Saturday, December 24, 2011

Automation and the Worker: Friend or Foe?

My job hasn’t been shipped anywhere but it is still in danger; please help me and my brothers and sisters!

So this is my first writing since becoming a college graduate and I must say that it feels really good to write out of pleasure than out of necessity.  The following is addressed to my readers, my brothers and sisters in the UFCW (United Food and Commercial Workers,) and to people who patronize Kroger’s and other quality union shops.

I am totally in favor of my business being profitable; if it wasn’t for Kroger’s profitability I wouldn’t have a job and would be forced to work under my previous work conditions which are less than desirable.  In my brief time at Kroger’s I have been acclimated back into the corporate world and now have a better understanding of the standard capitalist hierarchy that employees a great deal of us in one form or another.  I am proud to call myself a Kroger’s employee and a member of the local UFCW.  Kroger’s is the first job I have had in a long time that I don’t dread dragging myself into work, I go with enthusiasm (some would say I have drunk the Kool – Aid.)  With all this being said I have noticed something that alarms me.

A couple of weeks back I was working my register when a man came in and got in my line; it wasn’t a particularly long line but it was the end of the night and I was the only cashier short of the U-Scan attendant (for those of you not familiar with what a U-Scan is, it is an automated self-checkout.)  The U-Scan attendant came over and asked the gentlemen if he would like to be helped on the U-Scan instead of waiting in my line.  The gentlemen kindly replied “No thank you, those things take away jobs.  I can wait a little on this guy and insure he has a job.”  

For years I have used the U-Scans and not thought anything of it.  I assumed the cashiers preferred people to use these automated self-checkouts so they wouldn’t have to do as much.  I held this belief until I became a cashier, heard this man’s comments and put one and one together.  You see I used to work in the pharmacy at Kroger’s until I transferred to the registers up front.  I was getting around 24 – 32 hours a week in the pharmacy at slightly better than minimum wage and I was content to stay there for the time being.  Now that I am a cashier though I usually work the union minimum of 15 hours a week and layoffs are rumored to be coming soon.  I am in no fear of losing my job considering my seniority but I do feel for my brothers and sisters in the store who are not as fortunate.  I then got trained to work U-Scan the following day I worked after this gentleman came in and I saw how effective I was at running four registers at once with little knowledge of how they actually worked.  Did I get the same amount of interaction with the customers; not even close.  But I was pumping out paying customers pretty consistently.

Now again, I don’t want to see Kroger’s fail.  I like many people in the area count on my job at Kroger’s to pay my bills and put food on the table but as I was working the U-Scan, verifying the age of a 50 year old man buying wine with my foreign made electronic key pad and I was thinking, could I be cutting my own throat right now?  Is me preforming this duty at work hurting my hours and the hours of my brothers and sisters?  Is it even putting some of my brothers and sisters out of a job?  I can’t help but feel a little responsible for those layoffs now.  

I will never use a U-Scan anymore unless I absolutely have to; period.  It’s not because I don’t want to see Kroger’s succeed in being a profitable business; it’s because I want to have a job, my brothers and sisters in the union to have a job, and I am willing to pay a little more for a person to be my cashier and not some machine.  I know we are trying to pull ourselves out of this recession as a collective but I think that paying maybe a little more for our goods so our neighbors, family, and friends can keep a roof over their heads isn’t exactly a bad thing.  Labor costs can be a major expense for a company the size of Kroger’s but un-employment has a bigger cost in the communities we live in.  In this season of giving and being thankful I ask anyone who reads this to please tell your friends about this article, post it on a facebook wall or on your twitter feed.  Tell a friend about the harm a U-Scan can do and I bet most people haven’t even thought about it; I know I hadn’t until a customer brought it to my attention.  I am writing this on Christmas Eve, a time of giving thanks and the only thing I can think about is how four machines could affect the families of my co-workers.  So the next time you are in a Kroger’s or any other store for that matter and you have a choice of self-checkout or being waited on by a real, living and breathing cashier choose the cashier.  I know he or she will appreciate you picking their job and livelihood over saving a couple of second’s while dancing with the machine called U-Scan.  Merry Christmas and god bless. 

William Balzer 

This Article is not endorsed by the UFCW or Kroger's or any of it's subsidiaries.  The views in this essay are the views of the writer.