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Unions could save Goodwill Toronto from incompetent management

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Image: Flickr/Jeff Hitchcock

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Earlier this week, Goodwill announced that they were closing their Toronto-area stores. Sixteen stores and 10 donation centres stocked full of donated clothing and household items were apparently no longer profitable.

The workers have expressed the most shock. Despite business as usual, as deliveries continued and people dropped off their impulse buys, maternity clothes and too-small pants, the board voted to cease operations. The workers have been consistent in media reports: they are shocked.

Workers might not even be paid for their last pay period.

The decision was blamed on a structural deficit caused by two main factors: the cost of rent in Toronto and "the union." As a charity that literally pays nothing for the stock that it sells, the claim sounds far-fetched. Many employees have argued that rather than a structural problem with no possible solutions, the real problems at Goodwill Toronto have been caused by mismanagement.

It is quite possible that Goodwill's financial problems are all driven by mismanagement. Keiko Nakamara, Goodwill's most recent CEO, has a questionable record, at best. She arrived at Goodwill Toronto after being fired from the Toronto Community Housing Corporation amid a spending scandal in 2011. Goodwill Toronto's deficits reportedly started in 2013.

The financial documents and other aspects of the company's website are gone and a file dated Jan. 16, 2016 updating a robots.txt script is all that exists if you search through their old website. Robots.txt stops websites from being crawled by search engines to cache old pages. Media enquiries are being pointed to a public relations firm that offers 24-hour crisis management services.

Whether or not Goodwill is viable is hardly the correct debate. During a time of recession, the need for used clothing increases. Used clothing has become the norm for many millennials who are part of a generation who flock to used clothes to curb rising consumption. And, in an era of cheaply made children's clothes and closed Zellers, families still rely on Goodwill to both purchase and drop off their used children's clothes.

The Globe and Mail interviewed the leadership of both the Niagara and Hamilton Goodwill agencies, both who explained that their agencies are expanding their operations. If their stores are viable, surely the Toronto-managed stores could be too.

The Canadians Airport Workers Union represents the 430 Goodwill Toronto workers who are now out of work. These workers were making minimum wage or just a little more. The union reported that they're seeking investors to save the corporation.

Listening to the workers' opinions on how poorly the Goodwill Toronto reminded me of one of the foundational truths on which the labour movement was built: the workers who do the work are experts on the work they do. It seems obvious, but management is often structured to deliberately disempower workers. If management has proven that it can't make Goodwill Toronto viable, maybe it's time for a new ownership that would centre their operations on the advice and input of its workers.

When workers are disempowered, they exist in a world where they watch mistake after mistake being made and have few to no available channels to address them. This breeds resentment and isolation. But when workers are empowered to improve their working conditions and the work of the company itself based on their daily experiences, important things can emerge. Perhaps this is what could happen if the workers' union finds the investors they need.

And what if, rather than looking for traditional investors, unions themselves collectively purchased Goodwill? What if a union, perhaps as large as Unifor or a group of strong unions, purchased and operated Goodwill?

They could transform the agency to be more responsive to the workers. They could get more involved in the community services and programs that Goodwill provides. They could promote Goodwill to their members and encourage them to shop there. Most importantly, they can save the jobs of 430 workers while also saving an important retailer in a region of Canada that is pricing families and low-income people out more than ever before.

Unions need to get serious about their role in resisting the long march towards full-scale deregulation and unfettered capitalism. They cannot stop this slide through collective bargaining alone. They cannot confront these politics through lobbying, rallies and marches alone. 

Unions need to find other ways to engage in the marketplace. Why not transform existing structures deemed unviable into service, employment and retail hubs?

The crisis at Goodwill Toronto could be an important opportunity for the labour movement and the organization's workers. Building alternatives that help people and serve a broader need is our only hope if we are serious about creating a more just society.

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Image: Flickr/Jeff Hitchcock

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