Socialism and the Self-Checkout Machine

A $1,000 a month check won’t cut it, but there’s a real democratic socialist response to automation that could make us all happier and give everyone more leisure time.

Shoppers head toward the self-checkout lanes at Fred Meyer. (Flickr)

This month, union activists in Oregon turned in the first batch of signatures to get the Grocery Store Service and Community Protection Act on the ballot for 2020. The Act would limit grocery stores to a maximum of two self-checkout lanes at a time.

Oregon AFL-CIO president Tom Chamberlain issued a statement explaining his motivations for supporting the Act:

The widescale use of self-checkout machines in our state’s grocery stores is part of a deliberate corporate strategy that relies on automation to reduce labor costs and eliminate jobs. It disproportionately impacts workers of color. It disadvantages and inconveniences customers, especially the elderly and people with disabilities. That is why we are putting this issue on the ballot, to send a message to corporate America and to let Oregon’s voters have their voice heard on how we shop for the goods and commodities that our families rely on.

Writing at the libertarian magazine Reason, Christian Britschgi argues that the concern about unemployment is misguided. While he grants that grocery store cashiers losing their jobs “might be a bad thing for unions,” he claims that it’s “good for consumers” since “lower labor costs” allow them to “reap the benefits of lower prices.” This, in turn, lets them “spend the money they save on other products and services,” thus “creating more jobs that don’t need to be mandated into existence.”

The first problem with this argument is that even if Britschgi’s predictions about new spending creating new jobs “that don’t need to be mandated into existence” came true, the rationale for the Grocery Store Service and Community Protection Act would still make sense. Losing one job and getting another might balance out in the statistics about employment but that’s cold comfort to an ex-cashier going through a period of unemployment as she waits for the invisible hand of the free market to create new jobs for which she can apply.

Even if she hits the streets right away looking for new jobs and she’s lucky enough to get one fast enough not to suffer any sort of financial hit, this kind of precarity is a problem in itself. People have a right to financial security and reliable long-term employment.

Moreover, we shouldn’t be too quick to accept Britschgi’s assurances about how all of this will play out. Employers who automate away cashier jobs may pass on some of the savings to consumers, but if any of it gets kept as profit, the money being saved and spent by consumers on “other goods and services” will be less than what was spent on the cashier’s wages. It’s not at all obvious that the process that starts with unionized cashiers losing their jobs will lead to an equal number of equally well-paid jobs being created on the other end.

Automation and Unemployment

In light of all of this, supporting the Grocery Store Service and Community Protection Act may be a reasonable defensive tactic for workers being squeezed out by the proliferation of self-checkout lanes. It’s certainly a more useful response to automation-generated job losses than Andrew Yang’s proposal to tell unemployed cashiers to try to make ends meet on $12,000 a year.

That said, as a model for how labor can respond to automation, a patchwork of such ad hoc regulations prohibiting the use of this or that labor-saving innovation doesn’t seem like a winning strategy. What would a better alternative look like?

In the short term, the federal jobs guarantee at the heart of Bernie Sanders’s Green New Deal proposal is a long step in the right direction. There’s a tremendous amount of work that needs to be done very quickly to build a green infrastructure. Even if unemployment didn’t exist, we’d need to lure millions of workers away from less important jobs to do this work.

In the long term, the only fully adequate solution to unemployment generated by automation may be to move from an economy dominated by regular hierarchical companies owned by shareholders or sole proprietors to an economy dominated by worker-controlled firms. In one of these enterprises, workers might well choose to respond to labor-saving innovations by deciding to spread out the work that still needs to be done more thinly so that everyone can work fewer hours for the same compensation.

In this way, productivity gains might lead to both more abundance and more leisure rather than just the profits of a few.

How Much Better Would a Socialized Alternative Be?

I’ve worked at grocery stores. There’s a reason I went back to school. Like most people who’ve actually experienced those jobs, I pretty much think they suck. And there’s no point denying that even working in a socialized grocery store where you had a meaningful say in the way the place was run would still suck. It would just suck less.

The question is how much less. If we’re talking about the kind of socialism that’s easiest to imagine in the short term, where worker-owned firms would still face competitive pressure from other worker-owned firms to build market share, not all of the destructive tendencies of capitalism would be completely eliminated.

Whether this sort of socialism might eventually evolve into a system of completely marketless economic planning is a separate question. For now, let’s stay focused on the kind of socialization that we could bring into existence in the relatively near future.

Existing co-ops, for example, tend to have vastly less unequal wage scales than traditional hierarchical companies. And when it comes to the biggest co-op in the world today, Spain’s Mondragon Corporation, even Mondragon’s critics concede that the company’s decision-making procedures tend to severely minimize layoffs.

Socialized markets would need a strong state to curb their worst tendencies. Even so, it’s not unreasonable to hope that the solidaristic, mutually beneficial decision-making workers tend to make in existing co-ops — which have to compete in a ruthless marketplace dominated by non–worker-owned firms — would only be enhanced in a socialist society where worker-run businesses only had to compete against the public sector and each other. And if such businesses did opt to respond to labor-saving innovations by cutting everyone’s hours without cutting pay, this would free workers up to do whatever they will with their extra time.

We don’t have to pretend that this would be a utopia to see that it’s a future well worth fighting for.