Back in the 1980s, I went to work for one of the major supermarket chains. Desperate for a job of any kind, I accepted a position as a “Courtesy Clerk” (just a fancy name for a boxboy) for $4.00 an hour. Not an impressive pay rate, but the benefits were good, and certainly I could prove myself and climb the ranks in good time.
I knew that it was a union shop, and that I would be required to join the United Food & Commercial Workers. Fair enough. I didn’t yet have an opinion about organized labor, so this was a perfect opportunity to learn. Within a couple of weeks I received a personal visit from my union representative: In order to keep my job, I would have to pay the customary initiation dues: It was $600, or equivalent to about five weekly paychecks. On top of weekly dues. Yikes! Fortunately it was a small local, and they allowed me to pay in small installments.
Within a couple of months, I was promoted into a newly created position in the meat department. Much to my surprise, I actually enjoyed it. This got me thinking that I might want to pursue a career as a meat cutter, so I asked my boss: where should I go to sign up for an apprenticeship? I can’t, he told me. And why not? I was not prepared for the answer.
Over the course of a few decades, the meat cutters’ union (which eventually merged with the Retail Clerks) drove their wages and benefits higher and higher. For the stores, this meant that (if they were to remain competitive) they had to find ways to get by with fewer people. Which led to more automation, more pre-packaged meat (from non-union suppliers), and the disappearance of hanging beef. With these innovations the stores require fewer man-hours per week, and the few remaining workers require fewer skills.
In time the union could truly advertise that they gained many, many concessions on behalf of their members, but at what cost? What they don’t talk about, is that those “gains” ended up costing them tens of thousands of jobs. They destroyed the profession they sought to save.
But I digress.
What became of my career at this supermarket? I loved them, and they loved me. Could they give me full-time hours in the meat department? Nope. Union rules kept me at part-time, because the tenured meat cutters felt threatened by my presence. Could I work a few hours a week in grocery, or in produce? Nope. Union rules; I'd be stealing payroll hours from someone else. Exceptional employees could not be rewarded, and the goof-offs couldn't be fired. In four years I more than doubled my hourly wage, and I longed to have new worlds to conquer. But I was stuck in a dead-end job, and the company was not allowed to offer me a remedy.
I worked a total of twenty-one years in the retail business, in almost every capacity imaginable, including training and management. I managed a butcher shop and a vitamin store. I know how to stack a pallet, how to break it down, and how long it should take. I can operate a forklift, reconcile a vendor invoice, fillet a salmon, and extract a brisket from a forequarter. I can spot poor merchandising, or bad cash handling, or a bad attitude, or a missing shelf tag, a mile away.
So when I see news reports of Walmart employees complaining of low wages and benefits, walking off the job and demanding union representation, it gives me pause. Most of these people have few skills, and many demonstrate a poor work ethic. On the night shift, I observe that it regularly takes five healthy young men about twenty minutes to break down a single pallet. (At my last retail job, they require one person to complete this task in five minutes or less.) They should consider themselves blessed, to have a job at all. Every Walmart store has a waiting list of thousands of applicants (yes, literally!) who would love to have their position .
You don’t like your job? Vote with your feet. Learn a new skill. Then you won’t just have a better paycheck, you’ll also be a better person for it.