From City to Farm – Technology Explodes Minimum Wage Debate

Lost opportunities from wage fight

Socialist Kshama Sawant-Seattle City Council
Socialist Kshama Sawant-Seattle Council

Across Washington State and the rest of the country, the battle over hiking the minimum wage continues to heat up.

Governor Inslee proposes that our state’s minimum wage should be $13.50 an hour.

Seattle’s socialist City Councilwoman Kshama Sawant campaigned and won on a fifteen dollar an hour minimum wage.  SeaTac also has a $15 minimum wage.

New organizations are quickly springing up to promote the $15 proposal, each with a different spin.

Chicago’s Fight for 15 includes a host of other initiatives along with the $15 minimum wage, including unions and women’s rights.

15Now.org explains that Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz makes $9, 637 an hour, compared to his employees.

Minimum Wage Movement Comes at a Bad Time

But according to current research, this current minimum wage movement is coming at a really bad time for both employers and workers.

Forbes contributor James Dorn states, “Most employers cannot simply raise prices to cover the higher minimum wage, particularly in the competitive services sector.”

Others point to a “great uncoupling” in recent years, where the economy is growing through technology–but employment is not.

Historically, economic growth and job growth moved together.  But that has changed in the new millennium.

MIT Technology Review reports the “great decoupling”  which began in 2000.  The great decoupling is economic growth that’s accompanied by job loss, according to researchers Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee.

chart decoupling
Chart from technologyreview.com

By 2011, this gap had become dramatic.  Brynjolfsson states that technology is behind both the healthy growth in productivity and the weak growth in jobs.

New Technology Explodes the Wage Debate

Labor costs are a primary catalyst to the recent demand for this new workplace technology–from inner city to the countryside.

Dairy farmer Kurt Johnson explains that he was first reluctant to introduce Lely’s robotic milking to his family’s VillaRosa Farm in Greenville, Illinois.

But his grandfather convinced him to check it out.  Kurt learned that, “The amount of money we saved in labor, would almost pay for the robots themselves.”

Oakville’s organic Austin Dairy Farm in southwest Washington uses DeLaval VMS robotic milkers.  An Organic Valley dairy,  the Austins have discovered many more benefits to the voluntary milking system of DeLaval’s robotic milking than labor savings–happier, healthier cows, more sanitary milking, greater production, and a better quality product.

Lely Barn Cleaner takes over the dirtiest part of livestock farming.  At the same time, it has taken over low paying, unskilled jobs.

Other new technology impacting minimum wage jobs moves from the countryside to the suburbs and cities.

The fast food industry, long a mainstay in entry level employment, is experiencing a new wave of technology that will dramatically change how fast food is prepared and served.

Momentum Machines states that “With our technology, a restaurant can offer gourmet quality burgers at fast food prices.”  Their Momentum Machine can make 360 burgers an hour, while custom grinding and mixing different kinds of meat for each burger, and freshly slicing tomatoes and pickles for every single customer.

Momentum states that, with their technology, restaurants can serve juicy charred gourmet burgers at fast food prices, in a more controlled, sanitary environment.

“Our technology will democratize access to high quality food, making it available to the masses.”

The Unifiller Unibot is replacing more entry level bakery workers, by creating machine decorated cakes that look hand crafted.

Lost Opportunities, Lost Values for New Generation

For all of the amazing benefits, these new technological achievements will remove a lot of opportunity–especially if the latest push to increase minimum wages speeds up the race to replace more people with machines in entry level positions.

Perhaps the most regrettable part of the loss of entry level jobs to technology is echoed in Ashton Kutcher’s provocative speech at the Teen Choice Awards: “I’ve never had a job in my life that I was better than.  I was always just lucky to have a job.  And every job I had was a stepping-stone to my next job. And I never quit my job until I had my next job.  Opportunities look a lot like work.”

In his speech, Kutcher listed his string of low-paying jobs beginning when he was thirteen, helping his Dad carry shingles up to the roof.

His list of jobs after that–restaurant dishwasher, working at a grocery store deli, and sweeping “Cheerio dust” in a factory–can all now be replaced by machines and technology.

What lessons will today’s teens learn, without Kutcher’s opportunities to learn the value of hard work in tough jobs?

Has the Fight for Fifteen thought about them?

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