What?! Union-Backed 'Job Protection' Initiative Would Limit Stores To Two Self-Checkout Machines

P. Gardner Goldsmith | September 12, 2019
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One of the first things instructors in the field of economics stress to students is that the goal of a productive economy is not to create “work” per se. If simple employment were the goal of market transactions, we could destroy every innovation ever created in history and employ everyone. Forget how useful the wheel is, we can employ up to four people or more to carry a litter or royal sedan chair for every single person who wants to travel without walking.

The goal of a productive economy is to maximize human effort. People divide their labor and allow others to do things they might not be good at doing, or might not like, and then they exchange their productive surplus for the productive surplus of those others. Everyone can maximize his or her skills, and develop new ideas for improvement to be even more productive. Hence the builder might begin using an inclined plane to push heavy objects up to a new level, rather than ask another worker to help him. By investing in that new technology, he’s got something that mimics the work of two men within the power of one, and frees up that other man to do something else that’s potentially valuable to a consumer.

But the message labor unions often send young people is that “toil” is good, and to employ people at any task, even if it could be done more efficiently by using a tool, is the key to a thriving economy.

So we see this. The Oregon AFL-CIO is pushing hard for a ballot initiative to limit grocery stores to two self-checkout machines.

As Reason’s Christian Britschgi reports:

On Thursday (Sept. 5), the Oregon chapter of the AFL-CIO, a federation of unions in the state, submitted the first batch of signatures required to get the Grocery Store Service and Community Protection Act on the 2020 state ballot. The measure would forbid Oregon's grocery stores from operating more than two self-checkout machines at a time.

And, other than the fact that such a move is textbook economic fascism -- meaning the nominal (in name only) ownership of a business that is actually coerced through government dictates – it’s obviously a very dumb idea.

But the crew of the good ship AFL-CIO don’t think it’s dumb. In fact, they’ve hoisted their own Jolly Roger flag of rhetoric to get the public aboard with their statutory piracy.

'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,' Oregon AFL-CIO President Tom Chamberlin said in a statement

And God forbid any business owner try to reduce costs! Like all humans in history, consumers have shown they try to get more for their labor, not less, that they try to decrease their toil, not increase it. How care a business owner try to offer those consumers more for less, in other words, offer them precisely what they want?

Writes Britschgi:

The state's Bureau of Labor and Industry would be empowered to fine noncompliant stores the equivalent of one day's salary and benefits for their highest-paid retail clerk. That's for the first offense; further violations would result in increased fines.

So if anyone is getting the impression that this is similar to a mafia movie scenario, wherein the friendly mobsters walk into a business, mention how “nice” it looks, say, “Gee… It’d be a shame if somethin’ happened…”, and insure that “nothing would go awry" if only the business would employ one of the mobster’s kids, that’s not far off. In fact, union jobs appear to be at the heart of this move.

The Willamatte Week reports that the initiative comes in the midst of tense salary negotiations between the grocery store chain Fred Meyer and the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 555, an AFL-CIO-affiliated union that represents grocery store workers in Oregon and Southwest Washington. In late August, the UFCW voted to authorize a strike should negotiations with Fred Meyer break down.

Let’s be clear. Workers should be free to form collective bargaining groups if they want to do so. Likewise, business owners should be free to fire them and hire new people. But so-called “legislators” should be nowhere near any of those voluntary private interactions, nor should they threaten fines for not engaging in business the way they demand.

At the heart of the story is a fundamental misunderstanding about the position of the business “owner” in economics. The typical leftist view, which is, and has been, the core of most union ideology and of teachers who erroneously praise unions as “benefactors” in US history, is that there always is a “power imbalance” between the employee and the business owner.

In typical Marxist fashion, they depict the employee as David and the business owner as Goliath.

But that’s wrong. In fact, the business owner is a consumer of what the employee has to offer, and, in turn, the business owner is an employee of the final buyer, whom most Americans recognize as “the consumer” or themselves. It is the final buyer who is really the business “owner” because he or she can dictate to all the others in the transaction chain how much those people can ask for their products or services. This ability to voluntarily withhold one’s money and go elsewhere makes businesses compete to give us the best buy, and, likewise, to invest in technology that will help us save money.

Just like the inclined plane, by buying products made with better, more productive technology, we consumers can save time and money that we can use on other things, thus freeing capital to invent, invest, and create new opportunities to make our lives richer, and more full of the inventions that have only occurred because of that monetary freedom.

What the union members propose stands in direct opposition to that principle and against all of economic history. The point isn’t to “employ” someone, the point is to employ human productivity in more efficient ways, thus allowing people to get more for less.

What’s next, a law to ban the wheel, and call it a “job creator?”

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