Secondhand Store Workers Push for First-Rate Treatment

Jeremy Gantz December 2, 2013

Ana Laura Lopez (center) is just one of the employees pushing to unionize Unique Thrift in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood. (Arise Chicago)

CHICA­GO — Ana Lau­ra Lopez has work­ing at Unique Thrift Store in Chicago’s Uptown neigh­bor­hood down to a sci­ence. She’s sort­ed through loads of donat­ed goods to deter­mine what is sell­able, priced the mer­chan­dise, put it out for cus­tomers and worked the cash reg­is­ter. But after eight years of work­ing at the store, Lopez, a 38-year-old moth­er of six, earns just $9 per hour — 75 cents more than Illi­nois’ min­i­mum wage. She’d love a raise, she says, but what she wants most of all is respect on the job.

We receive rude treat­ment from man­agers,” Lopez says. They push us very hard — faster, faster, faster.”

In addi­tion to the unrea­son­able pace, Lopez says many of her co-work­ers suf­fer from asth­ma and aller­gies due to han­dling a high vol­ume of dusty dona­tions, and that she her­self has encoun­tered rats (both dead and alive) and soiled dia­pers while sep­a­rat­ing goods that can be re-sold from what should be recy­cled. You can find any­thing,” she says. Though Lopez and her co-work­ers have spo­ken to man­age­ment about these con­cerns, says Arise Chica­go, they were instruct­ed to use gloves.

And after almost a decade, Lopez has had enough. Along with her co-work­ers, a major­i­ty of whom recent­ly signed a peti­tion to hold a union elec­tion with the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board, she is tak­ing on man­age­ment to push for bet­ter work­ing con­di­tions, wages and ben­e­fits at Unique.

Last Decem­ber, after attend­ing labor rights work­shops a month pri­or put on by the inter­faith work­ers’ rights orga­ni­za­tion Arise Chica­go, a group of Unique employ­ees, Lopez includ­ed, decid­ed it was time to act. Frus­trat­ed with man­agers whom they say ignored ver­bal and writ­ten requests to respect work­ers and improve health and safe­ty stan­dards, they walked off the job in protest. An impromp­tu dis­cus­sion with man­age­ment about work­ers’ demands fol­lowed that day in the mid­dle of the store, with assis­tance from Arise Chica­go staff.

But even after the walk­out, Lopez says, noth­ing changed until work­ers began pub­licly orga­niz­ing to union­ize the store this year. Since fil­ing for the union elec­tion in Octo­ber, some things have improved — the store heed­ed staff requests for a ded­i­cat­ed lunch­room, for exam­ple, with new microwaves for the store’s 60 or so employ­ees. Lopez isn’t sat­is­fied, how­ev­er: She’s con­vinced union rep­re­sen­ta­tion will make a big­ger difference.

If a major­i­ty of Unique employ­ees agree with Lopez when they vote on Decem­ber 4th, their store will not only become one of the country’s first union­ized thrift stores. It will also be the first-ever union shop owned by par­ent com­pa­ny Savers, Inc., the world’s largest for-prof­it sec­ond­hand retail­er, which also oper­ates stores under the names Savers, Val­ue Vil­lage and Valu Thrift Stores. (A store in the Bronx union­ized in June 2013; its name is also Unique Thrift, but it is not part of Savers.)

We sup­port our employ­ees’ right to decide and will con­tin­ue to pro­vide our team mem­bers with the infor­ma­tion nec­es­sary to cast an informed bal­lot in the secret bal­lot vote,” Sara Gaugl, a spokesper­son for the pri­vate Belle­vue, Wash.-based com­pa­ny, wrote in an email last week.

Savers rec­og­nizes the val­ue our team mem­bers con­tribute to the suc­cess of our busi­ness, and our cul­ture, pay and ben­e­fits prac­tices reflect that phi­los­o­phy,” Gaugl con­tin­ued. It is for this rea­son that none of our 330-plus stores or near­ly 20,000 team mem­bers have felt the need to elect a third-par­ty union to rep­re­sent their employ­ment needs. We have always and will con­tin­ue to val­ue our direct rela­tion­ship with each of our employees.”

A unique for-prof­it model

A large dona­tion bin for the Viet­nam Vet­er­ans of Amer­i­ca stands at Unique’s entrance and a sign ask­ing for dona­tions of house­hold goods and cloth­ing is in the store’s win­dow. The store offers donors tax write-off receipts upon request, on behalf of VVA. Lopez thinks this con­tributes to a mis­per­cep­tion among many cus­tomers. Peo­ple give dona­tions think­ing that it’s all for char­i­ty, but they don’t know the real­i­ty of [for-prof­it] sec­ond­hand stores,” Lopez says.

Savers Inc., which will be 60 years old next year, helped pio­neer a for-prof­it thrift store busi­ness mod­el entire­ly reliant on donat­ed goods. Savers pays local non­prof­it part­ner orga­ni­za­tions a bulk per-pound rate for donat­ed goods, whether they’re trucked to a store en masse or hand-deliv­ered by a donor. As Savers notes on its web­site, Part­ner­ing with local non­prof­its is not a byprod­uct of our busi­ness — it’s how we do business.”

Savers says that it has paid more than 140 non­prof­its $1.5 bil­lion in the last 10 years, and $180 mil­lion last year alone. The arrange­ment brings sig­nif­i­cant rev­enue to non­prof­its while allow­ing them to avoid sell­ing donat­ed goods through retail oper­a­tions like Savers’ well-known non­prof­it com­peti­tors Good­will and The Sal­va­tion Army do. In return, Savers attracts the sup­port and dona­tions of mem­bers of the pub­lic who want to sup­port its partners.

But Savers itself is no char­i­ty oper­a­tion — it’s big busi­ness, with stores in Cana­da and Aus­tralia as well as across the Unit­ed States. In 2012, two pri­vate equi­ty firms — Leonard Green & Part­ners and TPG, who have also invest­ed in more up-mar­ket retail oper­a­tions like J. Crew, Pet­co and Sports Author­i­ty—took a near­ly 50 per­cent own­er­ship stake in the com­pa­ny. That same year, Savers reached $1 bil­lion in sales rev­enue for the first time. The mile­stone had a lot to do with the company’s rapid expan­sion through pur­chas­es of region­al thrift chains, includ­ing the 12 Unique Thrift Stores in the Chica­go area that Savers bought in Octo­ber 2012.

As a pri­vate com­pa­ny, Savers doesn’t report its prof­its. But a June 2012 Reuters sto­ry report­ed that between 2006 and 2012, the company’s annu­al EBIT­DA mar­gin,” which is basi­cal­ly earn­ings minus oper­at­ing expens­es, dou­bled to $163 mil­lion — an indi­ca­tor that its prof­its have grown sub­stan­tial­ly in recent years.

And that climb is unlike­ly to slow any­time soon. Reuters report­ed, Our out­look for the thrift indus­try remains pos­i­tive in the inter­me­di­ate term, as cus­tomers remain fru­gal in the still-weak econ­o­my and mer­chan­dise reuse and recy­cling gar­ner grow­ing acceptance.”

A new start in a new year?

But investors’ opti­mism doesn’t seem to be shared by Unique employ­ees, many of whom in the Chica­go area are cur­rent­ly mak­ing min­i­mum wage with­out any ben­e­fits. It’s very dif­fi­cult to live on $8.25,” Lopez says, not­ing that some of her co-work­ers are sin­gle moth­ers with sec­ond jobs. It’s not enough mon­ey for heat, clothes, shel­ter, everything.”

For its part, Savers says the com­pa­ny is in the process of improv­ing com­pen­sa­tion and ben­e­fits at the stores it acquired last Octo­ber to bring them in line with stan­dards at all the company’s U.S. locations.

“[A]s we have done with all acqui­si­tions, we began rolling out a process to raise the stan­dard … and tran­si­tion all Chica­go-area stores onto Savers pro­grams, pro­ce­dures and sys­tems,” Gaugl says.

Although some work­ers will still start at min­i­mum wage, ben­e­fits avail­able start­ing sum­mer 2014 will give full-time employ­ees access to free life insur­ance, a 401(k) plan and a bun­dled” medical/​dental/​vision/​prescription plan, Gaugl says. The cheap­est plan will cost $70 per month. As for com­pen­sa­tion, she says, a pay-for-per­for­mance phi­los­o­phy” will allow for annu­al mer­it wage increas­es com­pet­i­tive for the retail indus­try” and quar­ter­ly sales bonus­es for hourly employ­ees. (The aver­age quar­ter­ly bonus for a full-time U.S. Savers employ­ee was $195 in 2013.)

Lopez thinks, how­ev­er, that every­one should be paid a start­ing liv­ing wage, whether or not they receive a quar­ter­ly bonus. With this in mind, she’s deter­mined to make imme­di­ate improve­ments at her store through organizing.

Despite her per­sis­tence, though, imple­ment­ing a union may not be easy. Lopez says that man­age­ment has told work­ers in recent staff meet­ings that unions — in this case Work­ers Unit­ed-SEIU, which filed for the elec­tion — only want work­ers’ mon­ey. Asked what she thinks the out­come of the Decem­ber 4th vote will be, Lopez says: With the com­pa­ny hav­ing all these meet­ings against unions, I’m not so sure.” 

On Novem­ber 21st, Unique work­ers, Arise Chica­go and WU-SEIU tried to keep momen­tum going by bring­ing cler­gy togeth­er in front of the store at 4445 N. Sheri­dan Ave. to present man­age­ment with a com­mu­ni­ty pledge of sup­port” in the form of hun­dreds of sig­na­tures on giant pledge cards and to call for a union elec­tion free of com­pa­ny interference.

Lopez hopes that actions like these will encour­age cus­tomers to stand up for Unique employ­ees. We don’t want peo­ple to stop shop­ping at Unique,” she says. But maybe they can let the com­pa­ny know they sup­port us.”

Jere­my Gantz is a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at the mag­a­zine. He is the edi­tor of The Age of Inequal­i­ty: Cor­po­rate America’s War on Work­ing Peo­ple (2017, Ver­so), and was the Web/​Associate Edi­tor of In These Times from 2008 to 2012.

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