Zellers workers face job loss in Target takeover

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Many Canadians know that U.S. retail giant, Target, is coming to Canada. What most people do not know is that thousands of Canadians will be losing their jobs as a result.

Target will be taking over more than 100 Zellers stores. Some of these locations are being re-assigned to other large retailers, but most will be converted to Target stores. Yet the people who currently work in these stores are being let go. There could be up to 15,000 job losses. It does not seem to matter how many years of loyal service workers have provided, how many customers have praised their work, or how many children they are supporting on their wages.

Of course Target will need to hire workers, although we do not know how many. But Zellers workers are simply being told that they are welcome to apply for posted jobs, and try their luck along with everyone else. That is, apply for the jobs they were already doing, and start at the bottom with no credit for their years of service. Zellers workers are not making high wages now. But if they do get re-hired, any wage increases or benefits they may have earned over time will be gone, plus they may only get part-time hours.

Target is already a very profitable company. Its expansion into Canada is expected to further amplify its profits. In other words, Target can more than afford to respect Canadians' collective agreements and current working conditions. Canadians were outraged recently when Caterpillar bought a highly efficient manufacturing plant in London, Ontario, only to demand 50 per cent wage and benefits cuts for the 460 workers, and then shut down the facility mere weeks later. A similar pattern is evident here. A profitable U.S.-based company moves into Canada, and does not want to respect Canadian workers. We deserve better.

Zellers workers have already begun to come forward and ask Canadians for support. Their www.targetfairness.ca campaign seeks respect for existing workers as their stores are converted. Some of the Zellers stores are represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers union, while many are not. Their campaign is about all Zellers workers. It is about people keeping jobs which provide them modest income and benefits as compensation for their work and their many years of service.

Retail work is often considered temporary, precarious, and only for the young. Yet retail salesperson is now the most common occupation for both women and men in Canada. More and more people of all ages are employed in retail, and many for years or even decades. Retail workers are mothers and fathers, friends and neighbours, and, without question, people who deserve basic fairness. Across the country, retail workers in stores like H & M and Future Shop are organizing. They are increasingly looking to unions as a way to improve their working conditions and lives. They want to make retail jobs into better jobs to benefit both current and future workers.

At the Zellers stores, workers are simply asking to keep what they have earned as their workplaces convert to a new brand. Particularly moving is how many of those who are slated to lose their own jobs are worried most about their co-workers. Betti, who has worked at a unionized Zellers in Niagara Falls for a remarkable 38 years, is especially concerned about the younger mothers with whom she works. "I worry about them, I know that they are trying to raise small children. They are losing full-time jobs, they're losing their benefits, they're losing the pension. They are kind of hanging in limbo, and they're scared."

In Betti's words, we hear concern for others and a belief in fairness. These are among the best values we seek to promote as Canadians. In the interest of promoting both, we need to support Canadian retail workers.

Kendra Coulter is a professor in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Criminology at the University of Windsor researching retail work and workers. This article was first published in the Hamilton Spectator.

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