REI union workers want their ‘progressive’ employer to pay a living wage
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images
On the Clock is Motherboard’s report on the organized labor movement, gig work, automation and the future of work.
REI officials began morning shifts this week at the company’s flagship store in Manhattan by reading aloud a series of talking points about the company’s stance against unionization. Kate Denend, sales specialist at REI’s Manhattan store camp department, said officials called the union a “third party” and said it would be bad for REI.
“Our main communication from the company about the union campaign has been through morning huddles,” she said. “The manager reads the same opening statement.” Denend said the workers reacted by asking “’what do you mean a union would be bad for us?’ and they’re like ‘we’ll get that info for you soon.’
Last Friday, 116 employees at the Soho store in Manhattan filed for union election with the Retail Warehouse and Department Store Union, the first of the retailer’s 15,000 employees across the country to seek to form a union. REI has long cultivated an image as one of the most progressive retailers in the country, closing stores out of order during Black Friday over the past seven years and providing workers with annual incentives that take effect when stores meet their sales targets.
But REI workers in Soho have many concerns that reflect the general precariousness of non-union retail employment. In particular, they want full-time status and benefits, COVID-19 protections, and guaranteed hours after the holiday season. Denend told Motherboard that despite working a 40-hour week, she and many of her co-workers are classified as part-time and will not receive the health care benefits that come with full-time status until they are released. will not have worked in the company for a year. She says workers at her store are often told “we don’t know” when they ask how they can be converted to full-time status sooner. “There are a lot of accountability and transparency issues,” she said. New hires at the Manhattan store start at around $18.90 an hour. MIT’s Living Wage Calculator says a living wage in New York is $21.77 an hour for someone without children.
“One thing I keep coming back to is that REI prides itself on being a great place to work, a leader in the outdoors, but why aren’t any of us making a living wage? Denend explained why she and her colleagues decided to unionize. “Why do you have to work 40 hours a week for 12 months to get health benefits? Why are there no guaranteed hours after the holiday season? These are very basic things that REI has shied away from doing, despite this facade of being a progressive and liberal company.
A day after the workers ran for office, Eric Artz, CEO and President of REI, wrote an email to all REI employees in its 170 stores across the country.
“We always start from respect, which is why I want to be clear with you on the cooperative’s position on unionization: we do not believe that placing a union between the cooperative and its employees is necessary or beneficial,” he wrote. . “Our business is built around the idea of working together for the common good.” He noted that being part of REI’s “cooperative community meant uniting around a ‘shared mission and purpose.’ “A union will not help us achieve this mission and this goal,” he said.
Workers say Artz’s messages were recycled this week in daily morning meetings with a captive audience, and workers were also brought in to have one-on-one discussions with management about the union.
The union campaign follows other high-level organizing efforts at companies like Starbucks and Amazon, companies with anti-union management that have long resisted unionization. If workers vote to unionize, they have the potential to inspire thousands more at REI and other retailers to form unions.
REI is a cooperative, which means the company has no shareholders, but is owned at least in name by its members who pay a one-time fee of $20 for a lifetime membership. Employees are not automatically part of the cooperative unless they join, but they do receive sales incentives. Qualifying employees receive 5% of their annual salary and up to 10% additional funding when the business is profitable. (Last year, workers at the Soho site did not receive this bonus because the store did not meet its sales targets.)
“I never feel like anyone is actually listening,” Denend said. “We hear about how REI is having record profits this year. But a lot of people are uninsured. A lot of people are looking elsewhere for health care. I feel like they’ve put health insurance on hold to allow me to work 40 hours a week.
RWDSU communications director Chelsea Connor said the union could not provide exact figures on how many workers had signed cards authorizing the union to hold an election, but noted the number was close to a supermajority. .
RWDSU, the union that organizes the Soho store, is also organizing Amazon warehouse workers in Bessemer, Alabama, for a second election. This re-election should begin on February 4.
A spokesperson for REI told Motherboard: “At REI, we respect the right of our employees to speak and act according to their beliefs… However, we do not believe that the creation of a union between the cooperative and its employees whether necessary or beneficial. The spokesperson added that the company is cooperating with the NLRB on next steps and acknowledged that it remains committed to addressing the concerns of its employees in Soho.