Sears is dying, but workers’ loyalty lives on
The annual Christmas luncheon was called for noon, but many members of the Atlanta Sears Family had arrived at the church hall by 10:30 a.m.
There was a lot to catch up on: birthdays, illnesses, and news of club members who had died over the past few months. There was baked ham, green beans, and cherry pie for lunch. There was music — oldies and Christmas carols mostly. One club member, 84-year-old Herman Atwood, danced to “My Girl,” twisting and twirling in his Sears Roebuck sweater vest as if he were at a wedding.
Sears may be struggling to survive after filing for bankruptcy in October, its rundown and empty stores symbolizing a has-been company that failed to adapt. But across the country, legions of former Sears workers like Atwood, a retired truck driver, gather regularly to reminisce about their long careers in retailing. The brands like Kenmore and DieHard that lasted for decades. The limitless creativity of shoplifters. The impossible task of selecting the women’s shoe inventory.
For an older generation of Sears retirees, their former employer remains a central part of their lives, a throwback in an industry now known for high turnover, low wages, and costly health care. Today, there are dozens of Sears alumni groups, from Bangor, Maine, to Sioux Falls, S.D., forming one of the largest and most active retiree networks in the nation.
“It feels like family,” Mattie Hughey said as she sat with three friends she met packing catalog orders in the Sears warehouse in Atlanta 30 years ago.
Long before it went bankrupt, before it was taken over by hedge fund manager Edward S. Lampert, and before Amazon pioneered internet shopping, Sears was the nation’s largest retailer, with about 350,000 employees near its peak.
In its heyday, a period stretching from the end of World War II to the 1970s, Sears offered many of its workers a clear path to the middle class. The company paid well, shared profits, and provided retirement benefits that have helped many former employees live in relative comfort.
Madison Price, 87, comes every year to the holiday luncheon to see old friends and soak in the music. He grew up working on a farm in Georgia, helping grow cotton and corn. His father split the proceeds from their crops with the man who owned the farm. Price didn’t finish high school and often missed school because he was needed on the farm.
After returning from the Korean War, Price got a job as a janitor in a store in Atlanta in 1958. When he retired after 34 years, Price sold the Sears stock the company had granted him over the years and took his pension in a lump sum.
He reinvested the money only in things that he uses: shares in Georgia’s power utilities and municipal bonds of DeKalb County and the Atlanta airport. Today, Price said he drew enough in dividends and interest from his investment portfolio, along with Social Security, to live comfortably. He paid for his son’s college tuition, and his wife, Earnestine, has been able to take trips with her friends.
“I am blessed,” Price said.
Many of the retirees at the luncheon said they viewed their time at Sears as being part of something bigger than just working at a successful retailer. They worked for a force in American culture and business. Sears sold everything: feed for chickens, Whirlpool washing machines, as well as the nightgowns, watches, and erector sets in the Christmas “wish book.”
“One man came by looking for a wagon for his horse,” said Jerril Parker, who worked in security at Sears in the Atlanta area for 45 years.
Sears workers became experts in their fields — heating systems, kitchen appliances, cosmetics. And they were proud of what they sold. Elder Penny, who started at Sears after serving as a Navy supply officer in World War II, was a regional buyer of women’s shoes. Penny, 94, still has the same Kenmore refrigerator he bought at Sears in 1974.
“I think I will wear out before it does,” he said.
There was also a feeling of camaraderie and support. Decades ago, the Sears headquarters in Illinois were referred to as “parent” — a telling symbol of the way employees viewed their employer.
Experienced workers took new recruits under their wing. When a manager relocated to a new store, other employees there helped him look for a new home.
Sears today is nothing like the company many retirees remember. The retailer stopped profit-sharing in the 1970s, and employees hired more recently no longer receive pensions. Under its chairman, Lampert, the company has been selling off many of its most valuable stores and laying off thousands of workers.
On Friday, Lampert, through his hedge fund, ESL Investments, made a $4.4 billion bid to acquire many of the company’s remaining assets, including its retail stores. Lampert said the proposal would keep 50,000 workers employed.
Retirees warned long ago that Lampert’s involvement with Sears would end badly. When his hedge fund acquired the company in 2005 by merging it with Kmart, a group of former workers hired a plane to fly over the headquarters in Illinois pulling a banner that read, “Sears Unfair to Retirees.”
The retirees’ pensions are expected to survive the bankruptcy largely intact thanks to a backstop from the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. But if Sears goes into a liquidation, which many analysts and investors say is likely, then the retirees would lose most of their life insurance benefits.
In the current incarnation of Sears, recruiting new members to the alumni groups has been difficult. Two decades ago, there were 250 clubs; now there are only about 45. More recent retirees, who did not receive pensions or profit-sharing, do not share the same allegiance as older generations.
Age is another challenge. The Atlanta club regularly updates its 160 members with a “bereavement report” listing local retirees who have died.
As the luncheon in Decatur finished, Lynn Walker Capland lingered in the church hall, helping clean off the tables and talking with friends. Capland, 66, is not only a former employee, she is what she calls a “byproduct of Sears.” Her mother and father met while working at the Christmas pickup window in the Atlanta store.
Walker left the company before reaching retirement age because she said she wasn’t suited for her final job in the collections department. But she still takes a day off from current work at an accounting firm to attend the luncheon every year.
“No one makes time for these types of things anymore. Everyone is so busy,” she said. “This way of life is almost gone.”