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Aug 2, 2023

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

Month after month or week after week, we seem to hear the same stories about bold corporate executives who’ve decided to roll up their sleeves—metaphorically or otherwise—and join their lowest-level employees as a delivery driver, barista, or retail worker. Their stated goal: to “stay connected” to and “better understand” the company, its customers, and its workers.

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.

Today, we will be dissecting the past and present of Undercover Boss-style corporate maneuvers, looking at the ways in which 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.

Our guest is Ligia Guallpa, Executive Director of the Worker's Justice Project, a community-based, workers’ rights organization in New York City.