Workers extract payback from bankrupted bosses

United 4 Respect supporter at rally on Wall St. NYC

BRUCE MILLER WANTS A DOUBLE PAYBACK. He is looking to get cash for himself along with the satisfaction of making Sears eat it. Bruce is part of Rise Up Retail, a militant workers’ action group launched just last year by the workers’ rights organization United for Respect.

Bruce worked at a Sears in Tom’s River, New Jersey for 36 years. He learned that  Sears was bankrupt and that he was out of work when he read it on his phone.

“I was shocked,” he said. “It’s an outrage that a hedge-fund billionaire could get away with stripping Sears for parts and treating my job like crap.”

Sears closed his store and 141 others in April 2018. Bruce got eight weeks of severance pay. Two weeks after it ran out, he lost his house. His health insurance ended around the same time, and he’s still uninsured. He is now 56. He hasn’t been able to find a new full-time job, instead doing “little odd jobs here and there.”

Stiffed workers form Rise Up Retail

About two months ago, he joined Rise Up Retail. The campaign aims to secure better benefits and more economic stability for retail employees. It began by organizing Toys “R” Us workers, who were laid off without severance pay.

Former Toys “R” Us workers demanded a $75 million hardship fund to help compensate for getting stiffed on their severance. Rise Up Retail helped them get $20 million.

Bruce knows he may not get any more money from Sears. He hopes support for Rise Up Retail will make things better for workers blindsided in future bankruptcies.

Gabe Maguire started working at a Kmart seven years ago. Then, two days after last Christmas, his job was gone. Kmart was bankrupt.

Gabe was sad and angry. He was going to miss spending days with his “working family” and angry at the callous treatment from Kmart. Then he found Rise Up Retail. He had stumbled across internet videos of Toys “R” Us workers sharing their stories and demanding hardship pay.

Gabe says organizing with Rise Up Retail is “very empowering.” Toys “R” Us workers are “guiding us and leading the way and showing how it’s done. It was really inspiring to see the people who got a little bit of justice out of their actions supporting us.”

Gabe says he will stay involved, “until we see justice for our co-workers, for Sears and Kmart employees, and then in the future to improve conditions for fellow retail employees.” That solidarity is one of Rise Up Retail’s key assets as it seeks to organize workers.

Solidarity and mutual aid key

Workers caught in bankruptcies at Charlotte Russe, Gymboree, Nine West, and Payless ShoeSource have joined Rise Up Retail’s online communities.

This “broader movement,” may even start to examine private equity’s signature practice of the leveraged buyout says Carrie Gleason, the policy director of United for Respect. “The leveraged buyout is a fundamentally flawed business model that isn’t really set up to support a thriving economy or create good jobs,”

“The real owners don’t really care if the business does well or not.”

“What’s really amazing to see [is] the mentoring and the mutual support [among] Toys ‘R’ Us and Sears workers,” said Lily Wang, the Wall Street campaign manager at United for Respect.

“Toys ‘R’ Us workers are saying: ‘We know what it’s like to not only lose your job, your benefits, and this community you’ve been part of…. We also know what it’s like to fight back and win, and this is how we’re going to do it.’”

When former Toys “R” Us employee Giovanna del Rosa heard about what was happening at Sears and Kmart, she knew she had to get involved.

“I was very motivated to be there for them, because Rise Up Retail was there for me when I had no idea what was going to happen with my life,” she said.

Giovanna started at Toys “R” Us three weeks after her 18th birthday and stayed for 20 years. Toys “R” Us announced the closing of all their locations in March 2018.The news was devastating.

“It was a mourning process,” says Giovanna. She had frequent panic attacks, many at work. “For a lot of people, it’s just another store that closed, but there’s so many of us that that was our life.”

Then, two weeks before filing for bankruptcy the company announced the severance plan was being eliminated. “I was like, ‘Twenty years of my life is going to be worth nothing.’ These companies never thought twice about taking my job and my livelihood and my medical insurance.”

Agitating for action

Giovanna says working with Rise Up Retail “started my healing process.” Her first major action was speaking at a board meeting of a pension fund to ask the fund to stop investing in private-equity firms that strip assets from companies and cost so many workers their jobs.

Sears and Toys “R” Us workers now want more than severance pay or hardship funds for themselves. “Across companies, we’ve heard consistently people expressing a frustration with the current economy, where they feel like they’re the casualties of Wall Street firms and their profit-making schemes,” Wang said.

Sears and Kmart workers are calling for representation on the new company’s board, which will restructure with 223 Sears locations and 202 Kmart stores. Workers also want a seat at the creditors’ table when companies go into bankruptcy.

United for Respect is supporting a US senate bill that would give employees of public companies the right to directly elect one-third of the board of directors. Three of the contenders to become the Democratic Party 2020 presidential candidate—Senators Kirsten Gillibrand, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren—are now co-sponsors.

United for Respect is also looking at whether state unemployment systems can be better funded to ensure more adequate payments for retail employees who lose their jobs. And it supports recent efforts to curb stock buybacks, a means by which money that could be invested in companies and their employees is used to enrich shareholders instead.

A little better in Canada

The laws covering severance for workers in Canada vary by province. However the federal Wage Earner Protection Program (WEPP) offers some relief to all workers paying for coverage under the Employment Insurance program.
The WEPP provides for the payment of outstanding eligible wages to individuals whose employer is bankrupt or subject to a receivership within the meaning of the Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act.

The payment covers eligible wages:

  • an amount up to four times the maximum weekly insurable earnings under the Employment Insurance Act ($3,976.92 for 2018), for bankruptcies or receiverships prior to February 27, 2018
  • an amount up to seven times the maximum weekly insurable earnings under the Employment Insurance Act ($7,148.05 for 2019) for bankruptcies or receiverships on or after February 27, 2018.

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