Leveraged Lives Continued from cover LATE IN THE afternoon they began to gather, like mourners at their own wake. By early in the evening, as the sun faded behind the squat cement building in an L-shaped shopping center in northeast Dallas, hundreds of them had arrived: Safeway employees who had just punched out for the last time. They had come here to the Junkyard, a private club just off Northwest Highway at Jupiter Road, and nearly within sight of Safeway’s vast distribution center and warehouse, which alone provided 700 jobs. For more than a decade the Junkyard had served up food and drink to a clientele almost exclusively comprised of Safeway employees. They’d come in for lunch, or after work for a drink and a game of pool, or for one of the regular weekend dances with the ever-changing house band. Kay Seabolt, who worked in the company’s human resources department, said she stopped by the club every Friday evening after work for “six or seven years running.” She met her husband, a fellow Safeway employee, there, but they married in a church. Even before entering the club, visitors could see evidence of a party already in progress: Truck drivers and office workers and meatcutters and produce clerks had spilled out the door, talking, drinks in hand. Inside, Safeway people, some still in uniform, were dancing to the sounds of a country band. Others were crowded around cocktail tables in the hollowed-out vintage yellow school bus, emblazoned with “Oklahoma City Public Schools,” or crammed into one of the burgundy leather booths. Above them, on a wall along with other relics oil company emblems, two complete sets of license plates from every state was an ancient Safeway sign, the familiar red S logotype encircled in black, that someone long ago had appropriated for the club. After all, 75 percent of the club’s members \(a membership card cost five Bill Adler is a freelance writer living in Austin. This story was funded by a grant from the New York-based Dick Goldensohn Fund. The writer wishes to express his gratitude to the Safeway Workers’ Assistance Program of Dallas for help in gathering material for the story. They had worked for Safeway, that is, until today, April 24, 1987 Black Friday, they called it. Tonight, though, they would celebrate the good times. Tomorrow, as they stood in line to fill out forms for unemployment benefits, they would begin to pick up the pieces. It would be the first time the local office of the Texas Employment Commission opened on a Saturday. James L. White nodded, smiling softly toward the newly arrived people he recognized, other truck drivers mostly. He chuckled at the beige and red T-shirts some wore, with the Safeway emblem and the words, “Going, going . .. gone.” As always, he was well-groomed, his salt-andpepper hair folded back neatly in a small pompadour, his shoes lustrous. Although invariably polite, he was not much for socializing, preferring instead quiet nights at home with his wife Helen. But this night was different. It would be the last time he would see many of his fellow drivers, some of whom he had known for the entire 29 years he had hauled groceries for Safeway. Like the others, he had come to say goodbye. He had completed his last run yesterday, to the East Texas oil town of Longview, where he had been dispatched to pick up salvage from the store. He had returned to the truck depot late last night, too late to pick up his last paycheck. So this afternoon, he had come back once more. On this Friday morning there were no more groceries to be delivered, but the company had called in 14 drivers to pick up the remaining salvage from the stores. One of the drivers, Johnny Griffin, made his final run to Sulphur Springs, Greenville, and Rockwall, small towns northeast of Dallas. Early in the afternoon, just as he pulled his rig onto the exit ramp off Interstate 30 in Rockwall, the truck sputtered to a halt. On the last leg, of the last trip he would ever make for Safeway, he had run out of gas. It was the first time in 35 years of driving for Safeway that this had happened. As he radioed the dispatcher for help, he tried to conceal how upset he was at the company for foolishly trying to pinch pennies by not buying enough fuel for his last trip. But as he sat there at the side of the road, he was more concerned that the other drivers would have come and gone by the time he made it back to the depot. He finally made it back at about six o’clock, several hours after the others had disengaged their tractors from their trailers for the last time. But James White, who came in this afternoon to pick up his final paycheck, was still there, along with each of the others who drove that day. “Every damn one of ’em was waiting for me,” Griffin recalled, “tears in their eyes, hugging each other. If we had been women, we’d have probably been kissing too.” Safeway people, as they referred to each other, were a close-knit group, borne of the fact that many were long-standing employees. Of the 8,814 Dallas division workers who lost their jobs all but the most senior management of the division were laid off the average length of employment was 17 years. They had come to work for Safeway and stayed because of the good wages and benefits their unions had negotiated, and because the job seemed a secure one a job they could raise a family on, borrow money against, count on for the future. Many of their friends and relatives had chosen instead to ride the economic roller coaster of the oil boom and bust in North Texas; many of them, by the mid1980s, had lost nearly everything. But Safeway employees knew their company, the world’s largest supermarket chain, was here to stay. Even the in-house literature trumpeted it: “Safeway Offers Security.” It is no wonder, then, that many Safeway people speak of the closing as a catastrophic event “like a death in the family,” which, in an important sense, it actually is. It is the death of trust, the death of security, the death of an understanding of what a relationship between employee and employer is all about. Eighty-six percent of Safeway’s Dallas division employees belonged to one of three union locals: United Food and Commercial Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 745, or UFCW Local 540 \(whose forerunner was the Amalgamated Meat Cutters; the two also belonged to the Safeway Employees Association, for which the company deducted 25 cents from each paycheck. The association sponsored a well-attended annual picnic and other social events from time to time. It also organized volunteers for local charities, such as the North Texas Food Bank. 6 DECEMBER 23, 1988
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