A week ago Saturday, I became a scab.
I wanted to see what it was like to be a replacement worker during the supermarket labor dispute, and a Ralphs in Santa Monica hired me in produce, few questions asked.
I didn't get a uniform or a name tag, and there was no orientation meeting to welcome me into the Ralphs family. I did get a warning from the store manager: Park in the underground lot, just in case any pickets took offense at my new occupation.
I wasn't completely comfortable with the job myself. Even though this was an assignment (one that I suggested), I couldn't help but feel a twinge of guilt. Wasn't I taking food from the worker who normally holds this job?
It didn't help that some customers viewed me with scorn.
"Can you tell me if this is really the price of these grapes?" asked an elderly woman, an edge to her voice. I pointed to the price.
"Doesn't mean anything," she said. The cashiers were ringing up the wrong prices, she said, voicing general contempt at us fill-in workers.
"I was trying to figure out how many of you people were in here," she added, with a derogatory emphasis on the word "you."
Other customers left me feeling equally uncomfortable. They thought the union workers had it too good, and showed no sympathy for the union's effort to shield members from rising health insurance costs.
"This is unskilled work," one woman said. "They ought to be happy they have jobs and insurance."
As I came back from lunch one afternoon, another customer spoke up outside the store.
"I really wanted to break the picket lines at Vons," said the well-dressed woman, with a huge diamond wedding ring. "But Vons never has what I want anyway. Good for you for going to work like they should."
Back inside, an older gentleman passed by with a grin.
"Starting to feel like the old Ralphs again," he said.
Some customers thought the strike was over. The United Food and Commercial Workers union pulled its pickets from Ralphs on Oct. 31, the day before I started work, to focus efforts on the two other major Southland chains, Albertsons Inc. and Safeway Inc., which owns Vons and Pavilions.
The union struck Safeway's stores Oct. 11 after talks on a new contract broke down, leading Albertsons and Kroger Co., which owns Ralphs, to lock out its workers the next day. The three chains are bargaining jointly.
Replacement workers are playing a key role in the dispute, and it wasn't hard for me to be hired. Ralphs says it has hired 14,000 temporary workers in Southern and Central California.
The temporary job application was short and sweet. I indicated that I still worked for Tribune Co., which owns the Los Angeles Times, but no one asked me about my position. The store manager offered me a job in produce at $17.50 an hour -- nearly top pay for journeyman union workers -- with no benefits.
I started at 6 a.m. the day after Halloween. There wasn't much time to talk with my fellow workers. Many wore old clothes and weren't particularly well-spoken. I guessed that most had been out of work until the strike and lockout came along, and experts said that's a fair conclusion.
"They are the people at the bottom of the economic ladder who are looking for this kind of stopgap job," said Brenda Cochrane, director of the Labor Studies program at San Francisco State University.
It's a transitory existence, with none of the workers knowing how long this gig will last.
"When the strike is over, they must be dismissed," said Sanford Jacoby, a professor of management and history at UCLA. "The people working here will have to leave."
Because temporary workers almost always serve to undermine a strike, they are reviled not only by union members, but by many people throughout society. Who wants to be called a scab?
If there weren't that social opprobrium, "strikes would be a lot less effective," Jacoby said. "The scabs are to be ostracized -- shunned -- and you are not supposed to interact with them."
The use of the word scab to describe strikebreakers dates back to the 18th century.
"What is a scab? He is to his trade what a traitor is to his country," said an English trade union pamphlet, circa 1792. "He first sells the journeyman, and is himself afterwards sold in his turn by the masters, till at last he is despised by both and deserted by all."
Earlier, the word had been used as a synonym for rascals and scoundrels.
Being a replacement worker is not without risk.
In 1979, I covered the United Steelworkers of America strike at Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia. When vans and station wagons containing replacement workers attempted to cross picket lines, throngs of steelworkers closed in, grabbed the vehicles and rocked them to the verge of tipping over. Some terrified drivers turned around.
The supermarket strike has not been quite so dramatic. I was never threatened as I crossed picket lines to seek work.
At Ralphs, I started on the first Saturday after the pickets were pulled. The store was jammed with shoppers who had stayed away until then.
My job was produce, which sounded easy enough. The manager gave me two days to learn how to keep fruits and vegetables on display. Marvin, a veteran produce manager, showed me the ropes.
Boxes of produce -- typically 20 to 40 pounds -- had to be unloaded from pallets, loaded onto carts, and then wheeled to the display cases.
It was like a weightlifting workout where the repetitions go on for hours, without any rest: 80 pounds of potatoes, 60 pounds of watermelons, 40 pounds of apples of every variety, 20 pounds of bananas at a time, all in sacks or boxes of different shapes and sizes.
I judged produce based on weight and selling rates. Sixty or 80 pounds of potatoes or onions were fine because they didn't sell quickly. Bananas were the worst. You had to move 100 pounds of them at a time and, at 69 cents a pound, they moved as quickly as tickets to a Los Angeles Lakers playoff game.
At 100 pounds a trip, with at least five trips to restock the tables a day, I lifted half of a ton of bananas in two days.
I had hoped to endure this in quiet anonymity, but no. You don't so much manage the produce area as host it -- all the more so because of the pent-up shopping demand. There was a steady stream of people who wanted to talk to me, even though I was often sweaty and had a runny nose from racing back and forth between the damp refrigeration room and the shopping floor.
"So, the strike is over, right?" asked one stout man, roaming the section with his wife.
"Well, no, not at all," I said.
"But where are the picket lines? They're gone."
"It's a little complicated," I said, "but the strike is still on, the union is still locked out, but they say it's OK for you to shop here."
"That doesn't make any sense," he said. I didn't elaborate; there were bananas to stack.
Others approached -- polite, but concerned. Had they been duped into returning to the markets? They blanched when I said that the strike was not over and that I was a replacement worker, hurrying away as if I was Typhoid Mary.
Others couldn't resist an insult.
"You don't know where anything is here, do you?" said one young man. "This is your first day? Well, I guess I won't bust your ... too much yet."
Once, when I was asked where the parsley was, a shopper chimed in with the information, then showed another customer where to find the garlic.
I asked if she would be willing to stick around until my shift was over.
The day went slowly. Stacking bananas, fetching the cart, loading more boxes of produce; muscling the biggest vacuum cleaner I've ever seen around the floor.
And try cleaning a floor this way: Invite dozens of people to a dinner party, fill your living room, and then try to vacuum around them.
Any work that didn't involve lifting was a respite: breaking down empty boxes to take to the trash compactor, sweeping and mopping the storeroom floor.
A tremendous sense of relief poured over me when my second shift finally came to an end, and not just because my shoulders were sore from all of the lifting.
I could go back to work at my regular job, without guilt. I wasn't a scab anymore.