After months of organizing, the employees of a Manhattan REI store voted on Wednesday to join the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union.
After seven hours of suspense, REI Co-Op Workers in SoHo voted 88-14 on Wednesday to join the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU), making the New York City shop the first unionized REI store in the nation.
In January 2021, the 115 employees of the store filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to negotiate higher wages, health insurance, full-time status for new hires, and guaranteed hours. Initially, REI employees asked for voluntary recognition of their union, but the company declined and said that the presence of a union would affect its ability to communicate effectively with staff. In 2020, REI workers posted a petition on coworker.org demanding the improvement of coronavirus safety protocols, a hazard-pay increase to their hourly wages, and more transparency during the shutdown. In July 2020, the New York Times acquired screenshots revealing that the company repeatedly failed to adequately warn employees of COVID-19 infections, and REI staff criticized some stores’ decision to keep the fitting rooms open during the Delta variant surge.
“I am proud to be here in this moment with my coworkers at REI SoHo as a part of this new wave of unionization efforts that is sweeping the nation,” said Claire Chang, member of the REI SoHo Organizing Committee and four year employee at REI SoHo, on Wednesday night. “As members of the RWDSU, we know we will be able to harness our collective strength to advocate for a more equitable, safe, and enriching work environment.”
REI, which operates 170 stores and employs 15,000 people nationwide, is a consumer cooperative made up of customers who buy lifetime memberships for $30 and receive annual dividends of around 10 percent in the form of discounts. Members can access exclusive sales, buy and trade in used gear, rent equipment for lower fees, and have the ability to vote for the company’s board of directors. Over the years, REI has gained the reputation of a progressive brand that allows employees to go home on Black Friday and invests 70 percent of its profits back into the “outdoor community.”
However, the company has remained opposed to unionization. The company’s CEO, Eric Artz, shared his thoughts about the movement in a Feb. 3 company podcast episode with Chief Diversity and Social Impact Officer Wilma Wallace. He said that a union would “impact our ability to communicate and work directly with our employees and resolve concerns at the speed the world is moving.” He added, “And that is the core of why we don’t think that introducing a union is the right thing for our employees.” Discussing unions as a third-party interference is often considered to be an intimidation tactic to generate anxiety around the unionization process. The “green vests,” as REI workers are known, have denounced the company’s tactics, which they describe as the distribution of anti-union flyers, aggressive one-on-one meetings with managers, and the creation of a website that discourages unionization efforts. They argued that management spread fear by telling workers that contract negotiations would force the workplace to close and strip them of their employment.
The company issued a statement after Wednesday’s vote. “As we have said throughout this process, REI firmly believes that the decision of whether or not to be represented by a union is an important one, and we respect each employee’s right to choose or refuse union representation.”
What happened in REI SoHo is a rare occurrence in the retail industry: only 4.4% of retail workers belong to a union, and those who do are much more likely to work in grocery stores than in the apparel business. According to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report released in January, the national union membership rate among salary and wage workers dipped in 2021 and amounted to a loss of 241,000 union members. However, there is still a great wave of unionization efforts at high-profile companies, such as Starbucks and Amazon. Starbucks delayed the certification of several union election results and asked NLRB to prohibit Starbucks workers from organizing their stores individually, but the agency declined the request. Furthermore, Starbucks created a website discouraging “partners” from joining a union, and the Seattle-based company has been accused of sending “support managers” to a Buffalo location to surveil union activities. As for Amazon, they attracted attention by firing several union leaders, such as Bill Hough Jr. in Virginia and Christian Smalls in New York, despite promises of non-retaliation, and the company reportedly hired anti-union consultants to slow down the organization process.
Now that the REI employees voted for a union, the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union became their representative at work. It does not mean that employees no longer will be able to communicate with their employers, but the union should be given an opportunity to provide a representative to assist in the discussion. The company and the RWDSU will now negotiate a contract concerning hours, wages and other conditions for employment.
“These workers have stuck together through a horrendous union-busting campaign and have come out the other side stronger,” said Stuart Appelbaum, President of the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union. “The workers of REI SoHo are ready to negotiate a strong contract that will allow them to uphold the co-op’s progressive values while providing the top-notch service REI customers have come to expect.”