This chapter looks at punk rock, dead-end jobs, the difficulty of living on minimum wage, and why employers should never mess with the dignity of low-paid staff. This chapter explores my teenage years, before a political identity had formed, and the reasons why I was once a strike breaker.
I started my first job at age 14. I worked as a janitor for one year at a local pharmacy for $2 per hour. I was too young to legally work in the United States (the only legal forms of child labor allowed were farm worker and newspaper delivery boy). My payment of $2 was less than minimum wage, which was $2.65 by Federal law. It was illegal labor, or what is commonly known as an under-the-counter-job. The Mormon store owner wanted to hire employees that were naïve, young, and off the tax books. I didn’t care at the time. My income was only needed to buy junk food and one vinyl Kiss record or an 8-track tape of Queen per week. I worked one hour each day, five days per week. Since I was illegally employed, my boss required that I write down the time I worked in a spiral notebook, which was hidden inside a drawer between plastic lids and Styrofoam cups. There was no pay check or payroll receipt involved; twice a month my boss called me into the backroom and slipped me cash when nobody was looking. We had a simple agreement: I worked and she paid me the agreed sum.
The year was 1977 which is noted as a time of high inflation. It was a period of the Arab oil embargo and gas shortages. Political conflict in the Mid-East between Israel and Arabic countries echoed all the way to the United States, where a 14-year-old illegal worker felt the repercussions. One day the butterfly flapped its wings and my cash-strapped boss started to withhold money from me. She falsely claimed to withdraw taxes and social security funds. I realized that making less than $10 per week was just not enough. I began to claim one extra hour in the spiral notebook. That way I could still earn my $10. I was happy and life was good. Until one day, a paid intern pharmacist confronted me about my scheme. The druggist, who cleared $25,000 while training, was upset that I had cheated the company out of an extra $2 per week. He started following me around to make sure that I swept floors properly and scrubbed toilets to his pleasing. He harassed me with tasks like scraping gum off the bottom of tables and cleaning his personal car for him. He resented the extra hour that I claimed to work each week. Finally, he informed the boss, and she demanded that I return one entire week of wages to her at the previous rate. I agreed to work without pay to avoid getting fired, but gradually extracted my revenge. As the only janitor I found it easy to dump various multi-colored pills into the pharmacy waste basket and empty it outside. In the next three weeks I must have tossed out thousands of expensive tablets and capsules without anyone noticing. At this age I had no clue about the street value of this medicine, but this simple act of sabotage was a means to regain my self-respect. I worked one more month before I quit without notice.
With my final pay I hopped a bus downtown to buy a Black Sabbath vinyl record on a street lined with burgeoning pawn shops (all of them are now torn down). On that day I spoke with the first homeless man that I ever met. High inflation in the 1970s sent many people to live on the streets, and mental patients were de-institutionalized to save the government money. It was believed to be more humane for those with mental disabilities to live outside rather than be locked up in an asylum. All of a sudden the homeless and mentally deranged were visible in Salt Lake. We children made fun of these bag people who pushed shopping carts around the city. Sometimes we threw stones so they would go away. I remember watching one of my own rocks hurled at a shimmering shopping cart before the projectile vanished in the vortex of night. This memory lies suspended in mid-air, since I never knew if the stone hit its proper target.
The scruffy homeless man looked weary and cautious as I approached him with a guilty look of conspiracy on my face. Maybe he thought another local stranger was out to assault him, a not uncommon violent act known as “bum rolling”. When I approached him it was strictly for a teenager’s business proposal. I didn’t waste time with conversation. I offered the panhandling homeless man $10 to buy me my first hard-core porno magazines at a used book store. He must have spend 45 minutes browsing, so I worried that he might have snuck out a back door. Later, he secretively handed me some concealed magazines in a brown paper sack, smiling as if it was a primordial gift from man-to-boy. Not trusting him I quickly peeked inside – pubic hair, labia, and fleshy parts; all the forbidden fruit so far hidden from me. Afterward, I thanked him as he ventured inside a liquor store to buy more alcohol.
I saw my Mormon boss once again four years later. She had declared bankruptcy and her store was sold. It became an auto part supply shop which, in turn, also went to bankruptcy courts. When I saw this boss again I was working a second job as a food server at a convalescence center. I had already passed through the glorious world of grocery store bagging clerk. Her mother died that day at the old folks home that employed me. She interrupted me, as I swept the kitchen floor, to request Clortox® for cleaning her departed mother’s room. I gave her a cap full of bleach, but I didn’t offer to help her clean. I had done enough of that for her already. She didn’t recognize me in her sadness, but the context of our meeting made me realize a human side of my past employer. We were both people who were in a situation that we didn’t want to be in. We had become equal because neither of us had any power over the other anymore.
My second job was as a grocery clerk at a franchise of the Slaveway® grocery chain. I lied about my age, claiming to be sixteen, so I could get the job. I started out bagging groceries and worked myself up the minimum wage hierarchy: bottle boy, janitor, stocker, counter clerk, and cashier. Basically, I worked at what is known as a “gopher” – somebody that is told to “go for” this or to “go for” that. I would do any form of labor needed. Before I started this job my father took me aside and lectured that if I work real hard I could build a career with the company. My employer was a large corporation, that would reward me with promotion and payroll raises. This was the work ethic that his generation was raised with. Both my parents worked for decades for the same employer. They belonged to their company. Hard work and dedication, my parents taught me, were the right tools to build the American dream. I followed this path for three years. I continued with the hard work until high school graduation. At the same time, I experimented with the more adventurous trail leading to juvenile delinquency. By age sixteen; I lost my virginity, shoplifted pornography, bought my first used car, learned to drink alcohol, and experimented with smoking various substances (all the modern rites of passage to manhood). At the age of 17, I was awarded my high school diploma and sublet an apartment from one of the managers at Slaveway®. My roommate was a cashier at the same grocery store. I paid my own bills and put a roof over my head. I did what I defined as making a man out of myself. I was independent and I paid my bills.
I branched out and took a few college classes. However, my grades were rather mediocre because I did not know how to be a student. I could not write a single two-page academic paper, and even struggled to put together one complete paragraph. Nobody in my family had ever attended a college class before. My father could barely read and write, and neither parent learned math above the basic level of add, subtract, and divide. They had no interest in science or foreign countries. They learned the skills needed to survive at their working class level. They both came from impoverished backgrounds and broken homes. For them the main goal was to simply create a stable domestic environment. They did not want their children to move from one rented property to another all their lives like they had done. I allowed myself to be teased by a few university classes, but nothing came out of it. I couldn’t afford schooling anyway, and I lacked the discipline to both work full-time and to attend university. Instead, I volunteered at a telephone crisis center to listen to people talk about problems. It was located on campus. This way I could keep one foot in the door of education.
At the grocery store I continued to work hard. I developed new skills and received wage increases – to $3.50 per hour. This was the only path I understood: work hard and buy stuff with income. I would have continued with this lifestyle for decades except that a major wedge was pounded into the middle of my road toward my American dream. This fork in my road vibrated like a war spear. A labor union declared a strike at our grocery store. Employees circled the premises with inquiries, “Are you going to stay in or are you walking out?”. I had no background with unions. I only knew that I liked to work. I mixed work with my social life very closely. All of a sudden my friends were dividing and taking sides. My boss – who was a Mexican-American who anglicized his name to appear more American – came to me with promises. If I continued to work during the strike they would promote me to produce manager for $4 per hour. I would get the promotion I coveted most. I drew deep satisfaction in the idea of preparing vegetables and fruit, ordering supplies, and taking on more challenging responsibilities. Produce manager was the goal I worked toward. My boss was offering it to me like ripe fruit. All I had to do was pluck the Golden Delicious apple from his hand.
Utah is known as a “right to work state”. It considers unions as a threat to the basic right of a person to work. Utah has busted miner and trucker unions with its pro-business legislation. The popular labor union leader, Joe Hill, was executed in a Utah prison under very suspicious circumstances, about 10 minutes away from where I grew up (now Sugarhouse park). Utah favors businesses and views labor unions with disdain – therefore, keeping minimum wage as low as possible. I originally decided to join other workers on strike. I admired that they were making a stand for something they believed in. Besides, I was in the height of teenage rebellion. Punk Rock had finally infiltrated behind Utah’s Zion curtain and this music satisfied my inner pangs of frustration and rage.
I didn’t understand it yet, but instead of politicians my heroes were anarchists, junkies, and degenerates. Sex Pistols, Black Flag, and the Clash were more powerful influences than any newscaster or public office holder. At the same time: I couldn’t afford to buy the standard punk uniform because leather jackets and Doc Martian® boots were too expensive. I worked to pay my bills and wouldn’t find employment with a Mohawk haircut or multiple pierced ears. The middle class youths and rich kids were the ones who dressed in Punk fashion, while my identity was defined by a work apron with a plastic name tag.
I became a pivotal employee at the grocery store because I was able to take on many of the tasks of striking workers for a fraction of their salaries. A tug-o-war ensued in which I was ultimately bribed by my boss with an offer of promotion, and threatened by the union representative with a public beating. The union member threatened to kick my ass if I didn’t go out on strike. To his mistake, I took it as a challenge. I wouldn’t allow myself to appear timid in the eyes of my peers. As a man I wouldn’t cower due to threat, so when the strike came I was one of the first employees to walk through the automatic sliding doors to punch in the time clock. I became a scab. I was the incrustation that formed over the wound of disgruntled employees.
The strike itself was anti-climatic. The store was a small franchise and the employees had a strong bond. Nobody called me names or tried to intimidate customers. The employees would allow the strikers inside the store to use the restroom. The protesters would pause while striking to buy sodas and supplies from us. The nature of the protest was friendly. Those that went out played music, sang songs, and drank beer. They used the worse weapon of all; they had fun. In turn, those that worked harbored no malice about the former employees dancing in the parking lot. The mood was of a cooperative spirit for the first two weeks until the union representatives came back from vacation (possibly using strike funds). The labor union representatives demanded more pro-active measures, and store managers struck back in retaliation. Management started spreading rumors that the strikers slashed the tires of customer cars. The conflict became a nasty fight. My roommate quit his job in disgust and went to university instead, and I was about to lose the apartment that I rented from the store manager.
Meanwhile, I ground beef in the meat department, stocked the dairy section, ordered refrigerator beverages, and managed the produce department. I would harvest fruits from the refrigeration in back and prepare displays of lettuce. I was working hard and learning work skills for the future promotion. I bit into the apple of labor and enjoyed its sweet taste.
The strike ended after six weeks. I think a few upper level employees got a slightly higher salary, but most of us still worked for minimum wage. The mood of our store was bitter and employees held grudges. Work politics slithered and hid in each department. I returned to my former position as a clerk for $3.50 per hour. My inquiries as to promotion were promptly deflected until I gave up. My boss was promoted instead and he earned a significant bonus for his anti-strike effort. The promise of a produce management position disappeared with him. Employees from both sides quit due to tension. To make matters worse, an upcoming corporation constructed a superstore across the street. It was a huge, neon-lit, monolith that supplied everything from food to furniture. The small grocery franchise couldn’t compete. Within one year it was to go bankrupt. The mega-department store put to final rest the place where I worked for the past three years, much like our small grocery store abolished the independent family-operated corner markets of my parent’s times. It was the death of store #233. I couldn’t even place former work references on a job application, because they all had fled. Three years of my labor vanished, not even leaving the Cheshire grin of a telephone number to contact for recommendations. The grocery store died not from union strikes, but from the larger corporation across the street.
I did not witness the death of my workplace, nor did I help to bury it. I quit my job in the post-strike aftermath. I was used and defeated. My hard work still only added up to minimum wage, more or less, after three years of dedication. I was 17 years old. I had been cheated out of wages on my first job and tricked on my second one. This made it hard to trust the American dream. Maybe it was more like a fantasy or a daydream in reality; one that always pulls away before you can touch it, so there is nothing left to do but forget about it. My ideas about work were jaded and the possibility of school enrollment was unlikely. However, for me there awaited the fastest new growth industry in the service sector. I could smell my future wafting in from the deep fat fryer down the street. My next job was located directly across the prison site from where labor organizer, Joe Hill, was executed. His ghost probably cursed the former scab who passed by his gallows on the way to work.