Paul Greenberg

It might have been a vision of the future borrowed from "Modern Times," Charlie Chaplin's classic protest against the industrial age. Made in 1936, the almost silent movie still speaks powerfully. Whether as comedy or tragedy.

Perhaps its most famous scene is the one in which Charlie, aka The Little Tramp, is caught in the maw of a giant conveyor belt at the Electro Steel Corp., where he's supposed to tighten the same bolts on the same widgets in the same way at the same rate as they pass by in endless succession. At last, man had become machine, or at least part of it.

The machine never stops, even feeding Our Hero to keep him on the job. It eliminates any need for him to think. He's become just another cog in its works. But when Charlie pauses to brush away a fly, or just itch and scratch, the result is (1) chaos on down the production line as the clockwork system is thrown off pace, and (2) a pink slip for Charlie.

The whole, tragicomic scene came back on reading Vanessa O'Connell's story in the Wall Street Journal on the not-so-newest thing in retailing: "Stores Count Seconds to Trim Labor Costs." Here's how it begins:

"SHELBY TOWNSHIP, Mich. -- Daniel A. Gunther has good reason to keep his checkout line moving at the Meijer Inc. store north of Detroit. A clock starts ticking the instant he scans a customer's first item, and it doesn't shut off until his register spits out a receipt.

"To assess his efficiency, the store's computer takes into account everything from the kinds of merchandise he's bagging to how his customers are paying. Each week, he gets scored. If he falls below 95 percent of the baseline score too many times, the 185-store megastore chain, based in Walker, Mich., is likely to bounce him to a lower-paying job, or fire him...."

The system is called "labor-waste elimination." Dozens of retail chains are listed among the clients of the company that offers it -- the "Operations Workforce Optimization Unit of Accenture Ltd."

That elevated and expanded moniker makes the simple Electro Steel Corp. in Charlie Chaplin's film sound like yesterday's next big thing.

Of course, today's system is much more humane, or at least the language used to describe it is. To quote Frank Guglielmi, a spokesman for the Meijer chain, it "expects employees to be at 100 percent performance to the standards, but we do not begin any formal counseling until the performance falls below 95 percent."

Then what happens? Cashiers who are "challenged in the position," can get "training and counseling to help improve their performance. If this doesn't help them, there are various alternatives." Such as? Mr. Guglielmi didn't say, but one can guess. Like being fired.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.