Striking Walmart workers protest on Black Friday in Tampa

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Approximately 65 protestors, several of them striking Walmart workers, demonstrated in front of the retail giant’s Tampa location on Dale Mabry Highway on Black Friday, one of the busiest retail shopping days of the year.

They were there to protest for a $15 living wage and the opportunity to work more hours, as well as what they say are unfair and illegal retaliation against some workers for making such claims.

“If we speak up about something that’s not right, they retaliate against us, they bully us, and we need that to stop,” said Nancy Reynolds, a 67-year-old Walmart cashier who works at a store in Merritt Island. Other workers came from Orlando and Winter Springs as well as three employees who work at the Dale Mabry location to demonstrate. Reynolds works between 19-22 hours and currently gets health insurance from Walmart. But she says that come January 1, she’s losing her benefits, as all are Walmart employees who work less than 30 hours a week – all part of the Affordable Care Act kicking in, which allows corporations not to provide such benefits if they work less than 30 hours a week. She’s a diabetic, has arthritis and high press  pressure, and says she’ll need to find a supplement to the Medicare coverage she currently gets.

Union organizers who planned today’s action say the average Walmart employee makes approximately $8.81 an hour and works around 32-34 hours a week. Activists would like to see that raised to $15 an hour, though a drive to raise the minimum wage to a more modest $10.10 went nowhere in the Florida Legislature last year.

Angela Williamson is the Central Florida leader of the Organization United for Respect at Walmart, the group leading over 1,600 similar rallies around the country on Friday. She said that the strike by Walmart workers was about unfair labor practices such as being intimidated. “Being silenced when they speak about needing $15 and full-time (work), when they speak out against their benefits being taken away, some of them are fired, some of them are retaliated against.”

Angelo Escano, who works in the meat dept. at the Dale Mabry location, says he has filed an unfair labor practice charge against Walmart after he said they listed him as a no-call/no-show on his attendance record for participating in a similar strike in front of the store last November. He also calls the company’s absence policy, “ridiculous,” saying that a doctor’s note for being sick is only good for three days – then it must get a FMLA (Family Leave Medical Act) approval. “They don’t approve nothing for employees, but let a manager call in sick, and everything gets approved for them.”

This was the third Black Friday in a row that activists have protested at Walmart stores, and Williamson says the efforts have achieved results. She alludes to Walmart changing to a more transparent scheduling system, so that workers who didn’t have full-time hours now have access to an online system that allows them to see if there are more available hours at a specific store. She also says that the Respect the Bump campaign has also paid off,  with Walmart changing their policies in regards to work requirements for  pregnant women.

And though the drive for a $15 livable wage for Walmart employees hasn’t gained much traction, activists like Awake Pinellas’ Kofi Hunt notes that minimum wage increases did prove popular in a relatively horrible year for progressives earlier this month. “You saw even conservative red states throughout the country approved higher minimum wage referendums,” he said, referring to Arkansas, Nebraska, Alaska and South Dakota voters approving those measures on their respective state  ballots.

But Walmart struck back forcefully when asked to comment.

“Perception is never reality with labor unions,” said Brook Buchanan, a spokesperson for Wallmart. “The crowds are mostly made up of paid union demonstrators and they do not represent our 1.3 million associates who do work for Walmart in the US. This is our busiest time of the year. We’re excited to kickoff the holiday season and are focused on serving our customers. It’s unfortunate that this group attempts to disrupt the holiday spirit to push their agenda. The reality is that Walmart is focused every day on providing our associates with opportunities for job growth.”

A local representative in Tampa also made an associate at the Dale Mabry location available to speak to this reporter.

“We do create full-time positions where you have advancement and you can get paid,” said Neil Chand, 26, who works as a zone merchandise supervisor. “The harder you work, the higher promotion you’ll achieve.”

When asked about the charge that the company retaliates against employees who criticize the company for some of its policies, he said he had never heard or seen an associate be reprimanded or retaliated against for speaking out against the company.

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.