Labor Pains: A Fable for Our Times
by Walter Brasch
Once, many years ago, in a land far away between two oceans, with fruited plains, amber waves of grain, and potholes on its highways, there lived a young man named Sam.
Now, Sam was a bright young man who wanted to work and save money so he could go to school and become an electrician. But the only job open in his small community was at the gas station. So, for two years, Sam pumped gas, washed windshields, checked dipsticks and tire pressure, smiled and chatted with all the customers, gave them free drinking glasses when they ordered a fill-up, and was soon known as the best service station attendant in town.
But then the Grand Caliphs of Oil said that Megamania Oil Empire, of which they all had partial ownership, caused them to raise the price of gas.
"We're paying 39 cents a gallon now," they cried, "how can you justify tripling our costs?" they demanded.
"That's business," said the Chief Grand Caliph flippantly. But, to calm the customer fury, he had a plan. "We will allow you the privilege of pumping your own gas, washing your own windows, checking your car's dipsticks and tire pressure, and chatting amiably with yourselves," said the Caliph. "If you do that, we will hold the price to only a buck or two a gallon."
And the people were happy. All except Sam, of course, who was unemployed.
But, times were good, and Sam went to the local supermarket, which was advertising for a minimum wage checkout clerk. For three years, he worked hard, scanning all groceries and chatting amiably with the customers. And then one day his manager called him into the office.
"Sam," said the boss, "we're very pleased with your work. You're fired." From corporate headquarters had come a decision by the chain's chief bean counter that there weren't enough beans for their executives to go to Europe to search for more beans.
"But," asked Sam, "Who will scan the groceries?"
"The customers will," said the boss. "We'll even have a no-hassle machine that will take their money and maybe even give change."
"But won't they object to buying the groceries, scanning them, bagging them, and shoving their money into a faceless machine?"
"Not if we tell them that by doing all the work, the cost will be less," said the manager.
"But it won't," said Sam.
The manager thought a moment, and then brightly pointed out, "We'll just say that the cost of groceries won't go up significantly if labor costs were less. Besides, we even programmed Canmella the Circuit-enhanced Clerk to tell customers to have a nice day."