Stories from the Archives of UFCW 648

UFCW Local 648 was established May 20, 1907, (known at the time as “Retail Clerks International Protective Association”).

HISTORY 3The following is an excerpt from ‘UNION PROFILE, The fifty years of Grocery Clerks Union, Local 648’ by David F. Selvin. (Copyright 1960, By David F. Selvin and Grocery Clerks Union, Local 648):

“At the time, San Francisco’s dinner tables were served from a multitude of relatively small neighborhood stores, along with a few, more imposing downtown emporiums. Customers did not regularly venture into these shops, but when they did, they made their way past a sidewalk display, usually covered by a stretch of cheesecloth or a screen of flies. Inside, they were confronted by a massive array of barrels, sacks and boxes of food in the bulk. Orders were packaged by the clerk, who also roasted and ground the coffee, dipped the prunes in syrup, filled demi-johns with vinegar, olive oil, wine or whiskey, according to the customer’s taste.

Most customers, however, only occasionally saw the inside of a store. A major part of the clerk’s duties was driving a horse Screen Shot 2014-03-13 at 10.08.51 AMand wagon on a daily round of housewives, boarding house-keepers, restaurant owners. He took their orders, filled them on his return to the shop and delivered them as well. In addition, the clerk cared for the horse, swept the floor (of the stable as well as the store), moved the sidewalk display in and out, tended the shop while the owner was out, ran errands, arranged the barrels and sacks and boxes and sometimes kept the books. Sometimes, too, the clerk was required to live on or near the premises so he could be routed out whenever he was wanted – often by any customer who found the already long store hours inconvenient.

To accomplish these seemingly endless duties, the clerk turned to as early as 5 or 6 a.m. and continued on the job as late as 10 p.m., later on Saturdays. One former union official remembered that he worked regularly from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. on weekdays, to midnight on Saturdays. A more usual working day, however, was likely to be from 7 a.m. with the closing hour officially set at 7 p.m. (except on Saturdays when an additional several hours were required). Looking back on those years, Warren G. Desepte, a major figure in Local 648’s history, wrote (in the union’s “Grand Ball” program of 1912):

The history of the industrial condition of the grocery clerk is but a repetition of the old, old story of long hours at small wages. When a worker must be at work as early as 5 and 5:30 o’clock in the morning and continue to work as late as 8 or 9 o’clock in the evening, with an extra hour or two on Saturday and a half-day on Sunday, and in some instances be on the job a couple hours more on Sunday evenings, at a pittance that will but keep body and soul together, is a fact to be deplored, yet, nevertheless, is true.

The “pittance” for a grocery clerk in 1907 was likely to have been approximately $12 to $15 a week or perhaps $60 to $65 a month. A bakery wagon driver was paid $21 a week under his union contract, a milk wagon driver $75 a month. A carpenter’s scale called for $27.50 a week, the printer’s, $24. But, despite his own deplorable wage and despite the lag behind other workers, the grocery clerk was moved to organize more by his workweek of some eighty hours than by his low pay. In that respect he was following what had become even then an accepted tradition among retail clerk’s unions.”