Union workers for grocery chain Stop & Shop have been without a contract since Feb. 23, and negotiations with management seem to be at a standstill. The union has authorized a strike, which could happen at any point if talks break down.
However, one worker in the store won’t be on the picket line: Marty the robot.
Marty is basically a tall, creepy Roomba that glides through the store, scanning shelves and looking for spills. Someone thought giving it googly eyes would make it less creepy, I’m sad to report that they have the opposite effect. Marty also beeps as it whirrs slowly along, since management discovered that a robot sneaking silently up on people was a net negative.
Marty was supposed to perform a bunch of routine tasks so that employees could spend more time with customers. What employees mostly seem to do is hunt down Marty to get it out of corners and figure out why it’s beeping in that pattern this time. That means that so far nobody has lost their job to the robot — yet. Thankfully, technology hasn’t progressed to the point where Marty is actually good at what it does.
It’s like self-checkout stations, which were also supposed to lead to fewer employees. Now it’s someone’s job to stand next to them and fix the machines when they inevitably malfunction or to assist the technologically inept.
That said, customers actually prefer using self-service checkout over the traditional full-service grocery lane, and labor costs for stores using those machines actually do go down somewhat. Technology and automation don’t replace workers entirely, but they do replace them in part. And eventually the technology will improve and humans will adapt, meaning that stores can do away with even more employees.
Right now the United States is in the midst of an economic boom that doesn’t feel like one. That’s because while there’s plenty of employment opportunities, wages are still stagnant while other costs, like health care and rent, are always increasing. Governments are just as strapped for cash as ever, services are dwindling, taxes are going up, and everything seems to be falling apart around us.
Meanwhile, the gap between the super rich and everyone else is as wide as its been in my lifetime. So yes, money is being made — but not by you and me.
Economic theory, which is just about as divorced from reality as any computer simulation or theoretical mathematical exercise, says that when jobs are plentiful wages will rise because of increased competition for workers. That hasn’t happened this time, and there’s not a lot of agreement as to why. The decline of unions may be to blame, or it might be increasing health care costs — which are stupidly shouldered by employers in this country.
The end result is the same, though: wealth is remaining concentrated in the hands of a few, and we have very little power to change it right now. If a state tries to equalize things a little by raising taxes on the wealthy and investing the money in construction, teachers, police, or other services, the rich will simply move their cash elsewhere while loudly complaining about what victims they are.
Meanwhile, rich people who voluntarily give some of their money to the state are lauded as heroes. I’m certainly glad that Ray and Barbara Dalio are donating $100 million to the state, and I’m also heartened to see that the Dalios are among the wealthy who are actually aware of the problems of wealth inequality and unregulated capitalism.
But it shouldn’t be like this. We shouldn’t have to rely on gifts from the few rich people who are sympathetic to the rest of society.
Right now it feels like good, well-paying jobs that give us both dignity and the means to live fulfilling lives are vanishing. Instead, we’re left with marginal jobs with stagnant wages and rising health care costs, while we’re surrounded by crumbling infrastructure, declining services, and a federal government that’s either too cowardly, too ideological, or too incoherent to fix the situation.
I hope the workers at Stop and Shop get what they need. If they strike, I’ll take my business elsewhere until a contract is signed. I also hope that inventions like Marty the Robot don’t cost them their jobs in the future.
But most of all, I hope that we figure out that things have to change.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
DISCLAIMER: The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This op-ed has been corrected to indicate the Stop & Shop workers’ contract ended Feb. 23.