Publix Where working can be lethal

Five workers have died in Publix's Deerfield Beach warehouse in the past eight years. Has the workplace gotten safer? Apparently not.

These employees have been working with Steve Marrs of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union to win enough rank-and-file support to get a vote on unionizing. But Publix, Florida's largest employer, has made it clear it wants to keep the union out. "We've seen a decline in union activity, probably because of strong support from our associates [the term Publix uses to describe its employees]," insists Bush, the Publix spokesperson.

The seven employees interviewed by New Times, all of whom are involved in an effort to unionize the facility, fear that Publix will fire them if it knows that they spoke to a reporter or are union activists. Their fears seem justified.

"If they find out that you signed a [union] card, they drum up something to where they can get rid of you," says Flo Toalston, a 15-year Publix veteran who was fired last July at age 59, leaving her and her husband, Bob, without health insurance. She has an unfair labor practices complaint pending before the National Labor Relations Board, alleging that Publix terminated her because of her union activities. Her husband Bob and another Publix employee, Mario Eaton, were fired in 1997. They filed similar NLRB complaints, and the federal agency approved a settlement in 1998 under which Publix paid the two men back wages but did not admit any wrongdoing. At least four other Publix employees filed NLRB complaints against Publix in 1998 and 1999 claiming that the company fired or punished them for union organizing. Those cases are pending.

Leonard Pressley, Gallart's coworker, says he was surprised that Publix didn't take special safety measures after Gallart's fatal tugger accident
Sherri Cohen
Leonard Pressley, Gallart's coworker, says he was surprised that Publix didn't take special safety measures after Gallart's fatal tugger accident

One likely reason that the 50-year-old grocery company opposes having its workers join the UFCW is because the union helped instigate several major race and sex discrimination cases against Publix. Last year a federal judge gave the go-ahead to a class-action race-bias suit, which charges that Publix discriminates against black employees and applicants in hiring, promotion, and termination. The nation's seventh-largest grocery chain also faces a separate sex-bias suit, involving charges that the company discriminated against women in warehouse and industrial jobs. These suits follow an $81.5 million sex-discrimination settlement in 1997, as well as a $3 million race-discrimination settlement that same year.

Marrs says Publix workers are receptive to his union pitch but are frightened. "What the company does is tell workers, 'If you get a union in here, we may have to close the warehouse or lay people off.' They mess with people's heads. This is a company that knows it's cheaper to break the law than to obey it."

Louis Gallart didn't know about any of this when his friend told him that the Publix warehouse was accepting job applications. He probably never thought about the sorry state of labor-management relations. His favorite pastimes were playing video games and tinkering with his souped-up 1970 Plymouth Barracuda. But as a young married man who wanted to have children, he was starting to think about the future. He realized he needed something better than his current gig -- an off-the-books job selling children's clothes at his father's booth at the Festival Flea Market Mall in Pompano Beach.

So he applied at Publix and in April 1998 got hired as a temporary employee. In July of that year, he was thrilled when Publix offered him a job on a permanent basis, with health benefits. Best of all, Publix gave employees stock options. He bragged to his father that if he worked at Publix for 20 years, he could accumulate a sizable nest egg.

Meanwhile Gallart was working evenings at the Quadrangle health club in Coral Springs. He had just earned his personal trainer's license and was starting to develop a clientele, according to his father, Fred. Building a successful business as a personal trainer was his dream.

Between quick mouthfuls of meat loaf at his Margate condo, Fred Gallart recalls that terrible September day 16 months ago when he received an urgent call from Publix. Gallart says that, when he arrived at the hospital, he immediately knew things were bad. Before saying a word, a female staffer handed him a glass of water and steered him into a private room, where he was informed that his son had expired two hours earlier.

Stunned and furious, he waited several days until Hurricane Georges passed, then drove to the warehouse and demanded to see the spot where his son had died. A foreman took him to a private room and tried to quiet him down. "I kept saying, 'There's something wrong here.' But they yessed the shit out of me and got rid of me," he says bitterly. "I don't know what I hoped to accomplish. But when you're in anger, you don't know what you're going to do."

At the funeral he received another shock. His daughter-in-law, Katy, told him that she and Louis had been planning to get divorced. Soon after the funeral, she collected a $100,000 death benefit from Publix's workers' compensation carrier and promptly moved to Georgia. On the wall across from his dining room table, Gallart points to a photo of his son. "I cut Katy out of that picture," he explains. "I don't talk to her no more."

The tears still come often for Gallart -- on weekends watching football without his son or just going to his flea market booth, where he last saw Louis, three days before his death. He berates himself when he remembers his son's complaints about the job and about how badly maintained the equipment was. "He told me it was hard work," he says. "If I only knew how hard and how dangerous it was, I would never have allowed him to work there."

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