Publix Fires Five Black Employees Over Local BLM Protests
Publix Super Markets has fired five of its African American employees in response to their participation in Black Lives Matter protests in Winston-Salem at the end of June. The participants claim that they were cleared by managers to join an in-store demonstration, and say they've felt a growing racial intolerance in the workplace over the past several weeks.
Publix associate Bartoli Pierre-Louis held multiple positions there over three-and-a-half years and was steadily promoted to a position of leadership within the store’s Starbucks location. Over that period he says while he experienced some racism from a few white customers, relations between Black and white coworkers were for the most part collegial. Until he feels, they began expressing support for racial justice.
“The minute we started doing that it was like night and day,” says Pierre-Louis. “We started noticing some white associates not even speaking to us. Us being watched on the cameras by managers.”
Pierre-Louis alleges that after reporting troubling incidents to management, no action was taken. Then on June 30th, he was alerted to a protest by his manager moments before it began.
He says, “He pulled me aside and said, ‘Hey, I don’t know if you’re aware but there’s a protest about to take place. We’re going to allow the protesters in. But what I wanted to know is — I’m going around asking everyone — are you going to participate?’ And I said, ‘Yes, yes, I’m definitely going to participate. I just want to make sure my job is not in jeopardy and I won’t be fired behind this.’ He said, ‘No, no, you’re good.' He said you’ll even get paid the rest of your time today if you decide to join in the protest.”
Pierre-Louis says an hour later, roughly 50 protesters began peacefully demonstrating inside the store. They wore Black Lives Matter T-shirts and masks, sat in random locations and chanted against racial injustice. That same day, Pierre-Louis and others say they raised three concerns with management.
“Better communication among management and associates,” he says. “Better pandemic pay. And better representation of public support for the fight against racism — anything like a little sign somewhere in the store just to show their support in the fight against racism.”
He says the response from District Manager Keith Gilbert to their three requests came a few days later. According to Pierre-Louis, he told them none of the suggestions would be taken up.
He was also told that any future protests — like one scheduled for July 4 — would be considered “work stoppage” and cause for termination if it was on the clock. Pierre-Louis did take part off the clock. But then, less than three weeks later, he along with four other Black associates who participated in the demonstrations was fired.
“I feel like the minute we wore those [Black Lives Matter] masks,” says Pierre-Louis. “I instantly had a target on my back.”
The company’s dismissal note reads, “You are being discharged as a result of your conduct on June 30, 2020 and July 4, 2020. You engaged in unacceptable behavior intended to harass and antagonize customers and prevent customers from checking out. For these reasons, you are being discharged.”
District Manager Keith Gilbert declined our interview request for this story. He directed WFDD to the Publix corporate office where Communications Director Maria Brous released an email statement which reads in part: “The company does not discuss associate-related matters with anyone other than the associates themselves.”
Pierre-Louis says he feels the firings send a clear message.
“We don’t support Black Lives Matter,” he says. “Your Black life does not matter. That’s pretty much what they’re saying. Because if your life mattered I would have at least given you a warning first. If your life mattered I would have at the least put a sign up in support of the fight against racism.”
Publix Seafood Specialist Ta-Neisha Davis was among those fired for participating in the protest even though she was off the clock when they occurred. She’s been with the company for several years and says she’s often had to speak up about racial discrimination.
“They preach to you that there’s an open-door policy,” says Davis. “They’ll throw those words out at you to make themselves look good. ‘You can always come. My door is always open for any concerns, comments anytime you need to talk to me, the door is always open.' And that’s fine and dandy, but when we do approach that open door we seek results that we have not gotten from them.”
Davis says following the George Floyd killing, the work atmosphere grew more stressful particularly for Black associates like herself.
“I’ve been a loyal employee to them for four-and-a-half years, but somewhere the dynamic changed to where we became criminal-like and dangerous and needed to be tamed, bringing in police presence,” she says. “That changes your perspective and how you feel going into work.”
Davis has contacted the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and says she plans to take legal action against Publix. When asked what message he wants to send to management, Pierre-Louis who is on dialysis and supports his wife and two children says simply, “I want my job back.”