Go inside management lecturer Luke Winslow's research about the reality TV show "Undercover Boss" and how it portrays the labor market.
Reality television is often cast as demonstrating the very worst—or at least most shallow—elements of humanity. But at least one show actually trends in the opposite direction, and can provide fascinating insights into Americans’ business values, according to management lecturer Luke Winslow.
Winslow has been studying the CBS show, “Undercover Boss,” and says it depicts labor dynamics and also demonstrates an idealized version of the American dream. He discussed his work with students Oct. 2 as part of the Undergraduate Business Council’s Faculty Research Series.
“’Undercover Boss’ is a fascinating study in the tension and the struggle between labor and capital,” Winslow said. “The premise is fairly simple. What happens is we have a hero, an obstacle, an action, and ultimately some resolution. The hero begins as a boss. He goes undercover. He goes into the factory, or the kitchen, and he works with coworkers for his company. Along the way though, we’re introduced to another hero, and that is the laborer.”
In this clip from the show, we meet Joe DePinto, the CEO and president of 7-11, and Igor Finkler, a night delivery truck driver for the convenience store chain. DePinto goes undercover as a new employee to observe Finkler’s delivery route and see the lowest level of his company from the inside. It becomes clear that Finkler is what Winslow referred to as an “unsung hero,” working tirelessly through the night to help 7-11—and therefore DePinto—remain successful. At the end of the episode, DePinto rewards Finkler’s hard work with the keys to his own store. Winslow explained how he uses Igor’s story to study the relationship between labor and capital, or the necessity of extracting surplus labor value from workers to ensure a profit.
“We’re looking closely at representation, who Igor is and the story we’re being told about Igor, and who the boss is,” Winslow said. “Then, second, how is power being dispensed? How are power relations formed? Finally, we have to look closely at what is not there, the unstated.”
The “unstated” that Winslow referred to is the American dream, or the belief that working hard and playing by the rules will afford people the opportunity for success. He claimed that this is frequently unattainable, that the store given to Finkler is an exception rather than a rule.
“The underlying assumption is that Igor is working his tail off to pay for the gas in the CEO’s private jet,” Winslow said. “Igor is a wonderful example of the American dream. The research tells us that seven out of 10 Americans believe that they have the chance to achieve the American dream. Here’s the problem: Igor is very rare. The U.S. has the second lowest rate of intergenerational social mobility. That means that if you want to be rich, the most important thing you have to do is choose the right parents.”
Winslow says that the backbone of the American dream, the labor, is what interests him most.
“The struggle between labor and those who own the means of production is what underlies so much of our social, political, religious, and economic institutions,” Winslow said. “It’s a fundamental part of our individual and our social lives. Our jobs, in many ways, don’t just pay the bills. They help us construct a coherent identity, and we find out who we are as citizens, as UT students, and as human beings.”
To close, Winslow left the audience with one final message.
“If there’s one thing I want you to take away from this, it’s that until you own the means of production, you aren’t getting hired because [companies] want to be nice or because they like you. They’re hiring you because you’re able to produce surplus labor value for those that own the means of production. Igor tells us a comforting story, but the problem is that the struggle between those that own the means of production and us, the laborers, is not comforting or simple either.”