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Toys ‘R’ Us workers won a crucial severance pay victory last year after the company closed its US stores. Private equity firms KKR, Bain, and Vornado had bought up the legendary toy store just a decade before, saddled the company with debt, and left the 33,000 laid-off employees without access to the millions they were owed in severance.
But rather than letting private equity vultures enrich themselves on the backs of employees who’d been with the store for decades, workers fought back, taking creative actions across the country and pushing legislators and pension funds to get on board – and eventually won a $20 million severance fund. Their victory was part of a broader movement – one that’s been fighting for justice for retail workers for years. Under the umbrella of United for Respect, retail workers from corporations like Toys ‘R’ Us, Sears, and Walmart are joining together to demand a just economy.
United for Respect made headlines just last week by filing a resolution at a Walmart shareholders meeting to allow workers on the company’s corporate board. While the resolution didn’t pass, the news – alongside the appearance of Sen. Bernie Sanders, who was invited by Walmart workers – was a welcome addition to the conversation about the role of workers in corporate decision-making.
In addition to the waves made by worker organizing, talk around shifting power on corporate boards is growing as Democratic presidential candidates elaborate on their labor proposals. The Sanders campaign has announced it’s working on a plan to require corporations to give workers a share of corporate board seats, as well as a proposal that would require large businesses to direct a portion of their stocks into a worker-controlled fund. And Senator Elizabeth Warren introduced the Accountable Capitalism Act – which would require companies with more than $1 billion in annual revenue to allow workers to elect at least 40 percent of board members – last year before announcing her presidential run.
Andrea Dehlendorf and Ann Marie Reinhart told Inequality.org more about the importance of workers on corporate boards, the need for fair workweek scheduling, and why Wall Street is a culprit in retail bankruptcies. Andrea serves as Co-Director of United for Respect, and Ann Marie is a United for Respect leader and former Toys ‘R’ Us employee.
How did you get involved with organizing people working in the retail sector?
Andrea: In 2011, I started working with a group of people from Walmart to build a national organization to change Walmart from within. We built a national community where people support each other with the challenges they face in these low wage, unstable jobs and speak out publicly to get Walmart to change their practices. We started winning real change at Walmart as OUR Walmart and are thrilled that people across almost every major retailer are now joining United for Respect.
Ann Marie: In the spring of 2018, Toys ‘R’ Us was going bankrupt. A co-worker told me about an online Facebook group called the Dead Giraffe Society, where people across the country were talking about what was happening with the bankruptcy. At first, everyone was reminiscing about their time working at Toys ‘R’ Us. I connected with people I had worked with years before. One day, someone from United for Respect asked the group if anyone wanted to talk to a reporter from Buzzfeed about what was happening. Some people were scared to talk to reporters because their stores were still open, but my store had closed down a week before. I did an interview, and the next thing I knew I had professional photographers coming to my house to go with the story!
Tell us about the evolution and union of OUR Walmart and Rise Up Retail. What brought your work together?
Andrea: Walmart is the largest corporate employer in the world, with 1.5 million people in the U.S. alone. Our members always believed that by changing how Walmart treats the people whose hard work makes Walmart profitable, we could change conditions for all of the 16 million people in retail. Every time we won change at Walmart, like raising pay to $11 an hour or winning paid family leave, other retailers started to change, too, and our organization began to grow beyond Walmart. When we started talking to the people who were being put out on the street because of the Wall Street-driven bankruptcy of Toys ‘R’ Us, we jumped at the chance to join together to get justice. And now, folks from Sears, Kmart and other retailers are joining as well.
Ann Marie: The process has been amazing! Andrea and I met at our first action in D.C. in May of 2018, where we met Senator Bernie Sanders. There were just six of us — we call ourselves the original six — and we went to do an action at the American Investment Council with supporters, including the team from OUR Walmart. Donna, who worked at a Walmart in New Jersey, walked up to me and said we are from OUR Walmart — we have your back, we are there for you. I’ve seen her at many meetings since then. Now all of us from Toys ‘R’ Us have their backs at Walmart. I am humbled and proud to be a part of building United for Respect.
You have a very active social media presence. How has that affected your organizing?
Ann Marie: Well, I found out about and joined the organization through Facebook. Right now, I am really active on Twitter which reaches so many people. As part of our campaign, we went after the private equity firms Bain and KKR, who are on Twitter. Campaigning on social media was part of how we were able to change the conversation about why Toys ‘R’ Us went bankrupt. At first, all the media said it happened because of competition with Walmart and Amazon. Through social media, we could drive the conversation about the real reason, which is that private equity firms had saddled Toys ‘R’ Us with so much debt that they couldn’t invest to stay profitable.
Andrea: We reach millions of people working in retail through social media. On Facebook, Reddit and other channels, people who work for major corporations in low-wage jobs are sharing their experiences, supporting each other and connecting to campaigns like the ones we run to make real change in jobs, the economy, and our democracy. If you’re one person struggling on your own in a job that doesn’t pay enough with a schedule that makes it impossible to be there for your kids, it can be a very isolating, lonely experience. When you connect with others on social media who are going through the same thing, you realize you’re not alone, that this is happening to so many others, and that, together, you can do something about it.
Companies like Sears and Toys ‘R’ Us have been in the news for offering executives millions of dollars in bonuses while they lay off workers. What would you like to tell the executives who’ve taken in that money?
Ann Marie: They didn’t earn that money. They stole that money from us — the employees who made them that money in the first place. They get bonuses regardless, but when a company is bankrupt they shouldn’t get that. It should have gone to the employees. Most of them took that money and ran. We have to get the laws changed so they can’t do this. We’re working to pass a bankruptcy reform bill in New Jersey and enact new regulations nationally so that this can’t happen again.
Andrea: The work of Ann Marie and others build these companies and make their profits. Yet, under the current rule, high-paid corporate and Wall Street executives walk away with millions while they’re left with nothing. We have to change the rules.
The Sears and Toys ‘R’ Us bankruptcies put a new focus on the role of private equity in the retail crisis. Just how deep is Wall Street’s role in this crisis?
Ann Marie: Wall Street is the core of the crisis happening in retail. A friend of mine tagged me in a post on Twitter that said we need private equity funds because the returns are crucial for firefighter and teacher pensions. I read it and I went at them about that. Hard-working people are not aware that their pensions are being invested with private equity firms and hedge fund groups that are putting other hard-working people out of jobs. My teacher friends are disgusted. They say that we’re all hard-working people, and it makes them sick to know their pensions are funded by people losing their jobs
Toys ‘R’ Us workers have led some creative protests, including setting up a mock graveyard in the lobby of Bain Capital. How have you come up with these protest ideas, and what do you hope to gain by bringing them to the doorstep of private equity firms?
Ann Marie: Collectively, there are so many creative people in our network. As we grew to understand how private equity and how hedge funds work, the picture became much bigger for us. Now, none of us will be satisfied until we can get the laws changed in our country. The most powerful place we can go to confront what is happening is the doorsteps of the people who are responsible.
How would you like to see the Wall Street execs profiting off the retail crisis be held accountable?
Ann Marie: I’d like to see laws change so that they can’t buy our companies the way they bought Toys ‘R’ Us. They shouldn’t be able to buy companies out with debt. Bernie Sanders was the first one to support us, and Elizabeth Warren also stepped up to show her support. I’m hoping someone inside the White House will speak up for us soon, too. These are baby steps. Whether we get our severance or we don’t, this fight is so much bigger than us now. It’s about respect.
United for Respect is also home to the Fair Workweek campaign. What standards should a schedule meet in order to be considered fair?
Ann Marie: It’s not unreasonable to expect to have your work schedule two weeks in advance. It doesn’t cost a company any money to do it — it’s the most reasonable and the fairest thing companies can do for their employees. People wouldn’t have to run around at the last minute to find childcare and to get shifts covered if the companies where they work would just provide schedules sooner. It’s about respect — people who work in retail shouldn’t have to deal with getting their schedules a day or two in advance.
Andrea: Scheduling and hours are the biggest challenges facing people working in retail today. When private equity firms bought Toys ‘R’ Us, they reduced the number of full-time jobs that provided benefits. That is a trend across the retail sector. Walmart, for example, often requires associates to have “open availability,” where people have to open their schedules to be able to work at any time in order to qualify for full-time hours. This means that if you have to pick up your child from school one afternoon a week or go to church on Sunday, you might be disqualified from working full-time. Even those who open their schedules up completely to Walmart still have no guarantee of getting full-time hours. Retail corporations are putting people in impossible positions. A fair workweek that guarantees access to full-time jobs with benefits, a predictable schedule, and no last-minute schedules or changes would be a game-changer for working families.
One of your demands is to have workers on corporate boards. How do you think a worker voice in the corporate decision-making process could change a company?
Ann Marie: None of the people that sit on our corporate boards work in stores. It would be nothing but beneficial to the people who work hourly retail jobs to be able to have someone like us on the corporate board, looking out for our interests and the long-term health of the company. When you work in retail, it’s bad enough that so many customers assume we’re uneducated and treat us like we don’t have many skills. Our corporate executives ought to treat us with respect, but we’re made to feel worthless for fighting for paid family leave and living wages. We’ve earned the right to have a say in how store profits are spent and who gets to make those decisions.
Andrea: The reason retail jobs are economically unstable and keep people in poverty is because of the decisions corporate executives and board members make every day — decisions that favor short-term shareholder returns over long-term stability and investment in the people who are making the corporation profitable in the first place. We have to change how those decisions are made and who makes those decisions. Having representation of the people who do the work at the board level is a necessary part of making that change.
After months of protests, Toys ‘R’ Us workers won $20 million in severance. What do you think other retail workers can learn from their fight, and how do you hope it will shape the organizing you do in the future?
Ann Marie: This started with a simple fight for severance. And through it, now I’ve had the opportunity to sit across from senators to share my story. I used to feel like no one heard or cared about our stories, but now people are paying attention. We were able to put a human face on the 33,000 employees and their families whose jobs were being destroyed by Wall Street. We would have never accomplished any of this without taking action together. We didn’t know we could storm the lobby of a private equity firm and demand better. We didn’t think we had a voice — but United for Respect put wind beneath our wings and showed us that we are stronger together. We wanted the public to know what was going on — no one knew. Now they know and more of us can win like we did.