Critics warned and research confirmed: Large increases in the minimum wage will reduce jobs for low-skilled workers. Restaurants in Seattle responded to the city’s wage hike by adding self-serve kiosks. Area hotels are experimenting with room service robots. And so on. The trade-offs are clear.
In a novel effort to impede the trend, some groups seek to limit the ability of businesses to automate. In Oregon, the Wall Street Journal editorial board reported last week, organized labor is considering an initiative to limit the use of kiosks.
The union still needs the attorney general’s sign-off on the paperwork it submitted last week and 112,020 signatures to get this initiative on the 2020 ballot. But under the proposed Grocery Store Service and Community Protection Act, Oregon groceries could operate no more than two self-service checkout stations at a time. Violators would pay hefty fines.
The arguments are, well, creative.
The draft initiative claims “grocery stores provide many people with their primary place of social connection and sense of community,” but self-service checkouts add “to social isolation and related negative health consequences” for shoppers. It claims the kiosks “contribute to retail workers feeling devalued” and heighten the risk of everything from shoplifting to underage drinking. Oh, and self-checkout stations also intensify “efficiency pressures on workers.”
The latest on the initiative at the AFL-CIO website doesn’t indicate whether the initiative is going to be on the ballot. Bloomberg news suggests that, regardless, such efforts to block automation are likely to continue.
The [Oregon] move is a response by organized labor to what it perceives as the threat to jobs presented by automation. Self-service kiosks have been followed in recent years by cashierless convenience stores like Amazon Go and other imitators that allow shoppers to pick items off the shelves and leave without checking out with a cashier or even at a kiosk.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio also wants to discourage automation. City Journal reports,
Bill de Blasio wants the federal government to enact a “robot tax.” De Blasio’s proposed law stipulates that when a company introduces labor-saving automation, such as a forklift on a loading dock, it would have to pay the federal government five years’ worth of payroll taxes for each worker that the innovation displaces. The employer would have to find new jobs for the workers at their same pay or give them severance. Further, the law would invent a new federal agency to determine which jobs were eliminated by automation and how much robot tax employers owe. De Blasio has even come up with a name for the agency: the Federal Automation and Worker Protection Agency (FAWPA). Separately, he would have Washington eliminate all tax incentives for innovation; though he uses the word “automation” instead of innovation, it amounts to the same thing.
(FAWPA inevitably conjures confusion with faux pas, though we’re sure that’s unintended.) The CJ article does not refer to the minimum wage, but does a good job of explaining why the de Blasio approach would be detrimental to innovation and economic growth. The conclusion:
In the unlikely event his proposals come to fruition, they would keep people mired in what any honest observer would describe as dreary, repetitive, and sometimes backbreaking labor. But it is even more likely that the proposals would fail to save such jobs, stifle innovation, and hinder the efficiency and competitiveness of American businesses. The loss of efficiency would, of course, make American products cost more, hurting living standards accordingly.