Employees from Central Florida stores will share grievances about working conditions.
By MARK ALBRIGHT, Times Staff Writer
Published August 30, 2005
A chorus of Wal-Mart critics is opening a second front in its war to blunt the discount giant's plan to deepen its penetration of the Central Florida retail market.
A group of about 100 dissident Wal-Mart employees who work in stores scattered from Melbourne to Crystal River have scheduled a Wednesday news conference in Tampa to air complaints about working conditions at the state's largest private employer.
While the United Food and Commercial Workers union has been trying to organize Wal-Mart workers in the United States and Canada for years, officials say that for this new effort they are offering only advice to what's being called the Wal-Mart Workers Association.
In the formative stages since April, the nascent workers group is the first outward sign that Central Florida Wal-Mart workers are gathering privately to develop a list of common workplace grievances.
"This press conference is going to be their coming out," said Rick Smith, a veteran organizer for the Service Employees International Union who is working on loan for the Wal-Mart Alliance for Reform Now (WARN). That's a coalition of labor, antipoverty and environmental groups steering a campaign nationwide to change the way Wal-Mart does business.
The group targeted the Tampa Bay area because "it is Wal-Mart central" in the chain's plan to switch most of its discount stores to far bigger supercenters that include full grocery stores. Wal-Mart's plan to open 11 more supercenters in the Tampa Bay area within three years, however, has taken it on the chin this year. Fierce neighborhood opposition rose, helping scotch two supercenter sites and tying a third one up in court in the past year while only one new supercenter opened in St. Petersburg.
Another site near Ybor City in Tampa was dropped after the chain was outbid by another suitor for the property.
Labor organizations have donated about eight staffers to work full time on the Central Florida campaign from offices in Orlando and Tampa.
One of the issues is a scheduling program that has riled some Wal-Mart employees in the Tampa Bay area and other parts of the country. They say they are forced to work fewer hours weekly, which makes it difficult to afford premiums on the company's health insurance program.
At the same time, they are pushed to quit if they cannot be flexible enough to work late or weekend shifts.
Wal-Mart officials say they have not changed policies, but they have become more direct in ensuring they can summon enough workers for peak times. Union officials are advising workers, many of them single mothers who cannot arrange day care for odd hours, to file for unemployment benefits if they quit because their work hours are being cut.
"It sounds more like a layoff to me," said Smith.
Meanwhile, WARN is staging a two-day "Site Fighters" conference that begins Thursday at the Continuing Education Center at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg.
Conferees will plot strategy and outline national efforts to put political pressure and create local laws that restrict the way big-box retail chains such as Wal-Mart do business. The coalition rented space from the college for the event, which is open to the public.
"We'll have speakers from around the country holding workshops to compare notes on the grass-roots movement to slow down Wal-Mart," said Paul Blank, director the UCFW's WakeUpWalMart campaign. "We'll also be giving the organized opposition in Central Florida some new tools and tactics."
The foodworkers union is still trying to organize Wal-Mart workers, but sees its stepped up anti-Wal-Mart campaign as a way to make the chain's growth a social and political issue.