International Workers Day is as American a holiday as there is. It commemorates, in part, the Haymarket Riot, a bloody 1886 clash between striking workers and Chicago police that was among the most consequential battles in both American labor history and the international fight for the eight-hour workday. A few years later, the International Workers Conference called for a worldwide strike in support of the eight-hour day on May 1, 1890, and from then on, May 1 was recognized annually…
Toys ‘R’ Us Inc. told employees Wednesday the struggling big-box retailer will sell or close all its U.S. stores, a collapse that threatens up to 33,000 American jobs in the coming months.
Outside the U.S., the chain has another roughly 800 stores. Altogether, court papers show Toys “R” Us has roughly 1,600 stores globally, with approximately 60,000 employees. That number reaches more than 100,000 during peak holiday season.
This place that I think almost everyone has good memories of was driven to waste by vultures who burdened it with debt. They bought Toys ‘r’ Us with loaned cash and put that debt onto the company after the purchase. I didn’t even know you could do that until I read about it last year, but this story from Marielle Segarra explains it best:
And to really get what happened with Toys R Us, you need to understand how these private equity purchases work. They rely on something called a leveraged buyout.
“Leverage just means you’re using lots of debt,” said Eileen Appelbaum, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research.
If a private equity firm wants to buy a company, it’ll put up a small portion of the money. Then it’ll go to the bank and borrow the rest.
The key? “They put the debt on the company they buy,” Appelbaum said.
That’s what they did to Toys “R” Us in 2004. Three businesses bought the company, loaded it up with debt, the workers there have been paying it off ever since. Jeff Spross:
Whatever magic Bain, KKR, and Vornado were supposed to work never materialized. From the purchase in 2004 through 2016, the company’s sales never rose much above $11 billion. They actually fell from $13.5 billion in 2013 back to $11.5 billion in 2017.
On its own, that shouldn’t have been catastrophic. The problem was the massive financial albatross the leveraged buyout left around Toys ‘R’ Us’ neck. Just before the buyout, the company had $2.2 billion in cash and cash-equivalents. By 2017, its stockpile had shriveled to $301 million, even as its debt burden ballooned from $2.3 billion to $5.2 billion. Meanwhile, Toys ‘R’ Us was paying $425 million to $517 million in interest every year.
The employees will probably lose their jobs, the toy makers might not have a good place to get toys in front of people anymore and could go out of business and that could end up being a lot more people losing their jobs for no good reason, just because the vultures swooped in to get a turnaround that wasn’t achievable while paying off the debt.
The CEO, David Brandon, makes bank anyway. JC Reindl:
Brandon enjoyed a total $11.25 million CEO compensation package in 2017, a year in which Toys R Us filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy amid more than $5 billion in debt. That pay package included Brandon’s $2.8 million retention bonus, paid five days before the retailer’s Sept. 19 bankruptcy filing, to help with continuity through the process.
I’ve got a toy suggestion, it’s not my idea, but I think that Brandon and the executive teams at Bain and the others might want to try it out. Could save any future company they want to work with.
just filed a new patent pic.twitter.com/JTheWxsa3T
— leon (@leyawn) May 4, 2017
Neil Irwin’s article headlined “To Understand Rising Inequality, Consider the Janitors at Two Top Companies, Then and Now” talks about the differences in opportunities for two different janitors 35 years apart. You should read it.
Polygon has published an excerpt from a book by Walt Williams, their headline: “Why I worship crunch”:
When I worship at the unholy altar of Crunch, everything outside of the work fades away. By design, my world is reduced to where I sleep and where I work. Every day must be fast, focused, and above all else, homogenized. Give myself too much downtime, too much room to think, and I start asking questions, like “Why am I doing this to myself?” So, I lose myself in the routine. When every day is a rehash of what has been, and a preview of what will be, they blend into one another. This creates an out-of-body effect, not unlike highway hypnosis. Soon, who I am becomes an abstract concept—a loose collection of character flaws and neurotic tendencies. Only then can my body become the vessel through which an impossible amount of work will be accomplished in a short amount of time.
I love it, except for when I hate it, but I can’t hate it if I never stop. Even when I’m not crunching, I work too much. I’ve edited scripts in ICU rooms, responded to emails while begging lovers not to walk out the door, sent brainstorming lists during the birth of my child. I held my grandfather’s hand while he passed away, then went into his office and wrote text for mission descriptions. None of this was expected of me, and no one would have dared to ask. I did all these things for me. Work brings order to my world. When things get tough, I slide down into my job and disappear. I let my health, relationships, and responsibilities fall to the wayside. When I finally come up for air, there’s a smoking crater where my life used to be. Instead of picking up the pieces to start again, I slip back down into the thick of it. This is how I cope.
That isn’t how anyone should live. Although the author says that it wasn’t expected of them, many of the situations they have described here are the terrible reality of what people working on games do in response to a spoken or unspoken expectation from management.
There are solutions for the majority of people who work (in games, or elsewhere) and are exploited. Unionization would let employees collectively bargain and achieve better work schedules or better compensation when they must work overtime.
Many of these businesses would almost instantly start managing games projects more efficiently with less overtime if employees were compensated properly for this kind of work and had collective bargaining instead of attempting to individually negotiate their contracts.
Walt Williams might love crunch, but any company that forces it on their employees as a regular matter should be punished for destroying the lives of the workers and their families.
At the end of the day, no matter how much an individual loves it, crunch is not about individuals themselves. Crunch is a systemic, top-down solution to the problem of extracting the most labor from game developers; it is a strategy that is implemented on workers, and it is performed widely in most sectors of the industry. One developer’s complicated relationship with crunch is a blip on the constantly-screaming radar of worker exploitation that the practice enables as part of the normal operation of the game industry. It is not an exception in one person’s life, it is the norm.
Evan Williams and his work are profiled in the New York Times by David Streitfeld. He’s behind Twitter and Blogger. There is one good point that succinctly explains a big problem with the web today:
The trouble with the internet, Mr. Williams says, is that it rewards extremes. Say you’re driving down the road and see a car crash. Of course you look. Everyone looks. The internet interprets behavior like this to mean everyone is asking for car crashes, so it tries to supply them.
His goal is to break this pattern. “If I learn that every time I drive down this road I’m going to see more and more car crashes,” he says, “I’m going to take a different road.”
For five years, Mr. Williams has been refining a communications platform called Medium. Its ambition: define a new model for media in a world struggling under the weight of fake or worthless content. Medium is supposed to be social and collaborative without rewarding the smash-ups. It is supposed to be a force for good.
Medium feels to me like it isn’t as popular as Twitter, but it is a thing that I suspect most people reading this would have read a few articles on.
The article talks about the business model of Medium, how it exists as a platform for writing. I think it misses the real problem with the site, the reason why Medium exists is to profit off of the work of writers. Not that Evan Williams is a bad person — he tried to create a space for good writing in Medium — the real problem with Medium is that it is yet another business that exists as a parasite on a writer’s work without providing them with a living wage or an identity.
The Times article goes on to talk with one writer who made some money on the site. She received $50 per article, when they were paid, and went on to write about 100 in the same year. Not all of those were paid, and $50 isn’t bad at all for a new writer, but even if she had been paid for every article $5000 a year isn’t going to pay the rent.
Whether the business model is correct or not, I read many articles on Medium, I link to very few, and I can’t remember who the authors are of most of the articles I read on the site. Their identity is subsumed into Medium and they no-longer own their writing when it is read on Medium.
A site like Medium can’t help but raise their brand above the authors. Take a look at this article on Medium that I recently linked to.
The only opportunities for an author to express themselves on the page are their byline, and any auto-biographical text that they write in their bio underneath the byline.
In that article by Jose Moran, it is an article exclusively about that author’s work experience at Tesla. We might remember Jose a bit more than anyone else because he works for Tesla, which is an important company in the electric car field even if I don’t like the way they treat their employees.
Here’s how his byline block appears:
Here’s the banner at the bottom of the page when you’re not logged into Medium:
Now let’s pick a recommended article from just above the bottom of the page. The first one is another article about Tesla and it takes us to ThinkProgress, a site that uses Medium as a host for their writing.
Here’s how the author’s byline block is on a page hosted by Medium:
The bio gets cut-off at the top of the page, but there’s a larger version at the bottom with the full text.
Here’s the banner on that hosted site:
What are you signing up for? Medium. Not ThinkProgress, not Jose Moran. You might incidentally get updates from ThinkProgress or Jose after signing up, but Medium-the-business doesn’t give a crap if you do, so long as you keep using Medium.
In both cases the author loses control over their byline as well. Did Joe Romm want to display just part of his byline at the top of the page? We’ll never know, because Medium decided for him.
Does Jose Moran want you to sign up for more updates from him in case he posts an update where Elon grows some balls and lets his employee’s Unionize? Medium decided that no, what you want to do is sign up for Medium.
The only person that has an author’s best interests in mind is that author.
When an author has their own site, they are totally free to express themselves with more than just a byline. Nuclear Monster is to my taste as a modification of the free software WordPress. At the top of the page, that’s a logo I made with the feedback of friends. I picked out the colors of the site, and what code I wanted to use. I decided what the site’s focus should be. Medium pages are identical, generic and bland, because they express the identity of that site instead of the identity of that author.
Those bylines above are actually an improvement over the original Medium. Back in 2013 the author’s byline looked like this:
It is possible that the 2013 byline looked a little better, I have cribbed it from the archive.org version which sometimes isn’t able to preserve the entire detail of an archived page. However, it matches my memory of the site. No author photo or bio.
When you follow an author who has their own site by subscribing to their RSS feed, or on Facebook, or Twitter, you’re going to get to their site as the destination to read their work.
That author gets to decide if they’re going to link off-site at the bottom of their article page. I don’t personally like those kinds of advertisements, so I just have a rotating group of related articles from Nuclear Monster, but at least I have a choice and could decide if I wanted them. Jose Moran has no option after choosing to use Medium to host his writing. There are links to whatever articles the Medium algorithm picked.
As a writer, I hope that Medium fails, because it can’t exist as a functioning business without exploiting authors who need to establish their own identity in order to survive. I want to see more writers own their own websites or choose to work collectively with others instead of seeing their work stripped of identity and authorial ownership to another business intent on exploiting them.
The problem with San Francisco area startups is that they are all car crashes intent on smashing into as many people as possible before the money dries up and they leave without insurance to clean up the mess they left behind.
When Medium fails and is sold to Verizon, it will leave writers bloodied and bruised in its wake who haven’t established their own identity and they may be so frustrated with the experience that they give up on writing entirely.