WASHINGTON - John Sweeney, the president of the AFL-CIO, chuckled as he recounted the frantic phone message he received from a concerned neighbor. "Have you seen those self-checkout machines in our grocery store?" she asked the labor leader, whose federation represents 13 million union workers and who shops for groceries at Giant Food in Bethesda's Westwood Shopping Center.
Sweeney's eyes widened for effect as he quoted the caller: "What's going to happen to all those workers?" Sweeney - who said he has not used the self-scan gizmos that popped up in his store last month - put his neighbor's mind at ease.
"The union is very much aware of this," Sweeney said, and there is a general understanding "that no workers will be displaced as a result."
Indeed, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union is on the case. As supermarkets have added self-checkout machines, some have reached deals with unions "where the introduction has been preceded by an agreement that existing workers will not be displaced," said Greg Denier, the union's director of communications.
Giant, though, is not one of those store chains.
"There are no agreements at this point," said Jamie Miller, a spokesman for Giant. But "we are in constant communication with the union" about the machines, which Giant plans to install in more stores in coming weeks.
In the past three years, the proportion of supermarket companies using self-checkout machines has tripled, from 6 percent to 19 percent, according to the Food Marketing Institute.
Customers "like the convenience of getting out of the store quickly and checking out at their own pace," said Patricia Councill, a spokeswoman for A&P;, the parent company of SuperFresh, which has added the machines in 23 stores in the Baltimore-Washington area.
It is pointless, Sweeney suggested, for unions to fight such innovations.
"Stopping something from better technology isn't going to work and probably isn't in the best interests of the economy," Sweeney said in an interview.
He smiled reflectively, recalling his days as a union official decades ago, representing elevator operators in New York City who were fearful and outraged when buildings began converting elevators from manual to automatic operation.
"There was no way of stopping technology then, and we can't stop it now," Sweeney said, turning serious. "The important part is that workers' issues are a priority."
But if organized labor's top leader isn't alarmed, some of his neighbors certainly are.
"You can see how it's going to be a labor conservation, so eventually it will mean less jobs," Geraldine Brittain, 81, said as she completed her first-ever transaction on one of the four machines. "If I worked here, I'd be worried."
Brittain and other self-checkout users at the Westwood Giant gave the machine mixed reviews on a recent morning as they listened to a disembodied voice guide them through their high-tech shopping adventure.
"Place your cilantro on the belt," the female voice intoned as a Giant employee helped Brittain figure out how to weigh produce and scan items.
"It was sort of fun to do, but it wasn't very useful," Brittain concluded. The extra time spent figuring out the machine, waiting for human assistance and bagging your own groceries, she said, negates any time saved avoiding long lines.
"I don't really like it," Glicer Seufert, a 19-year-old student, said, rushing through a self-checkout lane with three packages of hair clips. "I used it because there was no one in line."
A lone employee stood aside, monitoring the machines in case help was needed.
"Some people love it, and some people hate it," said the machine-tender, who asked that her name not be used because she did not have permission to speak with a reporter.
Employees are divided too, she said. Full-timers feel their jobs are secure despite the machines, the employee said, but part-time workers are worried.
"They'll probably have their hours cut," she said. "And eventually, this will probably cut down how many more people they need to hire."
Tom Maher, 57, agreed.
"They're saving labor costs," Maher, a retired public school teacher, said as he bagged a load of self-scanned groceries. "Eventually, people will be laid off."
There could be other problems, too.
"You want to know something funny?" Maher said, smiling, as he re-entered the store a few minutes later. "I walked out without paying."