Machines and Minimum-Wage Increases


The fight for a $15 an hour minimum wage (FF$15) is growing. On June 8, in a unanimous vote, the District of Columbia City Council decided to raise the district’s minimum wage to $15 by 2020.

D.C. joins California, New York, Seattle and other states and municipalities green-lighting $15 wage floors. “The D.C. Council vote shows the unstoppable momentum of the $15 minimum wage and will improve the lives of thousands of workers,” said Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project, in a statement.

But wait. Fast food employers, such as Wendy’s, are embracing machines such as touch-screen kiosks, sure to replace some workers earning higher minimum-wages.

“White Castle has been testing order and check out kiosks for the last two years,” reports Ruth Reader of Mic. “Meanwhile, McDonald’s kicked off a machine-ordering pilot this year that allows customers at two Chicago locations to order coffee drinks from a touch screen”

One thing is clear: patrons at the 6,500 Wendy’s restaurants in the US who order and pay using the touch-screen kiosk will perform unpaid labor once done by hourly employees of the fast food corporation. Uncompensated self-service at registers for customers have been available at corporate outlets, such as The Home Depot and Save Mart, long before the FF$15 arrived on the scene.

A July 6 statement from Walmart Stores, Inc. announced “that Walmart Pay, a safe, easy and convenient way for customers to check out with their smartphones, is now available in the more than 4,600 Walmart stores nationwide” The biggest private-sector employer in the US plans to expand its digital footprint, said Daniel Eckert, senior vice president, services, Walmart US, for “a faster, more convenient shopping experience.”

The quicker a corporation can move its money, the more rapidly it can grow, thanks to machines that work faster than people. This is basic math for capitalist investment.

The ongoing revolution in information technology is a key part of faster capital circulation, according to Ursula Huws, author of Labor in the Digital Economy: The Cybertariat Comes of Age (Monthly Review Press, 2014). “The productive potential opened up by digitization had been limited when its scope was mainly confined to particular computers in particular locations,” she writes, “but this was greatly enhanced when Information Technology (IT) was harnessed to telecommunications, constituting information and communications technology (ICT), enabling these individual computers to be linked to one another in increasingly seamless ways and their contents exchanged as rapidly as the capacity of the telecommunications infrastructure would allow.”

The term technological unemployment describes the trend of machines replacing people. Is there a silver lining to this cloud, using the fast food industry as a case in point?

Lawrence Mishel is president of the Economic Policy Institute, based in Washington DC. “Using kiosks to order food is a technology known in other countries and would inevitably come to the US,” he said.

“It may actually lead to more jobs as more cooks and others are needed to fulfill the orders. We should no more fear these kiosks than we should fear bulldozers at construction sites.”

Seth Sandronsky is a journalist and member of the Pacific Media Workers Guild. Email

From The Progressive Populist, August 1, 2016

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