Business

Retail workers fighting back - without unions

Laid-off Toys 'R' Us workers' win just one example of burgeoning movement

The Wal-Mart company logo is seen outside a Wal-Mart Stores Inc company distribution center in Bentonville, Arkansas June 6, 2013.  REUTERS/Rick Wilking (UNITED STATES  - Tags: BUSINESS)
The Wal-Mart company logo is seen outside a Wal-Mart Stores Inc company distribution center in Bentonville, Arkansas June 6, 2013. REUTERS/Rick Wilking (UNITED STATES - Tags: BUSINESS)

In May, more than 30,000 Toys “R” Us workers were let go — without severance — as the company started the process to shut down all its stores.

Meanwhile, CEO David Brandon got $2.8 million in the form of a retention bonus right before the company filed for bankruptcy.

“This corporate greed is hurting me and my family — and it’s unacceptable,” wrote Colleen Kleven, a Toys “R” Us worker in the Bay Area, as part of a petition she started demanding that the private equity firms that used to own the company start a severance fund for the fired workers.

Only days before the biggest shopping day of the year, private equity firms Bain Capital and Kohlberg Kravis Roberts announced each would contribute $10 million to a “financial assistance fund.”

The firms encouraged others also to put money toward the fund.

Experts say the move, which could have broader implications when other major retailers go under, is an organizing success.

“We’re only talking about this because (the workers), like the Parkland kids, protested,” Eileen Appelbaum, an economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, told the Huffington Post.

“They said, ‘We built this, we’re entitled to severance, and we want it.’”

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It’s not just Toys “R” Us workers. Working in an industry that’s increasingly under threat by changing consumer habits and technology, retail employees across the world are fighting for better wages and working conditions — most of them without unions.

Here’s a look at some of their recent activism.

The movement continues for a ‘fair workweek’

Retail, fast-food and hospitality workers have teamed up to speak out against unpredictable scheduling that they say wreaks havoc on their lives.

They’ve won “fair workweek” bills that regulate scheduling in cities like New York, Seattle, and San Francisco — and are currently fighting for one in Philadelphia.

Walmart workers organize

Workers from Walmart — the biggest private sector employer in the country — have organized, protested, and gone on strike as part of OUR Walmart.

It’s not a union, though it was founded by one — United Food and Commercial Workers.

Walmart subsequently expanded paid family leave and increased starting pay to $10 an hour.

Rise Up Retail forms

Born out of the momentum from OUR Walmart, a new campaign launched this fall called Rise Up Retail, a group trying to advocate for and organize retail workers at other employers.

Amazon workers strike

Thousands of Amazon workers in Europe were on strike on Black Friday, protesting wages and working conditions.

It was the latest in a series of strikes. European workers walked off the job on Black Friday 2017, and American workers went on strike and called for a boycott on Prime Day this past July, Amazon’s version of Black Friday.

Whole Foods workers aim to unionize

A group of workers at Whole Foods, also owned by Amazon, announced in September a bid to unionize, which Amazon has fought with what’s been described as “classic anti-union language”: “You might need to talk about how having a union could hurt innovation which could hurt customer obsession which could ultimately threaten the building’s continued existence,” a training video to managers said.

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A month after the union effort went public, Amazon announced it would raise its minimum wage to $15 an hour.

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