Solidarity Coalition Formed to Support Zellers Workers
Solidarity Networks, organizations of mutual support that use collective action to win demands are on the rise. This article is about early organizing efforts in Waterloo Region around the closing of Zellers locations, specifically, the attempt to form a solidarity coalition to support those affected by the store closures. Although not a formal Solidarity Network, the coalition has taken on similar work and may ultimately contribute to the forming a Solidarity Network in Waterloo Region.
First, some background on the situation. In 2012, Target along with Walmart- two U.S. based mega-chains with track records of practices that hurt employees and communities, paid Zellers $1.825 billion to lease all of its 220 stores across Canada. Most of these locations will be converted to Target stores, with 39 being resold to Walmart, and 15-25 sold to other retailers. Target has made it clear that it will not respect the current workers’ wages, benefits or even their jobs. Zellers employees are now being forced to look for new work, and the jobs offered by Target will likely be of lower quality contributing to the growing trend towards poverty wages in Waterloo Region. Few current employees, particularly older workers, are likely to be rehired as they do not fit the branding of the Target stores.
Of the 35,000 Zellers workers across Canada who are now (or soon to be) looking for work, approximately 500 are in the Waterloo Region. This adds to the 1200 workers who will lose their jobs as the result of the recently announced closure by Maple Leaf Foods of the Schneider’s plant in Kitchener, and the ongoing layoffs at Waterloo’s Research in Motion that ranges into the 1000s. These are not isolated occurrences; there are many other examples in the region. With these mounting job losses, it is no surprise that community members decided to take action, and draw attention to the situation workers are and will be facing in the coming years in Kitchener-Waterloo. Although these efforts have only begun, they have demonstrated the willingness of community members to enter into workplace struggle, and to understand that wherever we may find ourselves, our struggles are connected.
Following some initial outreach to employees at the stores facing imminent closure, the local anti-poverty group Poverty Makes Us Sick (PMUS) called a meeting to discuss how the broader Kitchener-Waterloo community could respond and support the Zellers workers. After meeting with various union organizers, hosting a community info night and conducting research, a newly founded coalition, the ‘Tri-Cities Zellers Employee Solidarity Coalition’, agreed on two crucial points. One, coalition efforts needed to be worker-led, and two, they needed to be specific to the Zellers situation. This commitment placed a high importance on reaching out to Zellers workers, as no coalition members were current employees. It also meant that taking on this project would be a long-term, multi-phase struggle that would not fit the typical Solidarity Network model, which tends to carefully pick winnable cases, such as getting wages for a worker or ensuring a tenant is not evicted. Knowing how stacked the odds were against the initiative, members of the coalition quickly focused on efforts that would build the skills needed for this type of work. This was of crucial importance to keeping morale up in the group, and provided a space for members to develop as activists and organizers in the hope that these skills and experiences will better position us to fight back and support each other in future struggles.
Working with a UFCW union organizer, the coalition began to meet and discuss how to engage Zellers workers. Without some Zellers employees in the mix, the coalition knew that it could not know how to best support the workers. Prepared and ready to hit the stores, new coalition members began approaching Zellers workers about gathering to talk about what sort of response could come from the workers and community members. Unfortunately, this is where things got challenging. Although individual coalition members had many valuable conversations, and much was learned, responses from workers were mixed. We quickly became aware of the deceitful bullying tactics that Zellers and its parent company HBC, were using in order to ensure that employees didn’t ‘make trouble’ during the transition. In the face of this corporate pressure, the coalition has struggled to get Zellers workers to commit to participating in ongoing organizing efforts. This reality forced the coalition to take a step back and reflect collectively on tactics and local goals, while remaining connected to the larger national campaign.
Despite obstacles, many positives have come out of the work of the coalition to date. The insistence that the campaign be worker-led to make sure its efforts are meaningful to those most affected is an important one. It has avoided the temptation to take up a struggle on behalf of the workers instead of along with them, and has helped the group focus its work early on. Members of the coalition have gained direct experience in approaching workers around organizing efforts- a valuable and often overlooked component of struggle. The coalition is continuing to gather information- surveying employees and coordinating with the UFCW to ensure that local actions contribute to the larger national fight for Zellers employee rights. Furthermore, as the coalition now re-engages in the campaign with renewed commitment, solid groundwork has been laid that will inform how we move forward on this, and on similar efforts in the region.
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