Inside the Wieboldt’s distribution center was as close to hell as I ever care to get.
William A. Wieboldt owned and operated a general retail store in Chicago in the late 1880s. By the time I took my job during the summer of 1969, between my junior and senior years of high school, the German immigrant who survived the Great Fire was long dead but there were 15 stores in the Chicago area still bearing his name. Wieboldt’s slogan was “Where You Buy With Confidence!” In a way it was a precursor to Walmart, where you buy at your own peril.
The building was gigantic; dimly lit, noisy, poorly ventilated and churned with activity. A small army of worker ants, of which I was just one insect, waited to load or unload the hot-as-an-oven trucks. We filed into the truck; grabbed a box, humped it out, deposited it onto a conveyor belt that whisked it away into the bowels of the building and then got back in line.
During loading, the process was reversed but with more urgency. A siren would sound and a light flash, to announce the delivery of a shipment by the same conveyor system, now pushing boxes to us rather than taking away. Workers scrambled to unload and stack the regurgitated goods lest a backup occurred, bringing the wrath of supervisors who paced up and down with clipboards and scowls. Adding an extra element of danger, forklifts zipped up and down the dock– pallets stacked high with large or special orders.
Outside, semi-trailers baked in a near-endless line in the summer sun for a turn at one of the 30-odd loading docks to drop off items from distant manufacturers or to pick up shipments to restock the inventories of the satellite stores.
Wage was minimum and perks non-existent. You punched in at 8 a.m. or your pay was docked. You were allowed two 10-minute breaks– take 11 and your pay was docked. Get caught slacking and... Bathroom breaks were not allowed– that’s what the breaks were for. Get hurt and you were fired.
Worker turnover was high and more help was in constant demand. The company was so desperate for more worker ants, they sent a bus every morning into the skid row area of the city and lured day workers from the collection of bums and winos casting about. Hung over and unwashed, these workers typically roamed the dock like extras from a zombie movie.
Needless to say the pointer on the morale meter, a gauge of how strongly workers felt obligated to do their best for the company, was permanently pinned on the negative extreme.
Creative ways were found to slack off. My favorite was the building of a false wall in a truck. Ten workers would enter the truck but only eight came out, the missing workers sitting joking and smoking in the secret chamber. You had to be careful, however, stay too long and the other workers might be forced to seal you in and ship you to who knows where.
Sabotage was also common. Boxes marked with this end up where stacked with that end down. Boxes marked fragile were accidentally dropped over and over. Once a disgruntled forklift operator winked at me and said, “watch this,” before ramming the metal forks of his vehicle through a pallet containing boxes of gallon cans of paint. “Oops,” he said as the blood of Sherman Williams oozed onto the floor.
Thievery was also rampant, despite extensive efforts to thwart it. Cameras swept every area, and workers were routinely patted down as they left the building. Nevertheless one enterprising worker ant I knew beat the system by leaving the building every day throughout the hot summer with the most expensive winter jacket he could find that day. He’d show up in a t-shirt and leave in a leather bomber jacket. He never got caught. I suspect because the guy doing the patting down was as disgruntled as everyone else.
The Wielboldt’s empire went bankrupt in the 1980s, as national chain stores like Kmart rose to prominence. I’ve always wondered, could Wieboldt’s have survived if its business model included paying a fair wage and treating employees with respect?
I’ve always been a dreamer.