Grocery Worker

Grocery Worker

Witness to change in the grocery industry. For ten years, from 1973 to 1983, I worked as a grocery clerk. My work in this industry included assignments in various store departments, liquor, receiving, delicatessen, frozen food, sundries, and night stocking crew. In this time I worked both full and part-time, on all shifts and, surviving a corporate merger, for two companies. These years also witnessed the total conversion of the grocery industry from labor-intensive work methods to more streamlined and computerized systems of ordering, record keeping and scanner technology. Since I went to work in my local union office in 1985, I have acquired only second-hand knowledge of the further evolution of work in the stores. It appears not to have changed fundamentally, although the reconfiguration of the workplace to increase productivity, efficiency and security has proceeded apace.

Enlisting a chief informant.  In researching this ethnography I enlisted the help of Larry W., a good friend, member of my local’s executive board, and twenty year employee of Hughes Markets, a small local chain of high volume food stores. Currently Larry is employed as a dairy clerk in store #9, which is located in an upper class neighborhood. As my chief informant, Larry gave me important information regard the social structure of his store which I supplemented with three personal visits. Additional information was gathered from interviews with other employees in the store.

Hughes #9. Hughes #9 is located in Malibu, a California beach city known for its expensive homes and somewhat exaggerated Hollywood image. It is home to many TV and movie personalities and generally affluent individuals who own homes in the hills and canyons above the city or on the beach. Hughes #9, open 24 hours, is part of a large shopping center and is the largest store in that location and the largest grocery outlet in the city proper. The workforce is ethnically diverse and gender balanced. While its ethnic diversity reflects that of Los Angeles generally, it does not reflect that of this beach city which is overwhelmingly white and upper middle class. Only a few of the employees actually live there and they are clerk’s helpers who live with their parents.

Management.  The formal structure.  The formal structure of authority in the store is headed by the Store Manager who tends to be a remote presence mostly because he is required to do so much paperwork his rarely seen. The Assistant Manager is far more visible and accessible. His duties include building displays, scheduling the clerks and checkers responsible for the efficient running of the “front end” or check stands through the Service Manager. The Grocery Manager is probably the most visibly active member of upper management. His responsibilities encompass the stocking and ordering of goods for about 60% of the store.  He directs the efforts of all stocking crews, is responsible for the efficient interaction of all departments and for the overall grocery inventory. There are eight separate department heads for bakery, service deli, meat, dairy, general merchandise, produce, liquor and seafood. A bookkeeper, who works mainly in the store office, reports only to the Store Manager.

Scheduling is power. The real structure of power is somewhat different from its formal aspects. The Assistant Manager, because he writes the schedule, has the most direct and forceful influence on the majority of clerks.  The schedule is used to punish and reward. No one has what might be called a “set”schedule as the contract requires full-time clerks to be available for any eight-hour shift within the stores operating schedule. Part-timers can restrict themselves from certain shifts and are guaranteed 20 hours a week. If any clerk cannot work a scheduled shift, the Assistant Manager is not obligated to reschedule them to make up the hours later on and he can allocate the lost hours to whomever he wishes. Understandably the Assistant Manager is bombarded with many requests for special scheduling and conflicts inevitably arise which he resolves according to his own standards. Once he has made a decision he almost never changes his mind and is quite pointed about saying so.

The nicest member of management. The Grocery Manager. is generally regarded as the “nicest” member of management and, besides the Assistant Manager, was the most helpful to me. He is hard working, conscientious and committed to a future with Hughes. He possesses excellent organizational skills and knows everything about his department and a good deal about the grocery industry generally. Not surprisingly, rumor has it he will be the next person promoted to Assistant Manager. He is also widely admired for his ability to handle difficult customers. His department also has the largest governing influence on the flow and pace of work in the store. There are three load days involved, two that are relatively heavy and one that is less so. These loads are delivered at night, worked by the crews from about 11:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. the next morning.

Competitive bragging rights in the head’s break room. The department heads fall outside of the Grocery Manager’s influence. Each department head writes his own schedule and every head takes an early shift. Because of this I was able to observe the one consistent ritual practiced among all the employees. The heads gather in the break room about 8:00 a.m. for generally light-hearted bragging about many things; including, but not limited to, sports, their kids, cars, houses and sexual prowess. Each day it is important to have the most outrageous and unbelievable thing to brag about. This competition is more interesting because breaks are restricted ten minutes. Occasionally, by consensus, the heads will award one of their number “bullshitter of the day” status. Often the person so designated will become the object of a string of humorous stories that run throughout the length of their workday.

The night crew and department heads are considered the elite. A clerk’s stature within the store is largely determined by two general factors. One is the amount of money they are paid and the other is their “specialty”. The night crew and department heads are considered the elite. Department heads work six days a week and receive the highest contractual pay for their work. The night crew, though paid one class below the heads, as journeymen nevertheless maintain special status because they have no customer contact. This enviable fact, coupled with their relative lack of supervision and not having to comply with dress or appearance codes makes them seem somewhat above the rest of the clerks.

 The hierarchy below the night crew.  Below the night crew, in descending order, are the grocery clerks and checkers, general merchandise clerks, and clerk’s helpers. Within the category of clerk’s helpers there are three classes. They are, again in descending order, clerk’s helpers who are smart enough to do “go backs” and other special tasks away from the check stands, and clerk’s helpers who are considered inexperienced or just plan “dumb” who are sent to shag carts and police the parking lot. Checkers often complain about their “Zombie Box Boy from Hell”, which is a general term for clerk’s helpers hired without any apparent social skills or work ethics.  In fairness, they have no formal training programs and are simply turned over to the checkers to teach them their jobs.

Early scheduling can hurt a checker’s evaluation.  Checkers are subjected to a system of evaluation that causes some aggravation. Hughes determines a checker’s productivity by the amount of money received per hour worked and the number of items scanned per minute. These evaluations are posted regularly and are used to determine which checkers will work the highly prized Sunday hours, paid at time-and-a-half. There are some obvious flaws in this system. It does not discount the relative impact of large purchases of high-ticket items on the money per hour scale. It also does not discriminate between shifts. The morning hours are a slow business time. Hughes gives a 5% discount to senior citizens and they shop early and use coupons. Orders tend to be smaller and take longer to check out. Late afternoon and evening are the busiest times with the highest volume period coming between 4:00 and 8:00 p.m. weekdays, 2:00 and 6:00 p.m. on weekends. Obviously, scheduling can influence a checker’s evaluation.

How long should a task take?  The evaluation system.  Department heads have their own evaluations to deal with. Their jobs are analyzed by the personnel office and a certain number of hours is allotted to each task performed under ideal conditions. That number of hours is called “100% of efficiency” and is proffered as some mythic goal toward which all department heads must aspire. The actual number of hours given to each department is granted according to each department’s percentage of efficiency. For instance, if the main office operations department decides it takes the dairy clerk at Hughes #9, three hours under ideal conditions to break down and put away the dairy milk and by-products load, but their efficiency percentage is 85% because the delivery must be hand-trucked all the way from the back dock to the front of the store, an additional .45 hours are granted for this task. The reality of the situation is, our course, much different.

 Meeting “ideal” standards through collusion.  Larry, the dairy clerk, claims, and I have observed, that an additional half hour or so to accommodate for the long trip from the back dock to the dairy box is inadequate to compensate for the actual time used in that endeavor. In fact, the three hours to put the load away is inadequate, assuming it is done according to the operations department “ideal” standards. Nevertheless, the job gets done in this time frame through a combination of collusion with the grocery manager, the dairy truck driver and a conspiracy to keep the Store Manager in ignorance of just how this job gets done. Larry saw that the only way to get this task done in the allotted time was to somehow move the delivery of the goods closer to the location of the dairy box.

Since the delivery occurs early in the morning–long before the Store Manager arrives at the store–Larry asked Nick, the grocery manager, if the dairy driver could drop one or two pallets of goods at one of the front main entrances nearest to the dairy box. This practice would meet with disapproval from the Store Manager, if he knew about it. He would argue that it exposes the load to potential pilferage and might create a safety hazard to customers. In fact, nothing of the kind has ever happened. Larry would then concentrate on putting those away while the driver delivered the rest of the load at the back dock.  Nick would then assign one of his crew members to pull the full pallets (rather than hand truck individual stacks) close to the dairy box.

This arrangement had benefits for everyone. It allowed the dairy department to perform this task within the efficiency parameters and in fact left time for additional tasks such as checking codes and removing spoilage. For Nick it meant that his stock room and dock area were not crowded with a dairy load while his crew worked back stock out on the sales floor. It is worth it to him to donate one of his crew members to help Larry with his load because the potential obstacle of having the rest of his crew work around the dairy load. In return, in times when work in the dairy department is slow, Larry will pitch in and help the grocery crew.

The manager arrives at the store at 8:00 a.m. to see only the last of the dairy load being put away. He observes that the back stockroom is free of any remaining dairy goods. He notes that the load has been put away within the time allotted. He does not know that the last of the load being put away is purposely left out for him to observe. The bulk of the load, in fact, had been put away a good half- hour before he arrived.

Surviving the idiocies. Evaluations and loss of creativity.  The evaluation system causes a great deal of concern for the employees.  The checkers have less opportunity than the department heads to “get creative” in dealing with these systems. The departments can clearly work together to defeat what they consider to be a system imposed on them by a remote operations department that knows little or nothing about the realities of the job. Often in store departments the spoken goal is not to do the required work within the assigned hours, but to somehow survive the idiocies of the main office without inviting their scrutiny.  This is an unwritten rule that governs the work of much of the store.

“#1 Ichiban chavo”, store language.  The main discernable core value of Grocery # 9 is that a majority of the employees take pride in the fact that they represent a preserve of ethnic diversity surrounded by a community that is predominantly white. Much effort is made by the employees to teach each other their native languages, mostly the slang and swear words of course. This exchange of knowledge has also led to the creation of a “store language” that is a carefree and careless mixture of all the representative tongues. Some phrases have become common expressions in the culture of the market, such as “#1 ichiban chavo”, a combination of Japanese and Spanish, which is used to describe someone who is hard working but belonging to one of the lower orders of employees.

Hughes #9 and the Northridge quake.  The people in the surrounding area do not, apparently, find the ethnic diversity of Hughes #9 at odds with their own community values. In fact they appear to take pride in it. The store suffered considerable cosmetic damage in the 1994, 6.7 magnitude Northridge earthquake, which resulted in broken windows, broken glass containers and many shelves of goods dumped on the floor. Structurally, the building was not compromised. In those early hours and days after the quake the employees of Hughes #9 were working as hard as possible to get the store operational again.

…and brushfires. Since Hughes #9 was the only large grocery store in the downtown area, it served as an importance resource for the residents. The surrounding neighborhood formed Neighborhood Watch groups and posted some residents to observe the store at night to prevent or report looting. When the store was still struggling to open these groups, with the blessing of the union and management, added their manpower to the crews replacing merchandise on the shelves. If this seems a strangely cooperative effort on the part of the employees and residents, it has some root history.  Just the prior year, brushfires devastated many of the canyons, burning out entire neighborhoods and uprooting families as they were evacuated from the shifting path of the flames. Hughes #9 provided drinking water and turned its parking lot into a location for coordinating emergency services.

Tolerance of diversity.  Hughes #9 presents an interesting study of the contrasting demographics of the city and those of the employees of the store. Within the culture of the employees themselves there appears to have grown a wide tolerance for diversity, in part fostered by an adversarial relationship with a main office that tries to regulate their work, work they know it cannot fully appreciate or understand.

 Not just another store.  For the city, besieged by natural disasters in the past year (1993), the store became something much more integral to the community than just another commercial outlet. Because of its ethnic diversity, the store showed a face to the city that it ordinarily would only see outside of its territory.  The store also demonstrated that it was a responsible member of the business community, rising to the occasion when called by the recent advent of fire and earthquake.

Postscript: Grocery, 18 years later

This industry, like most others, has seen change become the new norm. A 10-week strike in 2004 resulted in a drastic alteration in the industry contract. To understand how this affected the culture of the workplace consider the following:

When I began working in the industry in 1974 all that was required to qualify for full benefits (medical, dental, psychiatric, chiropractic and legal) and begin participation in the pension plan was that I be employed for 30 days. Journeyman status and wages required 1800 hours and could be achieved, even working part-time, in about a year. There were nine paid holidays in the contract and scheduling on holidays when the store was open was by seniority. Most employees were full-time.

After ’04, a two-tier wage rate was put into effect creating a stark separation between old and new employees. For people entering the industry after the ‘04 contract went into effect the following had changed:

*Most employees worked 30 hours a week or less.

*The pension payment at age 60 was reduced by half.

*There were no provisions for holiday pay for the first six months of employment, not even Christmas or New Year’s, and if a holiday fell within the first six months of your employment you could expect to be scheduled to work those days.

*After six months you qualified for holiday pay for six of the nine holidays, but               you did not qualify for all nine until you had worked 30 months.

*Holiday pay was cut from triple time to double time.

*To participate in a drastically cut back health and dental plan new employees had to pay a weekly fee. You could not call this a “premium” but a payment for the right to participate. According to my local president about 65% of the new members sign up for it and 35% do not, a direct consequence of reduced wages.


The contract negotiated in 2007 eliminated the two tier wage structure but implemented the following requirements:

*To obtain journeyman status you had to work 10,400 hours, averaging 30 hours a week this would take about 61/2 years.

*Further cuts in the medical and dental plans made them “below average” according to provider’s complaints.

Union reps and clerks I have spoken to recently agree that these changes have caused the caliber of new employees to decline. Turnover for entry level positions is very high. Working in the industry is no longer a career opportunity or a reliable path to a middle class income. Even employees who stay for several years are mostly working toward another career in the future. This has produced a strange sort of appreciation by management for their older “grandfathered” employees who still enjoy the contract in place prior to the ’04 negotiations,  as many, that is, who could survive somehow 10 weeks without income and shrinking strike benefits.

Being an efficient and responsible department head or any kind of lead employee or checker does require experience and a degree of talent. Consider that these jobs require a knowledge and instinct for estimating sales, allocating resources, computer savvy and maintaining standards of appearance and safety. Even Clerk’s Helpers (what my generation referred to as “box boys”) who are the newest, often youngest and most untrained employees are thrown, along with the checkers, into the forefront of customer service–the true face of the company for the customer. Management rarely shows up as a force for the customer unless one has a complaint or requires an adjustment of some kind.

I retired from my local in 1999 and became a high school English teacher. I retired from that career, even though I thoroughly enjoyed it, in 2010 as it seemed to be going the way of the grocery industry. Since then I keep busy exercising, writing a journal and a family history for my granddaughter and others who my be interested, reading, and generally taking the time to experience things I was hard pressed to do when working and raising a family.

The Meany Center experience for me was the fulfillment of a dream denied. I tried my hand at college after high school, but I had two older brothers who had already married and moved on. It was my time to go at nineteen. My dad changed professions and moved with my Mom to Atlanta. I didn’t really have a “home” in the traditional sense I had been accustomed to. I moved to California, married, and went to work. College would have to wait. Until I went to work for my local I really didn’t have opportunities for higher education beyond taking the occasional class. My local agreed to let me use vacation time and paid my tuition. Plane fare and lodging was on me. Everything else I could fit in my schedule when I could. When I graduated I was left with the distinct impression my father knew it, even though he died in 1980. His dream was that all of his sons would graduate from college.

Iles Minoff received his doctorate in anthropology from Princeton University. He taught at St. Xavier College in the Chicago area and taught a class in the anthropology of work at the George Meany Center for Labor Studies in the 1990s. He worked for the labor movement for 28 years, first with the Human Resources Development Institute in the early 1980s where he worked on retraining programs for displaced workers, and later for Union Privilege where, for over 20 years, he developed benefit safety net programs for union members and their families. He has a wonderful and amazing wife, three great daughters, and two, soon to be three, of the cutest grandchildren on the face of the earth.

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