When people ask me about my career at Toys R Us, the first word that comes to my mind is “family.”
Over 20 years at the store in Chula Vista, California, coworkers became friends and friends family. I had a career that allowed me to make a stable home, support a child with special needs, and set some money aside for savings.
I was left with nothing for the countless birthdays and holidays that I missed because I was working. Nothing for the relationships and loyalty I’d worked so hard to build with customers and my community.
The stable income that I had? Gone. The healthcare I needed to care for my autistic son? Erased instantly. The job that brought me pride and community? Liquidated like merchandise. All because a few Wall Street firms were finished with their business.
As we were closing up my store, I’d often find myself in a corner trying to pull it together for my team. Day after day, as customers searched for deals among the wreckage of our once magical store, I tried hard to be strong for my family. I would go from having panic attacks at home and work to walking onto the floor and leading my team, some of whom had been there for over 30 years and were now about to lose their jobs too.
After we closed, I went from someone who worked hard six days a week to not having anything to do. Depression overtook me; I couldn’t get up from my couch. Looking back on it, that time feels like a bad dream.
But my story is not a tragedy, and when I take my message to the House Financial Services Committee on Tuesday to expose private equity’s effect on the US economy, I’ll be doing it from a place of strength.
That’s because I found my voice, healing, and a new family with United for Respect, as part of a movement of retail workers whose jobs were destroyed by private equity. In a little over a year, we’ve exposed the dangers of the private-equity industry, and we are rewriting the story.
Now, everybody knows that it wasn’t simply Amazon that ravaged the retail sector, but calculating Wall Street investors who destroyed some of America’s most beloved brands — Sears/Kmart, Payless, Toys R Us, Shopko — to make themselves richer.
Over the last year, my United for Respect family and I have raised hell and begun to claw back some of the respect we are owed. After we led a public fight, KKR and Bain Capital, the firms that had bankrupted Toy R Us, contributed $20 million to a hardship fund for those whose jobs were destroyed, and we have helped shine a light on the dealings of Eddie Lampert, the hedge-fund billionaire who brought down Sears and Kmart.
In one year we’ve led the world to understand that private equity is bad for working people. Every day our stories make headlines in some of the country’s largest newspapers, including the outlets that once praised the same Wall Street pirates that ruined our jobs.
In July we stood with Sen. Elizabeth Warren and many other members of Congress to introduce the Stop Wall Street Looting Act, which would begin to hold Wall Street investors accountable for the harms they inflict on American workers and employers.
We’ve made our voices heard so loudly and clearly that now, for the first time, private equity has sustained congressional attention to this powerful retail industry and will be discussed in front of the House Committee on Financial Services.
And recently, the new Toys R Us CEO and executive team reached out to us as they were starting up. Together we formed a “mirror board” of directors for myself and others that gives us direct access to the executive team and the ability to work together to make sure the company’s long-term success is felt by workers and investors alike.
Telling the Toys R Us story
We’ve had so many accomplishments in one year but there’s still a lot of work to do. When I tell my story Tuesday, I’ll be facing the head of the lobbying arm of the private-equity industry that killed my job. To say I’m nervous is an understatement, but the truth needs to be told.
I’ll be explaining how the changes began in 2005, when two private-equity firms, KKR and Bain, and a real-estate investment trust, Vornado, acquired Toys R Us in a leveraged buyout. I’ll talk about how those firms stuck to the private-equity playbook, piling debt on a profitable company and forcing it to cut staff and sell off its most valuable pieces, until all the things that made it beautiful had been depleted.
I’ll be explaining the injustice of how, after years of draining the workforce and sabotaging the culture of Toys R Us, CEO Dave Brandon informed managers like me — on a conference call — that in a matter of days we wouldn’t have jobs.
Let me be clear: This is not simply a story about retail. Private equity has destroyed the livelihoods of millions of people — including at hospitals, grocery stores, and newspapers. I’m honored and humbled to be able to represent them on Tuesday. To all of us, exposing the truth about private equity is important, but what we really need now are solutions.
Working people are looking to lawmakers to support legislation that holds private equity accountable, including the Stop Wall Street Looting Act. Help us stop Wall Street profiteers from treating our jobs, employers, benefits, and retirement savings as expendable assets to be liquidated for profit.
I’ve found the courage to speak my truth, and I will not stop organizing in this fight. It’s a fight for an economy that works for everyone, not just the wealthy few. Elected leaders — and candidates running for president — can choose to find the courage to stand with working people or not. But they can no longer act like they don’t know.
Giovanna De La Rosa was an assistant manager at the Toys R Us in Chula Vista, California, where she worked for 20 years. She is a leader with United For Respect and a member of the “Mirror Board” of the Toys R Us spinoff, TRU Kids.
Disclosure: KKR is a strategic partner of Insider Inc.’s parent company Axel Springer.