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Crash Course in Trucking

At the loading docks, store managers take the wheels of big rigs

October 18, 2003|Ronald D. White | Times Staff Writer

Janice Mattoch climbed into the 18-wheeler's cab, shifted into reverse and backed the big tractor-trailer toward the loading dock.

Again, and again, and again.

Trucking, obviously, isn't Mattoch's usual line of work. A manager at Vons store No. 1916 on Foothill Boulevard in La Verne, she is one of many being pressed into unfamiliar jobs by the supermarket strike and lockout.

Teamsters union drivers aren't on strike, but they are refusing to cross picket lines set by the United Food and Commercial Workers union.

So, in an awkward ballet, union truckers drive from warehouses to stores, where they turn over their rigs to replacement drivers such as Mattoch, who then wrestle to align them with the dock.

As Mattoch seated herself in the white cab of the 2002 International Tractor, about 18 pickets raced around from the front of the store to watch the action.

Too much gas. Lurch. Too much brake. The air brakes hissed, and then -- boom!

"Oh, dear," said one female striker. On the sidewalk, the Teamster driver looked down at the ground and spit.

It sounded like Mattoch had slammed into the wall, but no -- it was just the sound that a 64-foot-long truck makes when its 31,000 pounds come to an abrupt halt.

Mattoch kept at it, alternating between too much gas pedal and too much brake pedal. Soon her truck resembled a jackknifed trailer, bent at a wild angle and headed for the store's block wall.

At least one boo was heard, but as she tried and tried, the pickets began pulling for the store manager. Finally, on her eighth attempt, she docked the rig. A cheer went up from the strikers.

"You guys make me nervous!" Mattoch yelled as she emerged from the cab.

"Well, she was a lot better than last time," conceded strike captain Dave Bagu, 48. Another watching picket admitted: "Better than I could do."

As the strike moved into its sixth full day Friday, there was no indication of any progress toward a settlement. Workers at Safeway Inc.'s Vons and Pavilions stores walked off the job Oct. 11 after talks on a new labor contract broke down. Kroger Co., which owns Ralphs, and Albertsons Inc. bargain jointly with Safeway and locked out their workers the next day.

The chains had anticipated a strike and had trained managers so they could get commercial driver's licenses from the Department of Motor Vehicles. Applicants must pass a written exam, a road test, a skills test -- including backing up -- and successfully perform a safety check.

Vons spokeswoman Sandra Calderon said most store managers had received the training, but couldn't say how many had obtained the licenses, or how many replacement drivers had been hired. Ralphs and Albertsons declined to comment.

After it was parked, Mattoch's truck was loaded with pumpkins that were not selling at the La Verne store. She then pulled the truck out to the street, where the Teamster driver took over again.

He drove the cargo to a Vons in Glendora, where the supermarket chain apparently thought the pumpkins would sell better, and relinquished the wheel to another manager, who refused to give his name.

Once again, the strikers ran around from the front of the store to watch the show.

"We've never seen him try this before," produce clerk Robert Griffith said.

The manager-trucker headed confidently down a long alley toward the rear loading dock. A little too confidently, though, as he failed to slow for the speed bump.

Another boom, this time from the sound of airborne wheels crashing back to earth. The manager took one stab at backing up to the dock. And then a second, a third and a fourth. Then the engine stalled. He fired it back up, lined the truck straight and true and pressed the accelerator.

Boom -- the trailer crashed into the loading dock, but there appeared to be no major damage. Despite the crash, store security guard Roger Jurkiewicz seemed impressed with the manager's performance.

"I never thought he could do it," Jurkiewicz said.

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