I crossed the picket line at Vons one recent day. I needed some supplies for a last-minute road trip up north and had totally forgotten that the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 135 was striking against Vons, Albertsons and Ralphs grocery stores.
I considered turning around and going somewhere else, but it was late and I was in a rush, so I said, “Screw it-I'm going in.” I walked up to the store entrance and was greeted by a picketer who cracked wise about my crossing the picket line. I told him, “Sorry, buddy, I feel your pain, but I've got things to do.” He muttered something insolent, and I walked inside.
Incidentally, I have felt his pain. Many years ago, I too was called upon to strike against my then grocery-store employer.
My career at Shop-Rite Supermarkets began when I was a high school junior. It was only supposed to be summer job, but it lasted 10 years. I started as a bagger, moved up to grocery clerk, then produce clerk, and finally produce manager. Ten years in the revolting industry and I hated every single second. Working in a supermarket is blood let, to be sure. But the pay and the bennies are good and you just sorta get stuck there.
When they hired me, they said I had to join this strange and omniscient entity called “The Union” and had to pay them $5 every pay period to ensure we got our time-and-half Sundays and 15-minute breaks. It sounded fine at the time. I had no idea a strike was looming; had no idea it would turn into this big, volatile, political thing; had no idea it would pit friends against friends.
I had no idea they were going to throw an egg on Mr. McPherson.
Tom McPherson was the second coolest manager Shop Rite Supermarkets had ever seen. Sure, he was “salary” but he was really one of us, a true players' coach. He was respectful, accommodating and even drank occasional beers with us off duty-we considered him a friend.
During the strike, Mr. McPherson had to work about 70 hours a week to compensate for the missing laborers. He was stocking shelves, bagging groceries, unloading trucks. Every hour or so, he came outside to the parking lot to gather carts. When he did, all my fellow strikers booed and cussed him. As if he were responsible for our current woes.
Just like that, our friend had become our enemy.
One day, a journeyman cashier lobbed an egg and it hit Mr. McPherson on the side of the face. McPherson rushed the line-his face all shiny and gooey-yelling at the checker, who in turn yelled back. There was shoving and threats, and a brawl nearly ensued.
Then Mr. McPherson, egg still dripping down his neck, walked away while the strikers booed and hissed. I hated them for that. McPherson was one of the cool ones. I remember wanting to jump over to the other side and scab for him.
I wish I had.
Anyway, that's what I was thinking as the pretty Vons scab checked out my groceries. I said, “Thanks,” walked through the electric door and was greeted by more strikers who issued a sarcastic, “Have a nice daaaaay.”
Blow me, I thought to myself. This is your battle, not mine. I've got no beef with Vons, so I have no reason to boycott them. Besides, where would I shop-at the non-union Trader Joe's market? They pay their employees far less than Vons pays you. Vons is a philanthropist compared to Trader Joe's.
Look, I really am pro-union. I believe in the right of the workers to unite to give them strength and leverage. But being pro-union does not mean I believe all unions are always right in all disputes. Sometimes it's The Union that is greedy. Sometimes The Union is corrupt. Sometimes The Union becomes a mob. And mobs are ugly and bad and throw raw eggs.
Furthermore, ‘union” works both ways. For instance, what is Vons but a union of stockholders all seeking a common goal? It just so happens to be the same goal as the UFCW Local 135. The goal is increased profit.
So what we have are two separate entities with two separate interests who are disputing over the same piece of land. Sound familiar? Waging a strike or a lockout is just like waging a war. And as in real war, it's the leaders who declare it, but it's the peons and the paupers who must wage it.
So who are the lowly foot soldiers in the war between UFCW Local 135 vs. the grocers? That'd be the strikers and the scabs and low-level management-most of whom are wondering how they will pay rent this month-while The Union heads and the supermarket CEOs who put them in that position sit in their cushy leather swivel chairs in swanky penthouse offices overlooking the cities they own and barely feel a blip; like a president or a prime minister sending his troops into some ungodly desert while his own ass, and his own children's asses, sit comfortably in their billion-dollar compounds that were built with the blood of all the dead foot soldiers before them.
That's what it always comes down to: men of power and money propagandizing the poor and powerless do all their fighting for them, and the only thing that amazes me is how easily, effortlessly, naturally the people slip into their foot soldier shoes.
For more rutabagas, go shopping at www.edwindecker.com. E-mail ed@edwin decker.com and editor@SDcitybeat.com.