What I Learned About a Free Economy When I Worked as a Union Employee

One of my first jobs as a teenager was a stock boy at the supermarket grocery chain Kroger. As with any young person growing up, I was happy to have a job where someone paid me for working.

What I did not know at the time was that Kroger had a union. I didn’t think much about it at the time since I didn’t know what a union was. Again, my sights were on that pay check at the end of every two weeks. It didn’t take me long to learn that a union shop was a pain.

First, because of union rules, I could not work more than 16 hours per week. If I worked one hour over 16 hours, Kroger would have to pay me $3.30 an hour instead of $1.65 for the entire 17 hours (this was in 1966–67). Kroger got around the union requirement by hiring a lot of part time employees. They could hire 3 part timers at $1.65 instead of one 40-hour employee at $3.30. Someone might say that this was unfair of Kroger. Nonsense. No one was forced to work at Kroger. Who was the union to tell a company how to run its business? Kroger was taking all the risks.

Second, I could not work hard as a union employee. I was told to pace myself. In addition, I had to take my 15-minute break, and it had to be exactly 15-minutes. If I worked faster than another employee or decided not to take my break or shorten my break, Kroger might be able to get along with fewer employees and save money and then pass those saving s on to stock holders and also lower prices for all consumers.

Third, because of these and other restrictions, it was hard for an employee to stand out. How does a manager know who to promote if everybody is working at a steady level?

In 1973, I moved to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, from Pittsburgh. The job market in the Steel City was dismal. With $600 in my pocket, no car, and not knowing anybody, I ventured out to find a job. The first place I stopped was a grocery store. There was a Help Wanted sign in the window. The manager told me that they were only looking for part-time help. He then asked me if I had any experience. I told him that I had. He hired me on the spot. There was no union!

I could work as long and hard as I wanted. Some weeks I worked 70 hours. The money came rolling in. When it came time to open up another store across town, I was asked if I wanted the job as Assistant Manager.

While I did not take the job (I was planning to enroll in graduate school), I learned a great deal about economics without ever having taking a course in economics. Unions are about compulsion. The market is about freedom.