I Once Belonged To A Union

My first job involved bagging groceries and rounding up shopping carts during the Summer before my Junior year in high school.

I knew when my Sophomore year was wrapping up that I should get a job, because my Mom kept telling me so, repeatedly.  When my bestest friend in the whole wide world, then and now, got a job at a grocery store, I thought, hey, that’d work out nicely!

So I turned in a resume and waited a few days.  I checked with my buddy, hey what gives?  He says, call them…call them every day until they hire you. And so I did.  Every day after lunch I’d call the store, dialing only seven digits by the way, and ask to speak with the hiring manager:

Me: Hi, this is No Waste, I recently turned in an application and was wondering if you’d had a chance to review it or if there were any openings available?

Her: Not at the moment but thanks for checking in.

Seven days later:

Her:  (Laughing) OK, No waste, why don’t you come in for an interview tomorrow?

So my persistent pestering payed off, my first job!  But during the interview, she decided that I should go to cashier training instead of becoming a bagger.


Well, that’s not what I was thinking but it did pay a little more, so why not?  One evening after school I made my way over to a small classroom in a dingy office building where a row of fake registers was setup with amber-tinted monitors (no LCD yet) displaying every beep of faux-groceries passing over the scanner. The class was composed of a dozen other folks, most at least twice my age.

I was already intimidated.

A suburban teenager out in the city at night with adults?!  I may have been a little sheltered.

The questions…the questions…

What will I say to the customers?

So many produce codes!  What’s the number for Rutabaga again?

And what if I have to call for help over the loudspeaker?!  Everyone in the store will hear me and laugh, you guys!

I got back in touch and asked the hiring manager if I could be bagger, to which she thankfully agreed.  The Fear of Failure Troll has gotten the best of me.   Don’t be so scared to take on new challenges!

Reg Fail 2

I showed up for my day of orientation fresh-faced and early.  We were taken on a tour of the store and then shuttled into a small conference room for a viewing of one of those oh-so-amazing corporate training videos.  I think it was on Laser disc.

OK, now this I can handle:

- Instead of saying “Paper or plastic?”, ask, “Is plastic OK”?  This will save the store money, got it.

- When sacking groceries, build walls with your boxed items and fill the bag in with cans and other durable containers.  Top them off with soft and fragile purchases.  Got it.  Build walls.

- Half an hour during every shift, you’ll need to go outside and round up all the spare shopping carts roaming around the parking lot like SUV-seeking cruise missiles.  This will be your Cart Duty.  No problem, Cart of Duty: Modern Bagger.

Then the union rep came in with stacks of paperwork for us and starting rambling on about benefits, support, blah, blah, blah.  What did I care?  I was an ignorant suburban high school student living with my parents.  Sure, give me a pen, I’ll be a Union Man.

Two important points about that, though:

- I didn’t know I had the option of not joining the union.

- I would be earnings $1 less per hour, as a union member, on account of all the benefits and support and stuff.  This meant I would be earning less than minimum wage, before potential tips. However, unlike serving at a restaurant, there’s no customary tipping relationship between the bagger and baggee. It’s a jungle out there folks.

Here’s the problem, as a part-time employee I didn’t even qualify for most of the support they provided so I signed over a $1 per hour in exchange for nothing.  And I didn’t even know I had a choice in the matter because they never told me.

Thanks for that.  Don’t be afraid to ask questions next time!

But I learned another important lesson that summer.  Always wear an undershirt.  My first day on the job I come back inside from Cart Duty, dripping with sweat, my shirt now eight shades darker than before I went outside.

As I’m bagging a woman’s groceries, building walls with plastic bags of course, she asks me if I’m OK.  Sure I am.  But after she leaves, I step into the bathroom and realize why she asked.  My face is flushed to an unnatural shade of red, I’m drenched with sweat, and my hair was falling out in clumps.

That last part was made up for dramatic effect.

Never again, always an undershirt from that point on. Don’t ask me why, but two shirts do keep you cooler.  It’s sorcery I tell you.

But the most important thing I learned that Summer?  I wanted to go to college and make real money while enjoying air conditioning and getting to sit down once and awhile.

Oh yeah, I now know whether or not you’ll want carryout help with your groceries and whether or not you’ll tip for the service, based on what’s in your basket.

Also, I watch the baggers throwing my groceries around very closely now, as I’m an expert, and I’ve got a real eye for talent.  I’ll probably do some scouting for the big grocers once I retire from the old accounting desk job.

Thanks for visiting, say high to the family for me.

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10 thoughts on “I Once Belonged To A Union

  1. TB at BlueCollarWorkman

    yeah, being in unions can be very helpful someitmes, but if you’re making really low wages, then they tend to only suck the small amount of money you have! i remember a short time that I was a bagger too, didn’t last long, but I remember the union thing and being pissed. We didn’t have the option, you either become a union member or you dont get the job. Pfft. Doens’t make much sense for dumb little highschoolers. If you’re older and need security/benefits, then it makes perfect sense, but yeah, I agree with ya man!
    TB at BlueCollarWorkman recently posted…Eating Good is HardMy Profile

    1. No WasteNo Waste Post author

      Yeah, I felt fleeced when it was done.

      But I’ll never forget that feeling of cashing a paycheck and just SPENDING IT.

      Money was so different back then.

  2. Andrew@LivingRichCheaply

    You should have said yes to the cashier position! But I’m the same way…I fear failure and want to take the “easy” way out. $1 definitely sucks when you are making so little…did you get any benefits at all from being in the union? I didn’t know grocery baggers had unions.
    Andrew@LivingRichCheaply recently posted…Long Weekend UpdateMy Profile

    1. No WasteNo Waste Post author

      I had just gotten a driver’s license and even $4.35 an hour seemed like a fortune to me.

      After 12 hours I can buy a video game!


    1. No WasteNo Waste Post author

      Yeah, I think I was a part of a massive food workers group, but I can barely remember the details, even though I continued to get mail from them for years and year and years.

  3. Funny about Money

    That’s a very funny story, charmingly told!

    Sorry you didn’t follow up on that lucrative cashier’s job ( :-) ), but between you & me, it’s probably a good thing you ended up bagging. First you learned earning a living is no picnic, and second, it convinced you to go straight on to college. At the community college where I teach, I run into many bright young (and not so young) men who who stopped out after high school specifically because they discovered they could earn enough to buy a car and rent an apartment and so doubted the value of a two- or four-year college education. Although their work experience also taught them a lot of things and gave them time to mature, I always suspect that they could have earned as much or more during the same period (from finishing HS to deciding to come back to school) if they’d gone straight on to the AA or BA.

    Speaking of college, the reason I was able to go to college was because my father was a union man. True, unions have their drawbacks and some developed corrupt leadership. However, my father was a seaman. Believe me: guys who went to sea benefited hugely from organizations like the Masters, Mates & Pilots. Without a high-school diploma, he managed to work his way up to the rank of commander in the Merchant Marine and held a license to sail any tonnage on any ocean. He was paid well, thanks to union bargaining power, and because of that he was in a position to send me through four years of university. Otherwise, I’d probably be checking groceries today.
    Funny about Money recently posted…Rainy Day of the Skinny MigraineurMy Profile

    1. No WasteNo Waste Post author

      I agree there’s a place for unions just as you described, but a room full of highschoolers working 16 hours a week at a grocery story should never be in one and we should have been told there was an option to not join.

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