12/28/2011 12:32 pm ET Updated Feb 27, 2012

Fiona Ma's No Booze In The Self-Checkout Law The Toast Of Unions

This article comes to us courtesy of SF Weekly's The Snitch.

By Joe Eskenazi

Come Jan. 1, California will manage to solve a problem no one has yet proven to exist -- the rampant scourge of underage boozers purchasing alcohol via the supermarket self-checkout lanes. Won't someone think of the children? Oh wait -- they did.

Assemblywoman Fiona Ma's AB 183 will prevent the sale of alcohol via self-checkout machines -- and, presumably, vexed young would-be drinkers will turn to macrame.

Keeping booze out of the hands of young people is ostensibly a good thing -- though it warrants mentioning that the fetishization and mass-marketing of alcohol in our society promotes unhealthy drinking habits for young people that last well into adulthood. But even the studies Ma's own press releases use to explain the necessity of this bill indicate it's tackling a largely anecdotal problem -- and doing so in a manner that won't prevent kids from getting booze (or even booze through self-checkout lines).

If the bill were also intended, however, to cement the jobs of human employees and harpoon the business model of a non-union grocery giant reliant on self-checkout -- well, it's given Big Labor something to toast this New Year's.

First the drinking, then the unionizing.

The study quoted in Ma's literature was undertaken in 2009 at UCLA. If you can look past the obsequious photos, the data is interesting. Ma's money shot is this passage:

...participants were able to override a locked self-checkout machine or purchase alcohol without an employee's assistance and thus bypass the system 19 times out of 97 attempts (about 20 percent of attempts).

Another study, from San Diego State, found an even lower percentage of young people -- of a sample pool more than twice as large -- were able to make off with booze in the self-checkout line: 8.4 percent.

The point is, whichever study you buy into, either 80.5 percent or 90.6 percent of kids are failing in their attempts to purchase alcohol at the self-checkout machine. Adults like to peer back through the mists of time and joke about the stupidity we exhibited in our youth. We also like to note how commensurately stupid today's youth are. But we weren't that stupid -- and neither are they. Kids can do the math and figure that failing to get the booze either eight or nine times out of 10 is a losing proposition. The best way to get alcohol remains to rely on a fake ID, theft, or someone's skeezy 23-year-old cousin.

Well, Cusin Jared with the patchy beard is standing by, and he can buy booze via the "face-to-face" alcohol sales Ma desires. One of the major backers of her bill was the Union of Food and Commercial Workers, which represents a quarter of a million grocery employees in this state alone. The Fresh & Easy chain, however, remains non-unionized -- and its entirely self-checkout model is an anathema for labor.

Ma's bill was the third attempt to "solve" this problem; the prior two died on the senate floor and were vetoed by a less labor-friendly governor, respectively. "If you don't succeed at first, try, try again" isn't just a banal truism -- it's also the way this labor-backed bill became law.

If a bill were passed stating that a minimum number of personally manned lanes need to be open in every grocery store, simply because that's the way it's gonna be -- well, that would be more honest. I could live with that. I don't particularly want to shop at non-union stores, and something always gets fouled up at the self-checkout line. But forcing everyone to go through this kind of song and a dance -- and then, with a straight face, citing statistics that reveal young people who are attempting to beat the machines fail 80 percent of the time as your justification -- only justifies rampant cynicism.

It's these kinds of things that drive a person to drink.

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