Sears workers demand hardship fund as company teeters on edge of closing

As Sears Holdings Corp teeters on the brink of liquidation, its employees are pushing for a hardship fund they hope can replicate the success of bankrupt retailer Toys ‘R’ Us, whose workers collected $20 million in severance pay from its former owners.

Sears on Tuesday agreed to consider a revised takeover bid from Chairman Edward Lampert, temporarily staving off a liquidation that would have spelled the end of the company.

The latest attempt by Lampert follows a decade of revenue declines, hundreds of store closures, and years of deals in an attempt to turn around the company he put together in 2005 in an $11 billion deal.

Now, the retailer’s approximately 68,000 workers are pushing Lampert to set up a financial fund giving laid-off workers a week of pay for every year of service.

“If he (Eddie Lampert) can drum up the money for another takeover bid, he can find the resources to come up with a hardship fund,” said Onie Patrick, a laid-off Kmart employee who is part of the organizing effort.

The fight for a hardship fund has become the new normal in U.S. retail, signaling a growing push for severance pay and benefits in an industry that has witnessed a raft of store closures and bankruptcies.

Sears is among the dozens of retailers like Gymboree, Claire’s, Nine West, Payless Shoe Source and True that have filed for bankruptcy in the past two years. Others like Bon-Ton Department Stores and Toys ‘R’ Us have gone out of business.

In the case of Sears, if liquidation is announced, employees will have to file claims with the court for both lost wages and severance that was promised to them, said Jerry Glass, president of labor relations at consultancy F&H Solutions Group.

Sears employees will be competing for the limited funds available, with other creditors, investors, and management employees who will be retained to assist in the liquidation, he said.

Last year, private equity firms Bain Capital and KKR & Co Inc — which bought Toys ‘R’ Us in a 2005 leveraged buyout and loaded it with billions of dollars in debt before liquidating the chain in June 2018 — set aside $20 million for retail workers, who had demanded $75 million.

The fund was an unusual move for private-equity owners, who are not required under bankruptcy law to provide such assistance for ex-employees.

Rise Up Retail, a campaign from labor group Organization United for Respect which assisted Toys R Us employees, does not think that will be a barrier.

The group has sent a letter to Lampert and other creditors demanding financial assistance for workers. It is also pushing for state and federal legislation that would require bankrupt companies to make severance payments.

“Eddie Lampert has picked apart this company and this is about him taking financial responsibility for his actions and the impact that is going to have on thousands of families,” said Lily Wang, deputy director for Organization United for Respect’s Rise Up Retail campaign.

Turkey’s Erdogan criticizes John Bolton as rift between NATO allies deepens

ANKARA, Turkey — President Donald Trump’s plans for withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria were thrown into more uncertainty Tuesday as national security adviser John Bolton left the region after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan refused to meet with him. Bolton’s mission to smooth a troop withdrawal with U.S. allies instead ended in only widening the rift with Turkey.

The path forward now appears more muddled than ever given Trump’s demand for assurances that Turkey protect Syrian Kurds after U.S. troops depart and Erdogan’s public snub of Bolton.

A senior administration official told NBC News that Trump thought he had gotten a commitment from Erdogan in a Dec. 23 phone call that Turkey would protect the Syrian Kurds, who have been a key U.S. ally in the fight against the Islamic State, after the American troops leave.

But a defiant Erdogan on Tuesday declined to meet with Bolton, who was in Turkey for talks about the withdrawal. In a speech to his political party, Erdogan said that Bolton had made a “serious mistake” in saying no U.S. troops would leave northeast Syria without such a commitment.

Erdogan said that Turkey would never compromise on the issue of the Syrian Kurds, or YPG Kurdish militia, which Turkey sees as a terrorist organization and part of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party.

Bolton met for more than two hours earlier in the day with his Turkish counterpart, Ibrahim Kalin, the senior administration official, who was at the meeting, said. During that meeting, Bolton presented Kalin with a list of five conditions the U.S. has for withdrawing troops from Syria — items agreed to by Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford and James Jeffrey, the U.S. envoy for Syria and the fight against ISIS, according to the senior administration official.

The list includes “a negotiated solution to Turkish security concerns,” the official said, and stipulates: “We want the protection of all civilians, particularly local minority populations. We’ll cooperate with Turkey on de-conflicting the airspace over northeast Syria. The United States opposes any mistreatment of opposition forces who fought with us against ISIS.”

Turkey rejected the proposal.

“I think it’s fair to say that the United States stuck by the president’s request as reflected in these points that the Kurds, that the opposition forces that fought with us, not be mistreated,” the U.S. official said. “And the Turks stuck by their position that the PYD and the YPG are terrorist groups and they’re free to go after them.” (The PYD, or Democratic Union Party, is the political wing of the YPG.)

Kalin told Bolton that Erdogan had committed Turkey to not taking offensive action in Syria while U.S. forces were there, the official said.

The official said Erdogan’s speech on Tuesday was not at odds with the commitment Trump thought he had gotten from Erdogan during their Dec. 23 phone call.

National Security Council spokesman Garrett Marquis said Erdogan called Kalin during their meeting and told him to send his regards to Bolton. However, Erdogan said he wouldn’t be able to spend any time with Bolton because he was headed to Parliament to deliver a speech.

A meeting between Bolton and Erdogan was never confirmed, a U.S. official said, but administration officials had said one was expected.