TAMPA, Fla. - It’s not a union, but some Wal-Mart workers say it might be the next best thing. Searching for a voice in their work lives, employees of some central Florida Wal-Mart stores have formed a workers group to collectively air complaints about what they claim is shoddy treatment by the retail giant.
About 250 employees and former employees from 40 central Florida stores have joined the fledgling Wal-Mart Workers Association, spurred by what they say is a reduction of hours and schedule changes recently that may jeopardize health care benefits for some.
Organizers say the word-ofmouth campaign is attracting 15 to 20 new members every week.
The members say they hope their efforts will persuade the company to listen to its people and make some changes.
‘‘Management seems like they don’t really respect the associates,’’ said Carl Jones, acting chairman of the new group, who makes $9.40 an hour as the lead cart-pusher at a store outside Orlando.
‘‘We don’t have a voice. We don’t have any rights at all.’’
The company, however, says most of its associates are happy, and characterized the effort in Florida as another attempt by the unions to get their hands in the pockets of some of its 1.3 million workers in the United States.
‘‘It’s within (employees’) legal rights to do that, but this group is a wolf in sheep’s clothing,’’ Wal-Mart spokeswoman Christi Gallagher said. ‘‘This is a labor organization attempting to masquerade as something else.’’
The world’s largest and most profitable retailer has heard the employees’ complaints before. Stores around the United States have been accused of everything from paying lousy wages and locking workers in overnight to discriminating against women, while foiling attempts by labor groups such as the United Food and Commercial Workers Union to organize workers.
The food and commercial workers union is among the sponsors of the new workers association, along with the Service Employees International Union, and Acorn, an advocacy group for the poor. Central Florida was chosen for the launch because of Wal-Mart’s aggressive expansion here.
Nine Wal-Mart Supercenters have opened in Florida so far this year to go along with a dozen new stores last year, according to the company. The state has 170 Supercenters and discount stores, 39 Sam’s Club stores, eight neighborhood markets and six distribution center. More than 92,000 people work in the company’s Florida facilities.
‘‘Florida is like Wal-Mart central,’’ said Rick Smith, state director of the Wal-Mart Alliance for Reform Now (WARN), a coalition of labor, anti-poverty and environmental groups trying to change the way Wal-Mart does business. Smith is spearheading the wo rkers association project, which is also being launched soon in the Dallas area with hopes of expanding it to other cities.
‘‘It was carefully formulated,’’ he said. ‘‘This is not the traditional unit we have now in terms of collective bargaining or having an election, this is about what sort of problems Wal-Mart employees are having at work and what can they do to make their lives better at work.’’
The group has already helped some of the employees who’ve had their hours cut apply for partial unemployment benefits, Smith said.
Claire Middleton, 70, said she worked a full-time day job for four years taking in returns at a Wal-Mart Supercenter in Pinellas Park near St. Petersburg. The store changed her schedule in July, telling her she would have to be available from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. seven days a week if she wanted to keep getting shifts.
Her bad eyes make it difficult to drive after dark and she’s afraid of losing her health care benefits if she doesn’t work enough hours. She makes $8.56 an hour.
Rveva Barrett, 61, was working as the community involvement coordinator at the same store, even appearing in a national Wal-Mart commercial last year with community leaders. Her job was eliminated recently and she was told she could take another position with a $200 a month pay cut or leave.
Both women have joined the workers association, paying the $5-a-month dues.
‘‘This is a really bad thing that’s happening to all the people at Wal-Mart,’’ Barrett said. ‘‘Unless we do something about it now, it’s going to get worse.’’
Gallagher, the Wal-Mart spokeswoman, said the incidents are isolated. She said the company has an ‘‘opendoor policy’’ and urges associates to talk over any problems with managers. That works for most, she said, noting that associates themselves have shunned opportunities to unionize.
‘‘We regularly receive thousands of applications for 400 jobs when we open new stores,’’ she said. ‘‘I think that certainly would be an example that we are seen as a benefit to a lot of our associates.’’