperity and independence is untrue, at least in New York, for most workers who have to put in the line their own livelihoods and their own health in order to earn a couple of dollars that they can bring to their families, you know? And once again, here we see the CEO, being protective of their massive anti-worker machine that is designed to exploit the labor of workers that it’s about making sure workers have no protections. And they can continue to pretty much profit, the labor of low wage in New York, which happens to be mostly migrant workers.

Adam: Yeah, so let’s talk about that real quick cause I know, that mentioned on paragraph 16 of this AP article, was the fact that New York had just passed a law requiring minimum wage for “gig workers.” Now, these companies all turned around, every single one of them turned around, is now suing the city. They’ve also filed lawsuits in other jurisdictions in California. Can you talk about these lawsuits and their desire to hold on to this fiction of a “gig worker” as something distinct from an employee?

Ligia Guallpa: Yeah, what’s happening in New York is a testament that workers are fed up, and that workers are rising up because these conditions are not just unhumane but are unsustainable and unconscious. And in the midst of 2020 of the pandemic, deliveristas who became essential for the City of New York, even though they have always been essential, decided to rise up because of the lack of protections that they were experiencing in the streets from their own wages being stolen, tips, from not being able to access a bathroom, which is the most basic human necessity for any person. And also from many workers who were working a full-time job without having worker protections. Workers decided to rise up, organize, fight, and set a package of legislations that became historic labor protections for workers who are not considered workers. And that was an important victory, because it was the first time that we were setting industry standards from making sure workers have access to bathrooms, they can have control of the distances, have actually full disclosure of their own money or how much they’re actually being paid to setting up a minimum wage that doesn’t exist. And it was a historic point. So the last law to be fully implemented happened to be a minimum pay, and we knew it was going to be a big battle cause most of these companies, what they have done across the country, is to try to make sure that they keep workers wages as low as possible. And they have been fighting us back on making sure that they delayed the process by pushing the administration to redo a whole rulemaking process to now suing the city to ensure that they continue to delay the minimum pay implementation. And that just demonstrates that these companies are not going to stop and they’re going to do anything that’s possible to make sure that they obstruct minimum wage increases for delivery workers in New York City. And these companies have the audacity to be driven by the greed that, I would say, has no bounds. And most delivery workers right now are not just fighting back to make sure that they have the right to earn a minimum wage. But right now, they’re enduring long hours of work, mostly by exposing their own safety while they’re on the roads through difficult weather in New York through traffics, through snowstorms, and through most recent, wildfire smokes. This type of work has become harder and harder for most New Yorkers who depend on it not as an option, but as a necessity to survive.

Nima: Yeah, you know, as we’ve been talking on this episode about the ways that CEOs and big companies will work with their employees, like sometimes undercover, sometimes as like a, you know, PR grandstanding thing. I mean, it usually is that but you know, sometimes literally on a TV show, other times just kind of used as PR in a press piece but always really framed as this very wealthy CEO, this very wealthy boss is really just, you know, one of us, right? You know, working just like anyone else will, you know, take on shifts, really kind of getting to know what the employees who work at their company go through. And it has this kind of empathetic feel, right? Really wanting to care for the employees, see what they need, live a day in their life, walk in their shoes. But what we see time and again, of course, beyond just the PR value of this is oftentimes when CEOs do this, there are a lot of implications that have to do with surveillance, you know, added surveillance of workers or learning how workers are actually doing their job not to improve labor conditions, but rather to improve efficient work, right? Efficiencies — cost-saving and profit-building efficiencies for the company itself. So can you talk, Ligia, a little bit about how this kind of “our boss is just one of us” kind of thing leads to all of these other kinds of dangers for workers? Like, how does this false empathy lead to even more exploitation and extraction?

Ligia Guallpa: Absolutely, I think we should be clear and honest. There is no employer empathy. Because the truth is, if the CEO of DoorDash was empathetic and truly understood what this job takes to do, he would make sure that deliveristas and app delivery workers across the country have health benefits because he would truly understand that about half of the workforce has experienced accidents, and there is a necessity to make sure that they have health insurance, will ensure that there is pay sick leave, especially during the pandemic, most deliveristas across the nation got sick and had to take time off without being paid. They would make sure that this job offers job security and would ensure that their deliveristas is fully paid not only the time that he’s delivering, but would make sure that they’re also paid by the time when they’re waiting. And they would not be left at the mercy of the algorithms and their rating system to determine their own livelihoods. And you said it exactly what’s happening. Most CEOs are looking into perfecting their algorithms as a way to continue to exploit delivery workers, raise their profit margin, and make sure that they continue to succeed and expand and take over entire industries. And we see it in New York. I’m just going to give a quick example. Right now, DoorDash, GrubHub are creating new rating systems and are bundling a number of deliveries in one shift to maximize their profits and making sure that workers are producing more profit and ensuring that they have to minimize the cost of paying workers a living wage. And I will not doubt that we see a CEO trying to understand how they can perfect their algorithms in a way that they can exploit workers, maximize their profit. And that comes at a human cost by putting the lives of workers at risk. I perceive and we have seen in New York, delivery work being one of the deadliest jobs in New York City, where one of our research that we embark with Cornell University, we find out that almost half of the industry had experienced accident. We discovered that workers were making without including tips $7.87, which is not even close to New York City’s minimum wage, which is $15 an hour. And almost 70% of the workforce saying I’m experiencing punishment, I’m being deactivated every time I declined to take that delivery because it’s poorly paid or is too dangerous to travel. And the reality is this is not a job for part time. In our report that is called Essential But Unprotected. We discovered that 85% of workers reported working on the apps full time.

Adam: Right, so let’s talk about that a little bit if you would because this is separate from our bigger theme, but it is something we could probably do a whole episode on, which is this idea that these are side hustles, gig economy. There’s this whole rhetorical regime that has emerged around sub-minimum wage, precarious labor, “gig economy,” which gives the impression and when the CEO of Uber was on the Stephen Colbert show, he repeated this when he said, well, you know, I drove an Uber, you know, for a couple days or whatever. And he said, oh, it’s so much fun. It’s a fun little thing to do. It’s treated as this, like, you know, you’re some frivolous, 19-year-old about to backpack across Europe, and this is a way to earn spending money. It’s sort of seen as this extra thing. But as you know, for 85% of workers, it’s their primary source of income. And they spent a lot of PR money on framing and using language to obscure the fact that these are employees. And again, they highlight things like freedom, independence, flexibility of schedule. Everyone’s kind of this libertarian Randian hero in their narrative. Can you talk about this rhetorical regime? I assume in your kind of labor actions and talking to the press, you have to kind of deconstruct a lot of these misconceptions. Can you talk about how they’ve kind of polluted the ideological framework of labor and made these people not seem like employees?

Ligia Guallpa: Yeah, I mean, they’re using this entire narrative, that it’s a gig job, it’s a side job, the fact that it’s an easy job because at the end of the day, they want to be protective of how they want to treat these workers. And for them, it’s about making sure they keep the status quo of treating delivery workers as independent contractors, which is a classification that gives power to these multibillion-dollar companies to exclude and deny workers to the right to a minimum wage, which in some states, like New York has like $15 minimum wage, it will deny access to workers to paid sick leave, retirement plans. We’re talking about also will deny the access to health and safety protections, in some states workers’ comp protections. So we’re seeing them using this narrative, because what they’re trying to protect right here is the ability for them to contract and subcontract — probably we’re talking about 1000s of workers across the country — without having to comply with the labor laws. And this is the perfect model for them to thrive in a system where they can exploit the labor force without being held accountable. And what you’re seeing in New York particularly is that we’re trying to shift the narrative and we are saying you cannot operate in the cities without complying with basic protections and offering basic protections to workers. And so we’re taking on a massive anti-worker machine. And that machine is fighting back to preserve the bottom line.

Nima: Yeah, in terms of the actions you’re taking, you know, we’d love to hear about what you are campaigning on, what is the work that you’re doing, how can people get involved, but also, what you’re seeing in terms of how media is either maybe a helpful voice sometimes, but maybe we might argue on Citations Needed as this is a media criticism and podcast, in what ways are you seeing media, whether it’s national, or really like local New York press just move forward with these dangerous frameworks about how to even talk about unionizing, how to even talk about labor organizing, how to even talk about the humanity of delivery workers or other workers in plenty of industries, all at the same time, granting all the space possible for corporate PR to be published as fun puff pieces or allegedly straight business press or opinion, right? Like, where do you see the press kind of landing on these issues that you’re either fighting against or working toward? How have they been allies? Or how have you seen them really just present even more barriers to your work and your solidarity?

Ligia Guallpa: Yeah. The role of press has been and should continue to be used to uncover the truth and in New York and because of the incredible organizing of Los Deliveristas Unidos and Worker’s Justice Project, we have been able to uncover the truth with media by making sure media covers not only with stories but with actual facts and research of what’s actually happening behind the algorithms. And what has and will continue to be powerful is to make sure that media actually listen to the workers who are on the front lines doing this work and we have been making sure that deliverista leaders can speak from their own experience what it really means to be a delivery worker 24/7 in the streets of New York City, what it really means to be a deliverista who has to work being sick, a deliverista who on the road gets injured and whenever they call DoorDash, they’re more worry about whether the food got damaged, then they actually got hurt, and they need to take care of themselves. A company who doesn’t care if a worker has to travel five, six miles for $2, a company who doesn’t care whether the deliverista made enough to feed their own families. Those are the truths that we strongly believe media needs to be covering, rather than, you know, the company’s PR approach about whether the CEO is making a one-day delivery when you have thousands of deliveristas risking their lives to do this job 24/7. And they depend on it to survive. That’s the truth. And we strongly believe that in New York, what has been powerful is the stories of workers in the front lines, stories of Gustavo, Antonio, William, and many other deliveristas who had risked being deactivated and being vocal on sharing what’s true. And what actually is happening behind the scenes that many people don’t get to see. Most customers get their food, but they don’t really get to hear the story of what it took for that deliverista to arrive at your door. And this is what we’re doing. We launched a campaign that is called Customers Delivering Justice because we strongly believe workers, customers, and even restaurants can build a strong partnership to fight the power of these multibillion dollar corporations. And it is possible to unite so we can build and deliver a more responsible and ethical way for people to order in. And we’re launching this campaign because we want to harness on the power of customers who use our delivery work not just for many, not as a convenience, but as a necessity, especially elders. In New York City, you know, there are seniors who can’t go down and order in or there is New Yorkers with special needs. So our delivery has become a necessity. But it’s more about how we make sure that everybody in New York plays an important role in making sure that we fight for better pay and prevent these long-standing abuses to continue and to be the norm in the streets of New York City and across our country. And we see value on media uncovering the truth from customers playing a role and making sure that they will lend their voice in the fight for minimum pay and even restaurants who have a huge responsibility to make sure that they are also lending their voice and their leverage on making sure workers who are delivering the food from their restaurants are treated with dignity, are paid fairly.

Los Deliveristas Unidos demonstrate on the streets of New York City. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

Nima: Well, I think that is such a great place to leave it. Folks can check out that campaign from the Worker’s Justice Project, it’s Customers Delivering Justice. You can go to customersdeliveringjustice.org and get more information. We’ve been speaking with Ligia Guallpa, Executive Director of the Worker’s Justice Project, a community-based, workers’ rights organization in New York City, my hometown. Ligia, it has been so great talking to you today on Citations Needed. Thank you so much for joining us.

Ligia Guallpa: Thank you for inviting me. Been a pleasure.

Adam: Yeah, I think every time there’s some legislation that’s like, hey, maybe you should treat your employees like employees and actually abide by labor law, and then you get ten of these stories about they actually do it too, see how fun and elective it is. It’s like, what’s the point of doing this? As I said earlier, like the 800th time, this trope needs to die. We’re hoping this episode can help push it over the edge. It won’t because we’re not, you know, important enough, but hopefully, it can be like, hey, you know, you did the undercover boss trope, like and the empathetic boss trope, you really don’t need to keep doing it because these guys, they have zero news value. They don’t care that some executive from Starbucks who makes, you know, $700,000 a year and has $1.4 million in equity. Like, it doesn’t really matter that he does a shift a month. It’s not interesting.

Nima: If his rent depended on it, it would change that.

Adam: Yeah, right. Well, that would be fun if everyone got paid exactly the same. Yeah, definitely check out the Worker’s Justice Project at workerjustice.org to support these people who are fighting back — union, proto-union, better labor laws on a local and state level. I’m sure there’s stuff going on in your jurisdiction as well and not just the center of the universe, New York City. So definitely check that out if you can. Google that, see how you can get involved because again, every single precarious bottom-of-the-bottom-rung job in history has always been presented as oh, it’s itinerant, it’s gig, it’s kind of a seasonal sort of a one-off thing, you can come and go. The idea that some jobs are inherently precarious or inherently should somehow exist outside of labor law is a very, very old trope. And it’s one that exists for the sole purpose of trying to effectively monetize and arbitrage a loophole in labor law, which is what these “gig economy” verticals have done and done quite successfully to the tune of multiple billions of dollars worth of valuation, whether or not they’re actually that valuable is a separate question. But they have made a lot of people in Silicon Valley rich, and they continue to do so. So again, the law, activist labor organizations are catching up to this scam pretty quickly. I think that the party will be over fairly soon. And hopefully, they can develop a business model that is actually, as our guest notes, sustainable, because I do think, you know, delivering groceries and food to certain people is probably not the worst thing in the world. I don’t think it’s like necessarily a moral failing, but it needs to exist within a framework where workers get treated fairly and are paid sufficiently.

Nima: I liked that you said that this is part of a movement that is winning and that we can actually have fairer laws, we can have good things. And I think that’s a perfect way, Adam, to end this season six of Citations Needed. We went optimistic at the end there. That was a swerve, that was a twist.

Adam: Rarity.

Nima: Don’t count on that coming back next season. But thank you to every single person who has listened to the show, shared the show, written a review on Apple podcast or elsewhere, played it for a friend or a loved one or someone that you really don’t like, that has all been so amazing. We’ve been doing this now for six years. It has been wonderful, continues to be wonderful. I feel very lucky to be able to do this with you, Adam, and with the whole team. And I’m just really excited, both to take a little break and to then come back strong for season seven in September.

Adam: Yes, thank you for listening this season. As always, we’re very grateful for your listenership and support, and we very much are excited to come back for season seven.

Nima: Yes, indeed season seven, so stay tuned. But until then, of course, you can keep following us on Twitter @citationspod, Facebook Citations Needed, and become a supporter of the show through Patreon.com/citationsneededpodcast. And as always for the final time this season, I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Our senior producer is Florence Barrau-Adams, Producer is Julianne Tveten, Production Assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cardano. Transcriptions are by Mahnoor Imran. And special thanks to Morgan McCaslan for the past five-plus years of transcripts. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again, everyone. We’ll catch you next season.

[Music]

This Citations Needed episode was released on Wednesday, August 2, 2023.

Transcription by Mahnoor Imran.

--

--

Citations Needed

A podcast on media, power, PR, and the history of bullshit. Hosted by @WideAsleepNima and @adamjohnsonnyc.