It was during the 1960s in New Jersey. I was attending university during the day and had just given up my job as a night shift computer operator. I was also working weekends in a supermarket, and a friend there put me on to a better paying night job, loading tractor trailers at a distribution warehouse for the same supermarket chain.
As a store clerk, I was required to be a member of the Retail Clerks’ Union, a group that was infamously impotent and whose New Jersey local was openly corrupt. I had no use for unions to begin with, but they came with this particular territory, and the dues were only a few dollars a month. However, to become a warehouseman, I would also have to join the Teamsters’ Union. The way it worked back then (I don’t know how it is today) was that once you were hired, you worked for a 30 day probation period, during which you could be fired for any reason. If the company didn’t fire you, on day 31 you would join the union and presumably be secure from that point on.
The night I was hired at the warehouse, my shift supervisor told me that if I didn’t load a strict minimum of 1,500 cases of goods every night, I would never pass probation. We were working from the weekly grocery orders from individual stores and, as is customary in most jobs, they assigned the crummiest tasks to the new guys. I understood that and had no problem with it.
In this case, the crummy task came in the form of getting only the orders from the smallest stores in the chain. These orders were difficult to handle because they only needed 1 or 2 cases of each product. That meant you had to run around inside this 20 acre building with your forklift, trying to find each product, stack the individual case onto an empty pallet by hand, pick up the pallet, and keep going until you had enough of a load to drive it to the loading bay and into the delivery truck trailer. The different sizes and shapes of all the products made for precarious loads, and more than once I had a load tip over. When you finally got the merchandise into the trailer, you’d head back into the cavernous warehouse in search of your next items.
The easy jobs, the ones assigned to the guys with seniority, were the large store orders. These might include, for example, 500 cases of 12 oz. Coke cans, which you could handle in one trip by forklifting 2 full and stacked pallets of cases and then easily transport them to the trailer.
But I was young, full of piss and vinegar, and so I went at it with all my boundless vigor and customary determination. I worked my ass off to beat that 1,500 threshold every single night. And I did it, some nights even topping 2,000 units. When I showed up for work on night number 31, I found a note pinned to my timecard telling me to see the union shop steward before I punched in. He had his own office, larger than even the warehouse supervisor’s office.
When I entered, he came around his desk, this big burly guy with hands like baseball mitts, and he gave me a thumping congratulatory whack on the back, saying I’d done a fantastic job. He informed me that I was now a permanent warehouseman and could call myself a Teamster. All I had to do was pay my initiation fee which, to my consternation, turned out to be about 3 weeks’ salary.
But that wasn’t all. He leaned in close and said that, from that point on, I was expected to load a maximum of 500 cases a night, and he closed with words that still clang in my ear, “Any more…and we’ll break your legs.” I was astounded. This was no movie scene. This was my own very real life. From a minimum of 1,500 cases to a maximum of 500, just like that. And the penalty for non-compliance wasn’t something mundane like getting fired, it was getting my ass kicked. Needless to say, I complied.
It didn’t take long to figure out what to do with the spare time I had left every night once I hit my 450 mark. (I had decided to set my goal at 450, afraid to get too close to 500 in case I miscounted and might go over it.) All through the warehouse, up on top of various high stacked pallets of goods, warehousemen could be found sleeping, reading, playing cards, etc. They were unobtrusive, but weren’t exactly hiding, either. I used the time to catch up on sleep, because working midnights always screwed up my body clock.
I stayed with that job for a few more months until I realized I had no desire to remain either deliberately unproductive or a Teamster. I switched my studies to evenings and took a day job as an insurance underwriter trainee – a job that thankfully had no union.
That’s one move I never regretted. It allowed me to say “good riddance” to the union, and it launched me into a most satisfying career.