Service with a Smile

Ann Marie Reinhart didn’t intend to spend half her life working in retail. It just sort of happened that way.

“I have always worked. I have worked two and three jobs,” she explains in a series of interviews. She had left her position in medical billing right before her first child was born, and hadn’t quite figured out what was next. A few months after her son’s birth, she stopped by a Toys “R” Us store and saw a “Now Hiring” sign. They hired her on the spot for the holidays. That was 1988.

“It was like, ‘Ding! Ding! Ding!’ I said to him, ‘Do you know what Bain Capital does to companies? Do you know anything about Bain Capital?’ ”

“I had no aspirations of being a permanent cashier or working in retail. It was definitely not on my bucket list,” Reinhart says with a laugh. “The make-up of a part-timer today is either you are a mom, you are a student, or you are working a second job.” But she liked the idea of getting back to work, in part because she didn’t want to buy her husband a Christmas present using money from his job.

Reinhart is from Long Island, and you can hear it in her voice even though she’s been in North Carolina for years now; she is warm and motherly but with a mischievous twinkle in her eyes when she’s telling a funny story. She’d assumed her stint at Toys “R” Us would be over after the holidays, but instead the store started training her in customer service and how to keep track of the money. The pay wasn’t great, and retail could be stressful, but the company always gave her some flexibility in her schedule to be with her family. When both of her children were in school, she took the full-time position her managers offered her, moving into a supervisor’s role. It came along with a new benefit: health insurance, which made it worth her while to stay.

“Back then, Toys ‘R’ Us was very good to all of us,” Reinhart says. “It let me be the mom that I wanted to be.”

That’s not to say it was a perfect job, and Reinhart had thought seriously about leaving. The company allowed her time off for some of her kids’ activities, but she still worked long hours. “I think that nobody realizes all the sacrifices that are made by the people that work in retail. They sacrifice their families,” she says. “Almost the entire month of December, I didn’t see my husband. He got up early for work. I would come home and he would be sleeping. Then, he would leave for work and I would be sleeping.”

Then, of course, there were the customers, some of whom could be unbelievably nasty. “I have been called every name in the book,” says Reinhart, who brushes her brown bob off her forehead to show me the scar from a Green Power Ranger toy that a customer had thrown in her face. She recalled touching her forehead and feeling blood.

Another horror story involved Reinhart’s daughter-in-law, who also worked in customer service at the store. “[One] lady was so mad at her, she took her daughter’s wet panties off and threw them at my daughter-in-law,” Reinhart says. Her eyes welled up as she recalled her daughter-in-law’s scream.

Though she might have prided herself on her ability to manage difficult people, these memories clearly still stung. “Some days you go home feeling depleted,” she says.

And the worst part was that, after customers behaved horribly, management would often give in to keep them happy. “Not only are you insulted and berated by customers, you felt it double for your store manager to come out and give that customer what they wanted anyway.”

After nearly ten years at the big Toys “R” Us store in Huntington, Long Island, Reinhart transferred to a new Babies “R” Us store. The holidays were calmer, without the mad rush every year at the toy store, and she was able to spend more time with her kids.

“I came home and my house was decorated right after Thanksgiving,” she says. “All those years, I didn’t get to enjoy the holidays. My kids were like eight, nine, ten years old, and they appreciated it more, too.”

As her sons grew up, Reinhart and her husband considered moving South, following her sister and brother, who were already in North Carolina. She once again questioned whether she wanted to stay at Toys “R” Us, but since the company had nearly eight hundred stores, she could move and have a job already lined up—and keep the salary she was making in New York.

She noticed how, in her years at Toys “R” Us, retail had begun to change: all the ads she saw were for part-time jobs with no benefits. So she moved to Durham, North Carolina, and became store supervisor at a Babies “R” Us by the Southpoint Mall. The baby registries, in particular, made the job worth it—she enjoyed sitting down with new parents and helping them pick things out. Years later, at a different job, she ran into a former customer, who remembered her immediately.

“She says, ‘You did my whole registry with me. You sold me my furniture.’ ” It was moments like that that made her like the work.

Reinhart first heard mention of Bain Capital’s involvement with Toys “R” Us in 2005. As it was explained to the employees, Bain was investing money to help the company expand its baby stores into superstores. She didn’t think too much of it at first. As a human resources representative, she used to go to job fairs and talk up the company. “I would say things like, ‘It is a financially stable company. Toys “R” Us has been around forever.’ ”

Those words haunt her now. In 2005, when Bain Capital, Kohlberg Kravis Roberts (KKR), and Vornado Realty Trust took over the company, things began to change. Reinhart was shocked when she heard her store was being closed. It was shuttered in April 2018, and the company was liquidated shortly thereafter.

Private equity companies buy up firms that are wobbly through leveraged buyouts that put the debt used to buy them back on the company’s balance sheets; if any more trouble hits a company, whether it be increased competition, in the case of Toys “R” Us, or, more recently, the global pandemic, things can unravel quickly. Once iconic brands like J. Crew and Neiman Marcus have fallen into bankruptcy in this way.

Reinhart ended up losing a job she’d had for twenty-nine years, with no severance. “It was almost my entire adult life,” she says, shaking her head. “What was I thinking?”

But the time she’d put in at Toys “R” Us taught her to advocate for herself and for her colleagues, from those moments on the customer service desk to arguing for higher wages. “I am most proud, probably, of my work then,” she says. “It did prepare me to fight the company.”  

When Ann Marie Reinhart first heard that Toys “R” Us was going bankrupt, she says, “I think it was the seven stages of grief. I think we all went through them. It was mostly denial at first.”

The announcement came in September 2017. At first the company said it would keep operating as usual; then, Reinhart says, workers were told that more than one hundred stores were closing, including the superstore where she worked in North Carolina. She tried to keep her hopes up by telling herself, “I had seen them close stores before.”

Since the leveraged buyout—one of a stack of finance terms Reinhart and her coworkers would learn in the ensuing years—“the whole mentality changed.” Before, Toys “R” Us had a family atmosphere, she says, recalling how the company founder, Charles Lazarus, once arrived at her store for an unexpected visit, in jeans and a plaid shirt. The company, she says, “was his baby.” Lazarus died in March 2018, just as the company went into liquidation.

Reinhart had researched Bain Capital during the 2012 presidential race. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney (now a U.S. Senator from Utah) was running, and he had been one of the firm’s founders. She read up on the candidates before making her choice, and Bain’s business model struck her as predatory well before she had any idea how much it would affect her life. So when her manager mentioned Bain’s involvement as they changed her Babies “R” Us to a superstore, she says, “It was like, ‘Ding! Ding! Ding!’ I said to him, ‘Do you know what Bain Capital does to companies? Do you know anything about Bain Capital?’ ”

The manager, she says, defended Bain at the time, but later messaged her to apologize for not listening. “He was with the company maybe ten years, but they sucked thirty years out of me,” she says.

Around this time, an advocacy group for retail workers called United for Respect was looking to expand its organizing. The group, originally a project of the United Food and Commercial Workers union to organize Walmart workers around the country, used social media to build a broad-based group of workers who could come together to improve conditions.

The organization’s founders had always thought of their work around Walmart as a way to affect the retail sector as a whole—as goes Walmart, so goes the low-wage job. But what was happening at Toys “R” Us seemed to be another piece of the retail story. Here, the “retail apocalypse” wasn’t just because of the Internet, but because finance capital had gotten involved, attempting to wring every possible dollar out of retail firms before dropping them.

Toys “R” Us workers, like Walmart workers, had deeply identified with the company. They felt betrayed by the liquidation, and had felt the erosion of their working conditions as private equity turned up the heat. One of Reinhart’s coworkers told her about a Facebook group called the Dead Giraffe Society, but at first she wasn’t interested. When she took a look at it, she saw people sharing memories and pictures, mourning and remembering good times.

The society was also a space for a lot of anger, and the United for Respect organizers dove in, hoping to help. But how do you organize workers at a chain that is closing? Strikes don’t work—you can’t shut down a business to make demands if the business itself is closing down.

People would say to Reinhart, “It’s just a job,” she says, but “it is a job that I gave thirty years to, so I am willing to fight. We weren’t treated well.”

The stores weren’t all closed yet when Reinhart’s shut down, and lots of the workers in the Facebook group were nervous about making trouble. But Reinhart had had enough, and though the company had always warned workers about talking to reporters, she agreed to speak to a BuzzFeed reporter. “What are they going to do? They can’t fire me, I don’t have a job anymore.”

Reinhart’s first media interview took an hour, and she remembers being “very tearful. It was very, very raw.” The same organizer from United for Respect then wrote her to ask if she’d like to come to Washington, D.C., and meet with Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. “My daughter-in-law was like, ‘Are you crazy?! You are going to get on a plane with strangers. You don’t know these people!’ Lo and behold, it was the best decision we ever made,” she recalls.

There were only six of them at the meeting in May 2018, out of more than thirty thousand workers losing their jobs. Reinhart was nervous—she’d never done anything like this before, and suddenly she was meeting a Senator and making her first picket signs.

“We didn’t think anybody cared about our story,” she says. “We made all these signs and I was like, ‘Yes, but we are six people.’ We went to Bain Capital. They have an office in D.C. We came around the corner and all of a sudden these two buses unloaded onto the streets of Washington, D.C., with signs and balloons, and they were all Walmart workers. This one lady, Donna, she said, ‘We got you. We’ve got your back.’ I looked at her tearing up like, ‘Oh my god.’ She hugged me and I will never forget that day.”

It was the beginning of the campaign that would be called Rise Up Retail, which brought the Walmart workers to support the Toys “R” Us workers and showed the Toys “R” Us workers that it was okay to make trouble. The video that Sanders put on his YouTube channel helped, Reinhart says. And then, as more workers came together, the campaign built momentum and power. Other stores joined in as the private equity apocalypse spread. “It is just sad that there are so many of us now,” Reinhart says.

She began volunteering to do civil disobedience. Lily Wang of United for Respect remembers Reinhart looking at her and saying, “We’re not going to get severance, are we?” Wang said, “Probably not.” But Reinhart and the others were committed to raising hell to make sure that at least the people who came after them wouldn’t have to face what they had. Wang recalled, “They were like, ‘We are not going to hold out the hope that we are going to get it. What we really want to do is to change the law so that no one has to go through this.’ ”

The stores were closing. The workers held press conferences—the next one had seventy-five workers, from the original six—and marched on Wall Street. They learned to make their actions dramatic to draw press attention, and to hold them in stores as they closed, sharing videos online.

They had, too, their personal conversations, as they learned more about how private equity companies operated and the ins and outs of what had happened to their company. They learned that executives were getting “stay bonuses” while the workers got nothing; that Bain and KKR and Vornado had made something like $470 million in fees and payments from Toys “R” Us.

“This has truly been an education and the more we find out, the madder we get,” Reinhart says. “It just puts more fire in our belly to fight.”

From the low point—when Reinhart found herself, without her Toys “R” Us health insurance, literally choosing between her own asthma medication and her husband’s diabetes medication—she found her power. She’s now met Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts as well as Sanders. She was the named plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit asking for the bankruptcy court to take the workers’ claims seriously. She’s spoken before the Senate Financial Reform Committee. She pointed to New Jersey’s new labor law requiring severance payments for mass layoffs as a success of the campaign.

And then there was the settlement. KKR and Bain announced, in November 2018, a $20 million fund for the Toys “R” Us workers—less than the $75 million that Reinhart and her colleagues had asked for, but still a victory. Reinhart says she “got a check for $300 a week before Christmas. That was the last of the fund money.” The Dead Giraffe Society lives on.

The workers won another $2 million in bankruptcy court, Reinhart says. “Nothing but good has come out of it for me.” Not long ago, Reinhart was on the phone with a friend, who said to her, “You realize this is in the books now. You were the plaintiff.” In that moment, she realized the significance of her fight. “There was power in numbers, for sure.

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