Misplaced Outrage Over Self-Checkout

Lately I’ve been seeing a lot of posts on Facebook where people who are against self-checkout proclaim that they don’t work for the company. Yesterday, at a community pot luck, I got caught in a group that began discussing that very thing. Luckily, some friends arrived, so I could make my excuses, but that smug line, “I don’t work for them,” has stayed with me.

The truth is, we do work for them.

At the beginning, grocery stores were all service oriented. You’d go in, tell the owner what you wanted, and they would pick the stuff off the shelves, ring it up, and bag it (generally with the bag or basket you brought for that very purpose).

As stores grew bigger, they provided baskets for people to pick out their own wares. I’m sure those people were just as miffed as those today. I’m sure they, too, said they didn’t work for the company.

As time passed, and more automation came into being, customers not only had to pick out their own merchandise, but had to unload the carts themselves. I remember how upset people were back then. “We don’t work for them.” But they did.

Self-checkout has been in the works for at least fifteen years that I know of. Twelve years ago, I used a self-checkout for the first time. So self-checkout is nothing new. And has been inevitable for a long time.

Frankly, the whole smugly outraged attitude about Walmart going to mostly self-checkout is too little, too late. And completely self-serving.

The truth is, we do more than work for behemoths like these. Much of Walmart’s rapid expansion was paid by public funds, not just tax incentives and tax breaks, but free land, infrastructure assistance, low-cost financing and outright grants from state and local governments around the country to the tune of $1.2 billion. In addition, since Walmart underschedules their employees, making sure they work an hour or two a week less than full time, taxpayers end up paying the healthcare costs of Wal-Mart employees through public programs such as Medicaid.

But oh, yes. Let’s get indignant about self-checkout.

To a great extent, Walmart helped to flood the United States with imports from China. I’ve never been able to find out if it was Sam’s decision or if someone in the government approached him — because of new policies to give China most favored nation status along with deals to bring in tons of products, someone needed to peddle the junk to unsuspecting consumers. (Little is ever mentioned about the coincidence of the world’s largest retailer, the world’s largest chicken producer, and a political legacy all rising at approximately the same time from the same relatively backward state.)

Along with the imports (that poured into the stores at the same time their public relations firms touted proudly that the stores were dedicated to carrying things made in the USA) came human rights violations — sweat shops, child labor, dangerous working conditions, sexual abuse and physical violence in Walmart supplier factories. Where was the outrage then? Those things happened in other countries, so no one seemed to care. Nor did most people seem to care about civil rights violations, such as illegally dumped hazardous wastes.

People are outraged that Walmart employees are being replaced by self-checkout, but there was little outrage when the stores come into an area and destroyed local businesses, often businesses who paid their employees more than Walmart did. Did anyone but the businesses themselves and the suddenly-unemployed people care about those jobs lost? And what about the small companies that Walmart destroyed? Who cared about them? When the giant retailer went into the grocery business, they found small companies to supply their needs, and once those companies were committed to supplying the chain, they were forced into ever higher production demands with ever-lower profits. The suppliers had to borrow money to keep up with the increased demands, believing the lies of more business down the line. And it worked . . . until Walmart opened their own supply stations, most recently a milk processing plant that threw their previous supplier into bankruptcy, with way too many jobs lost.

But oh, yes. Let’s be smug and self-righteous when it comes to self-checkout.

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Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator.