Militant Journalism

Pensacola service workers walk out over unsafe working conditions

On July 31, service industry workers staged a walkout at The Leisure Club cafe in Pensacola over intolerable working conditions.

After enduring unsafe conditions all summer — including a lack of ventilation, tripping hazards, and little to no air conditioning — five workers took matters into their own hands and walked out during Sunday brunch, putting their health ahead of their owner’s profits.

Unsafe working conditions

TLC is one of many restaurants which are located in buildings improperly outfitted to house a restaurant. The open kitchen contains a flat-top grill, but lacks the necessary hood vents to keep the air clear.

“The grease and irritants in the air would hurt my eyes and I couldn’t wear contacts in The Leisure Club,” said Morgan Churchill, one of the five workers involved in the walkout. Additionally, uncovered wires and slick floors created tripping and slipping hazards for employees.

Most egregiously, the air conditioner for the building has been functioning poorly for years. On most days this summer, the thermostat in the dining room would read between 84 and 88 degrees Fahrenheit. 

Workers and customers alike were forced to endure the miserable temperatures, while conditions worsened. The out-of-date AC system finally broke completely on July 27.

Owner Matthew Barnhill chose to stay open and force his employees to continue to work in the sweltering heat indefinitely with only the vague assurance that he would eventually get around to fixing the AC. Animosity from the employees, combined with frustration from the uncomfortable customers who were leaving smaller and smaller tips, was bound to come to a head.

Tension reaches a tipping point

Ryan Holtzen, another former TLC employee involved in the walkout, explains why workers were motivated to fight back: “Working under these conditions without ownership there to hear us out, [animosity] kept brewing and getting stronger … and I always want to take the side of my coworkers.” 

By July 30, TLC workers had had enough. Morgan explained how the walkout developed: “[the workers] gathered and decided if the situation is any worse tomorrow [on 7/21] we’re stopping at 11 a.m., before the rush, before too many customers would be disappointed. One of the five workers put a note on the door announcing that The Leisure Club would close at 11, but the manager took it off. A little bit after 11 we all walked out.”

Community rallies behind the workers

The local community response has been overwhelmingly positive. The Pensacola chapter of Food Not Bombs, a network of food-sharing collectives, first broke the news of the walkout on social media. Dozens of industry workers throughout the region shared the post, adding words of support and sharing their own stories of unsafe or abusive workplace conditions.

The Leisure Club responded with their own Instagram post, insisting that there was “slanderous misinformation propagated online” and that the absent owner was “personally working multiple 18-hour days” trying to fix the AC. Those lies were vehemently debunked by firsthand accounts of TLC workers in the 209 comments on the Instagram post. Ultimately, the walkout and subsequent attention finally forced TLC owner Matthew Barnhill to take concrete action to get the AC repaired.

Pensacola action reflects a national trend

The service industry composes a large and important portion of Pensacola’s economy. Because Florida is a ‘right to work’ state, collective action such as strikes, walkouts and union activity here is very low overall.

Ryan explained the significance of the walkout: “A very common thing in food service is being treated like you’re disposable … If there is a lesson that can be learned from this, it’s that replacing one person is easy — replacing five people is more difficult.”

The employees who walked out are seeking employment elsewhere. However, they hope that other workers are inspired by their actions. Showing your employer who holds the true power is always worth it. “Your work is the only leverage you have, might as well wield it,” Ryan insists.

This show of organized workplace action in a major industry in a city like Pensacola is evidence that workers all around the country are waking up to the power of collective action.

Ryan added, “I don’t want to attack anybody, not even Matthew Barnhill. I just want to let the world know and let Pensacola know that this is where things are heading. People will walk out when working conditions are unacceptable. It’s not personal, but things should be different and they will be.”

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