Opinion: Private Equity Is The Enemy Of Working People Everywhere

My retail job was destroyed by greedy financial executives. There are millions more like me, and we're fighting back.

As a retail worker in Tigard, Oregon, I never expected my job would have much in common with journalists in Manhattan or nurses in Pennsylvania. But whether it was my Toys ‘R’ Us store, Deadspin’s newsroom in New York, or the Hahnemann University Hospital in Philadelphia, our livelihoods were all turned upside-down by private equity firms — and we decided not to go down without a fight.

I had worked at Toys ‘R’ Us for five years when I found out the company was liquidating. I worked full time and had health insurance for my family. When I found out that I was losing my job, along with 33,000 fellow workers, I felt devastated, scared, and betrayed. I’d be losing everything: my paycheck, health care, and the severance I was promised. It felt like the floor fell out from under me.

Working in retail was how I got to where I was. My mother passed away when I was 15, and retail jobs allowed me to support myself and my nephew after I was emancipated. It made it possible for me to move from my Alaska Native village to the city. It made it possible for me to feed and raise my three children as a sole provider for my family while my husband was finishing his schooling.

After losing my job, my family fell behind on bills, and barely scraped together enough money for rent just three days shy of being evicted. That Halloween, my 5-year-old son insisted that I not buy him candy to save our money. It was heartbreaking to see my children taking on the emotional stress of our family’s precariousness.

But we considered ourselves lucky compared to my former coworkers, many of whom are second family to me. I cooked meals for them because their money was short. We lent them money even though we were behind on our bills too. That’s just what families do.

Heartbroken and frustrated, I began researching and read everything I could find to understand what happened to my job. What I learned enraged me. Amazon and online shopping didn’t kill Toys ‘R’ Us as many people had claimed. Private equity executives did. They bought the company, extracted assets and value out of it, lined their own pockets, then left us to crumble under a $5 billion debt. Toys ‘R’ Us was still bringing in profits every year, and our biggest threat wasn’t the internet. It was Wall Street greed.

Those private equity raiders didn’t just kill my job — they took my family’s financial stability, and that of countless others in my community.

Unfortunately, my story is part of a national trend. Well-known retail brands like Sears, Payless, Gymboree, and Shopko have all suffered the same fate. Since 2012, 10 of the 14 largest retail bankruptcies were companies owned or controlled by private equity or hedge funds. There are 1.3 million other people who, like me, worked hard to build up our country’s retail industry and had their livelihoods robbed by private equity and hedge fund managers who looted the companies and walked away with their hands clean, wealthier than ever.

Retail job loss is growing, with the number of store closures in 2019 almost doubling 2018’s count. Reading about the mass resignations at Deadspin this month reminded me that private equity firms and hedge funds are destroying other industries too. We are losing news outlets. Hospitals are closing and emergency room bills are growing. Private equity is one of the biggest threats to working people and the American economy today.

Like the journalists who walked away from Deadspin before their private equity owners could destroy it, working people across the country are tough and resilient. In the last year, I have been part of a movement of laid-off retail workers who have come together under United for Respect to fight for what’s ours. My coworkers and I at Toys ‘R’ Us fought for and won a $20 million hardship fund from the financiers who had saddled our company with so much debt. Sears and Kmart workers have gone toe-to-toe with Eddie Lampert, the billionaire hedge fund owner who destroyed Sears. And Shopko employees have spoken up across the Midwest about Sun Capital’s role in destroying the retailer — and received the attention of their federal representatives.

In July, I stood next to Sen. Elizabeth Warren to introduce the Stop Wall Street Looting Act. It’s the first real piece of legislation that would hold private equity firms accountable for their behavior. It makes private equity and hedge fund companies liable for their losses while protecting workers’ pensions, retirement, and compensation in bankruptcies. If it passes, this legislation will finally put an end to Wall Street’s predatory abuses that have left my family and millions of others in financial ruin.

On November 19, the powerful House Committee on Financial Services will hold a hearing to discuss the effects of private equity on the American economy. Our country’s elected leaders have a choice to make. They can’t bring back my job, and they can’t breathe life back into the workplaces that have been destroyed. But they do have the power to make sure that no more jobs are vaporized while Wall Street executives get richer.

I want to tell our country’s elected leaders how my mama put it to me: “Show me your friends, and I’ll know who you are.” Millions of working people in every state in this country will be watching this month’s hearings to see which side our elected leaders will be on — working people’s or greedy Wall Street billionaires’.

Liz Marin is a leader with United for Respect.

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