For 60 years, Toys R Us was a company that offered full-time employment with benefits. It was a place where many made careers, spending decades as salespeople or cashiers who were able to provide for their families and also save money for retirement.
But, in 2005, things changed. Private equity firms Kohlberg Kravis Roberts and Bain Capital and real estate company Vornado Realty Trust bought the company, saddling it with so much debt it started slimming down, eliminating positions and cutting back on benefits. With so much money going toward interest payments, it had little left to invest in the upgrades it needed to keep up with the times. In March 2018, the company announced it would liquidate all of its U.S. stores as part of its bankruptcy process, offering none of the more than 30,000 people losing their jobs severance pay.
It’s rare that laid off employees become more than an obscure number in a headline, but the Toys R Us severance debacle garnered national attention. In a time when workers have little leverage and unionization is at an all time low, it helped bring focus and urgency to a growing movement to protect the retail labor force.
Retail jobs have become a backbone of the American economy. In early 2015, retail salespersons and cashiers were the most common jobs. The so-called retail apocalypse, which last year saw the closure of nearly 7,000 stores, thinned the ranks, but there are still nearly 16 million people who work in the industry.
Still, these jobs are also a bellwether of how precarious work has become. Retail workers’ schedules usually change week to week and they often don’t find them out until a week or less in advance. Some are asked to be ready to work at virtually any moment. Many don’t get enough hours to be full-time employees and therefore don’t get benefits like health insurance. Pay is paltry. In a national survey of 1,000 retail employees, only 8 percent had a full-time job that paid at least $15 an hour and offered them health insurance and some paid time off.
Retail employees are now reeling from the effects of technology — a shift to online shopping driven by Amazon alongside automated checkouts — as well as disruption from Wall Street investors like private equity firms that have left a trail of bankruptcies in their wake. Corporate consolidation has reduced the number of retailers, which has been found to keep pay down across the economy. Retail “really tells a story around what’s happening in America” and “the forces that are transforming people’s lives,” said Andrea Dehlendorf, co-director of OUR, an organization that helped organize the mega retailer’s employees.
So a new campaign, dubbed Rise Up Retail, had launched to fight for decent pay, predictable schedules, and stability for the country’s million-strong retail workforce.
“What Rise Up Retail’s about first and foremost is about good jobs that can support your family in today’s economy,” said Carrie Gleason, policy director of OUR. “Second, it’s about having some kind of voice and taking on these big corporations.”
A front-row seat to retail’s deterioration
Pilar Barragan has spent most of her working life in retail, starting over a decade ago when she got her first job at the age of 16 at a gift shop on a quiet main street in Missouri. “I really enjoyed it,” she recalled. Then the recession hit hard and after seven years of existence, the store disappeared.
In more recent years, the industry that offered her an easy path into work has led her into more unsettling territory. She worked stints at Michael’s and Office Max, but when she saw that Walmart offered higher pay, she decided to take a job there. Her hourly pay may have been higher, but she was thrown into the deep end with little training and an ever-changing schedule.
Then she got a job at JCPenney in late 2016. She was supposed to be trained to eventually become a manager, but her supervisor kept putting the training off. In March she was brought into her supervisor’s office and told that the company was “restructuring” and eliminating her position. The brand would eventually announce that it was closing 138 stores.
Reached for comment, JCPenney would not speak to “individual associate HR activities” but said, “Earlier this year, JCPenney implemented a store staffing model to simplify processes, improve productivity and reduce overhead expenses, impacting approximately 2,200 store positions nationwide. The new structure redistributed tasks and responsibilities more efficiently among store associates to support company growth initiatives, resulting in substantial cost savings while maintaining our commitment to delivering excellent customer service. The vast majority of associates impacted were offered alternate positions within the store.”
For the last few months she’s worked at a Gordmans department store. But she’s already seen around six or seven employees leave in that time. The company never seems to hire anyone to replace them, which means everyone else is picking up the slack. “There’s just no bodies, no workers,” she said. (Gordman’s did not response to requests for comment for this story.)
She’s wary of what the future holds at Gordmans. After the brand was bought by private equity firm Sun Capital Partners in 2008, it filed for bankruptcy in early 2017, selling some of its stores to Stage Stores. She worries that it’s still on shaky financial footing
She has reason to be wary. Her decade in retail encapsulates the changing industry landscape. She’s watched smaller stores disappear as big box companies encroached on more and more territory. She’s watched retailers fail to contend with the shift to selling products online. “Even four years ago, I wouldn’t have thought so many retailers would be closed,” she noted. She’s seen companies decide to hire fewer employees, loading responsibilities onto fewer people, and make their schedules less and less predictable.
“It’s just a really scary time to be working in [retail],” she said.
All of the factors that have made jobs in retail so much more precarious have also pushed Barragan to start organizing her fellow retail workers. She’s now part of a growing movement demanding that employees be treated better.
Moving from Walmart to the rest of the retail sector
The Rise Up Retail campaign is a melding of the Center for Popular Democracy, which is a nonprofit that advocates for a variety of workplace issues, and OUR (Organization United for Respect) Walmart, which is now going by OUR and branching out beyond the original retail behemoth. Most of the work consists of retail workers reaching out to other retail workers to organize and mobilize them, much of it done through social media.
OUR Walmart’s decision to expand came out of its original theory of how to change the retail sector: by changing things within Walmart, industry standards were likely to shift, thanks to how large the company is. (Walmart is the single biggest private sector employer in the country.) It also notched some important victories: after workers started going on strike, it increased starting pay to $10 an hour and expanded paid family leave. “Every win we’ve had at Walmart has rippled across the industry and others have followed suit,” Dehlendorf said. Both Target and the owner of T.J. Maxx and Marshalls raised base pay to $9 an hour shortly after Walmart said it would raise its wages.
It’s also part of a wave of worker-focused organizations that have cropped up outside of the traditional labor movement at a time of declining unionization. “We are not a union, we’re not aiming to unionize,” Dehlendorf said. “We are building new forms of organizations for people to come together and support each other to improve their work lives and work towards industry-wide change.” It joins the ranks of other, similar initiatives in different industries that are similarly pushing for workplaces changes without unions: the National Domestic Workers Alliance that works with nannies and housekeepers, Restaurant Opportunities United that organizes restaurant employees, and the National Day Laborer Organizing Network that reaches out to day laborers.
It also helps that many OUR Walmart members have left the company and gone to work at other retailers, where they can carry on organizing. “We have a network of 150,000 people spread out across the country,” Dehlendorf said. “As people move into other jobs, they’re bringing their experiences [with] our organization with them.”
That was Barragan’s experience. After an OUR Walmart organizer contacted her through one of the employee Facebook groups, she realized “I wasn’t the only one this happened to,” she said. “It wasn’t just my store, it’s the whole company.” But she was also eager to go beyond the retailer’s walls. “I kept being like, ‘Hey, when are we going to…organize other retailers?’” she said. “The same issues are in all retail, they’re all happening beyond Walmart and beyond Target and beyond Gordmans… We need to make change in all of them.”
The campaign is focused on retail in part because they are the canaries in the coalmine of our economy. “People working in the retail sector are on the frontlines of the crisis that working families are facing across the economy,” Gleason said. Retail has long suffered the symptoms of a larger problem now infecting the economy: jobs that offer low pay, unpredictable schedules, and few benefits.
At Walmart, Pilar said she got “nothing” in terms of training, including watching someone use a cash register for five minutes before working it herself. She never knew when she was working — although the company handed out schedules ahead of time, they frequently changed, as late as a few days ahead of a scheduled shift. Hours fluctuated wildly from week to week — some weeks 30 hours, the next week three.
Barragan had been in a car accident that left her with nerve pain and she had to miss some days of work to see a neurologist, who signed paperwork to excuse her. But any time she failed to come to work, either because of a last-minute schedule change or the doctor’s visits, she was given a point, and after four points employees are fired.
Those experiences are now following her to her new job at Gordmans. When she started she and her manager were able to work together on her schedule to accommodate her needs. Now she has to offer completely open availability —meaning she can get scheduled to work at any time. “I never know what I’m working,” she said. She only gets a copy of her own schedule a week in advance. “It’s hard to make appointments, it’s hard to go get groceries,” she noted. She can’t even plan ahead to attend someone’s birthday party because she might not end up with that day off. “I have no control over it.”
The company is now rolling out the same scheduling software that Walmart uses, which has meant it’s cutting hours and disrupting schedules. The new system will mean workers have their hours set by corporate headquarters with little ability to change them.
The Toys R Us bankruptcy jump starts a movement
And then the Toys R Us layoffs happened; more than 30,000 works losing their jobs without severance. OUR members saw what was happening and wanted to do something. Joanna Chambers got her start organizing with OUR Walmart when her own Walmart store closed and she was demoted after starting in a new store. “When I found out Toys R Us stores were closing I felt passionate about that, because I also had worked in a store closing,” she said. “I know what it’s like to turn in the keys for the last time, I know what it’s like to check out the last customers.”
So she and other OUR leaders reached out to Toys R Us workers and offered to help them start petitions, speak to the press, and even lobby members of Congress. Toys R Us proved to be fertile organizing ground, particularly as everyone was on the verge of losing their jobs, and managers got involved alongside lower-level employees. “People were so heartbroken, they overcame their fear and built a channel [for their] anger,” Gleason said.
That collaboration, and the desire of Toys R Us workers to keep fighting, was the fuel that lit the Rise Up Retail fire. The organizations involved didn’t plan to launch it as early as they did, but they sped up the timeline to meet the demand of workers. “The Toys R Us campaign has been a pivotal moment to demonstrate what’s possible when we activate the women working in the service economy,” Gleason said.
Since that campaign launched, Toys R Us employees have secured a vow from the private equity owners to contribute to severance pay for laid off workers and a number of politicians--including Senators Cory Booker, Bernie Sanders, Bob Menendez, and others--have joined them in their call for relief.
The success of the Toys R Us campaign offers organizers optimism that they can wield influence in an industry that faces so many challenges--even in the face of liquidation. Social media and people’s personal networks allowed them to reach a number of employees who were ready to do something very quickly. Workers themselves were eager to fight because they had been promised severance pay, a promise that was then broken. “There was an immediate betrayal that then moved folks into action,” Gleason said. And that action made people pay attention and turned Toys R Us into a “tipping point and a breaking point,” she said.
It also helped that consumers had an emotional connection to a brand like Toys R Us. “We all know these companies,” Gleason said. “We all participate in making these companies grow.” That’s a key point in retail workers’ favor: these are names that the public is familiar with, that may garner attention and empathy.
They hope what happened with Toys R Us sets the tone going forward with other struggling retailers, too. “We’re about to set a precedent [of] what happens with the next wave of job losses,” Gleason said. “We actually have found a pathway to respond.”
Meanwhile, not every corner of retail is in danger of going under. Walmart is the country’s largest private employer; Amazon keeps growing. “These jobs may be changing, but they are continuing,” Dehlendorf said. There is “an urgent need...for working people to have a voice in shaping the changes in the industry.”
The campaign is now casting a far wider net, talking to workers in workplaces as varied as T.J. Maxx and Victoria’s Secret, Home Depot and Lowe’s, Dollar General and Target. “We talk to anyone,” Gleason said.
The day before the July 4th holiday, in fact, Target employees who are organizing with Rise Up Retail went on strike at a store in Maryland. A big issue they’re fighting for is a fair workweek — a lot of employees say that their hours were cut after the company raised its minimum pay. They’re also protesting what Erica Feldenzer, who has taken a leadership role among her coworkers, says is racism and sexual harassment in the workplace. She herself has been sexually harassed by a coworker who still works at her store, she said. “On days that I know that he’s there, I just feel very uncomfortable because I don’t know what he’s going to say to me or try and do something,” she said.
As a result, one of their demands was that the managers they accused of racism and sexism be fired. Next they demanded that everyone be given enough hours to make a living while also not being scheduled outside of their availability. “It’s definitely a vast, wide variety of issues, and we’re trying to tackle as many of them as we can,” Feldenzer said.
In a statement Target representative Jenna Reck responded, saying, “We want everyone who works at Target to feel valued and respected and take any allegations of workplace misconduct seriously. We worked for several weeks this summer to address issues brought forth by team members at the Timonium store and took swift actions to address them. We continue to work closely with the store’s new leadership team to ensure the team member experience meets Target’s workplace standards.”
Management didn’t really respond to the strike, Feldenzer said, so they’re contemplating doing another one. But it hasn’t been easy organizing her coworkers. “People are very scared,” she said. She felt she had no choice but to take a stand. “I got to do something or no one else will,” she said. She also thinks the next one will be easier. “Once we did it, I think more people are actually willing [to] be on the frontlines with us.”
“We really see a ripple effect,” Dehlendorf noted. “Every group of people who are stepping forward to speak out and telling their story are inspiring people to come into the network and start to share their stories.”
Workers have a list of demands: better pay, better schedules, and better treatment
Generally the Rise Up Retail campaign wants to see change on a few key issues: higher pay and minimum wages (they aim for $15 an hour), a guarantee of paid sick and family leave, and more humane schedules that both allow people to achieve full-time status while also giving them set hours ahead of time. It wants a guarantee of severance pay for people who are laid off. It also wants to see “guardrails,” as Gleason puts it, in place for how private equity operates in the sector to limit the damage on jobs.
“There’s a tremendous confluence of issues,” Dehlendorf said. “If we can change these sectors, it really can make a massive shift across the entire economy in terms of how working people are being treated.”
The idea is to push individual employers to change their policies while also pushing lawmakers to raise standards for everyone. “Workers know they can win either way,” Gleason said. “They can get companies to change or move policymakers. If they can’t get policymakers to raise the standards, then they know what they need to do when election time comes around.”
Rise Up Retail plans to let the workers lead the way on what kinds of tactics to deploy. “I think you’ll see some growing militancy from these folks…as they feel more power,” Gleason predicted. That could even include more strikes. The campaign is also setting its sights next on the midterm elections, planning to organize members to turn out and vote.
Barragan isn’t sure if she can stick it out in the industry. “I’ve been in retail a very long time… It’s what I know. It’s what I’m good at,” she said. She loves helping customers find what they need. But she doesn’t want to go through another restructuring like at JCPenney or work for another employer like Walmart who throws her life into chaos. “It’s Russian roulette,” she said. “You don’t know who’s going and who’s coming.”
Still, she’s heartened to see her fellow retail workers speaking up as part of the new campaign. “That’s empowering,” she said. “We will not stand for the injustices.”
“People are just getting fed up,” Chambers said. “They’re tired of being underappreciated and disrespected.”