An online journal of politics, policy, and society with a special focus on Maryland -- Contact: on_background at yahoo.com.

Monday, January 24, 2005


So does it matter that the waiter at the restaurant is slow and surly, the stewardess on my flight isn’t helpful, or the person at the register in my local supermarket barely more than grunts at me? Should that matter whether or how much I care about their rights? And does it?

I believe in the rights of workers and have opposed automation of every last job in the world for years. I think that “efficiency” is going too far as it whittles away at our jobs, and takes the human touch out of human interaction in the marketplace and, indeed, most kinds of work.

I have been an active member of unions, and strongly support the rights of working people. I avoided the self checking machines when the first came into my grocery and my library, pressed the button to speak to an operator when I called an airline or an electronic helpline, and was aghast when I found out years ago that (at the time) Japanese automatic teller machines were only generally open when the bank was because people just used them to avoid having to deal with tellers.

But the truth is so many people in customer service are rude, uninterested in service, or at least aloof. Now I know from experience that many of them are probably that way because they have to deal with rude, demanding customers for minimal pay and few benefits, are often forced to work in difficult situations and are treated with little respect by their employers and customers. And the fear that their jobs may be automated or outsourced is surely not doing anything for morale!

But if the staff at a restaurant, clothing store, car dealership, or coffee shop is rude, unhelpful, or just ineffective, I may not come back. The service is part of the package of what I’m buying.

In the same way, if the checker at the market is rude then maybe I tend to opt into the self check line. But should I? After all, when I run my own groceries through the scanner, buy my plane tickets online, or play with the automatic operator help system, I am taking a job away from someone. And while it might be more efficient for the company to build a machine than pay a worker, and it may even speed up my exit and cut through the hassle, isn’t it probable that the market understaffs checkers and operators to encourage me to do it online and to save themselves money?

What do you think?