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Grocery Job Is Hard to Replace

A temporary worker earned more than he ever had before. A picket suffered a blow to his self-esteem.

March 10, 2004|Ronald D. White | Times Staff Writer

The union member on the picket line and the replacement worker who took his job kept their eyes on each other during the 20-week strike and lockout.

As long as Tom Wilson could peer through the plate-glass windows and spot Demond Camper uncrating tomatoes or spraying lettuce in the sparsely supplied, infrequently shopped corner of Vons, he knew the supermarket chains were suffering and the union had a fighting chance to protect his wages and benefits.

As long as Camper saw that Wilson was outside in the parking lot, carrying his picket sign, he knew that he had at least one more day on a job that paid him more than he had earned in his life: $12 an hour, so much that he could buy his kids Christmas gifts.

"It's hard to say what I would have been doing without this job," said Camper, 27. "Probably temporary work at minimum wage. They treated me good here."

He pulled his last shift at the Vons at Lincoln Boulevard and Broadway in Santa Monica last Thursday, the day before Wilson, 45, walked back into the store for the first time in more than four months.

The strike and lockout that ended Feb. 29 put 59,000 people out of work when the union struck Vons and Pavilions stores Oct. 11 and Albertsons and Ralphs locked out their union members the next day. But the dispute between the stores and the United Food and Commercial Workers gave thousands new jobs.

Camper got his job days after the strike began. It wasn't long before he noticed how often one of the men on the picket line strolled past the front windows to look inside.

That was Wilson. The son of schoolteachers, both with diplomas from UCLA, he graduated from Granada Hills High School but didn't finish college. He might have become a landscaper, if the classes hadn't been filled, or a welder, if he hadn't melted a new pair of glasses on his first day trying that line of work. He was a small-engine mechanic for a while, but it wasn't until he became a clerk at Vons in 1985 that he settled on a career.

At first, he didn't manage his money very well -- he said he was at one point a step away from living in his car -- but then made a pact with his mother. They opened a joint savings account and every payday, he deposited $300. By the time he went out on strike, he had more than $30,000 saved up.

As for Camper, he had next to nothing in the bank when he filled out his application at Vons.

Raised in Los Angeles by his grandparents, Camper barely knew his father; his mother was slain when he was 8. After graduating from Washington High School, he drifted through an assortment of low-wage jobs. There was a misdemeanor conviction in 1999 for carrying a concealed weapon and another string of jobs, at a gas station, in a parking lot, as a driver for an agency that provided transportation for the elderly.

In 2003, he was convicted of a felony: falsifying an application for a job as a baggage agent at Los Angeles International Airport; he had answered "no" to the question of whether he had ever been convicted of a serious crime.

On probation, the father of four young children had, when the strike began, been unemployed for nine months, maintaining the hope of a hip-hop career as a rapper called ES MAC'.

Chrysalis, a nonprofit organization that lines up jobs for the poor and the homeless, told him about openings at Vons. "I needed the money and they needed the people," Camper said, noting that the store didn't seem to care about his criminal record.

Most of the pickets in the parking lot gave him a wide berth -- he's a solid 6 feet, 2 inches tall and about 190 pounds -- but a few threw verbal attacks. "A couple came at me and said I was taking food out of their children's mouths. I told them I was rooting for them, but this was a chance for me to get some experience under my belt."

Inside, one by one, many of the other temporary workers found the jobs too physically demanding or the long hours unmanageable. Often without notice, they didn't come back.

Camper stuck it out, showing up on time to do warehouse work, never missing a day. When the replacement produce worker got fed up with all of the heavy lifting and walked out, Camper stepped in. For him, carting 60-pound bags of fruits and vegetables was no big deal.

Outside, pickets were dropping out too. Some crossed the line and went back to work. Others, their bills mounting, laid down their signs and took other jobs.

What Wilson found tough were the taunts from passersby who shouted out that the pickets ought to try working for a living and paying for their healthcare coverage like everyone else.

Moreover, the reserved, bespectacled Wilson discovered just how important his job at Vons was to his self-esteem. With his blue apron on, Wilson was confident, assertive, eager to help any customer.

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