New York REI Workers Overwhelmingly Vote to Form a Union

Workers at a Manhattan REI location overwhelmingly voted to form a union on Wednesday, overcoming a fierce union-busting campaign waged by the company after workers filed for a union election in January.

The results of the in-person vote to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) on Wednesday were 88 to 14 in favor of the union, or an 86 percent “yes” vote. The store, located in SoHo, is the first of the company’s 170 locations to unionize.

“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,” Claire Chang, a member of the workers’ organizing committee, said in a statement.

“We’re hopeful that REI meets us in good faith during negotiations for our first contract, while keeping our co-op values in mind and applying them to workers,” Chang continued.

Despite purporting to be a progressive company, REI has taken a myriad of anti-union steps over the past months. On an anti-union website that the company set up, it released a 25-minute podcast in which CEO Eric Artz co-opted the language of social movements in trying to sway workers against unionizing.

“These workers have vast expertise in their field and have worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic to serve the outdoor community. They have stuck together through a horrendous union-busting campaign and have come out the other side stronger,” said RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum. “With a seat at the table, workers can make working at REI safe and sustainable for years to come.”

Workers have said that the company has posted anti-union flyers in the store and suspended promotion opportunities. The company has also sent executives to hold captive audience meetings with workers, and pulled workers into one-on-one meetings with managers to feed them anti-union messaging.

In response, organizers have quoted the REI’s own purported values back to the company, saying that the company’s “co-op” structure with its customers should also extend to its workers.

Employees have said that company culture has shifted over the past couple of years, and that management hasn’t been maintaining safe working conditions during the pandemic or paying a living wage. Workers also say that many employees aren’t classified as full-time and thus don’t receive benefits, despite working for 40 hours a week.

“I never feel like anyone is actually listening,” Kate Denend, sales specialist at the now-unionized store, told Motherboard in January. “We hear about how REI is having record breaking profits this year. But a lot of people aren’t insured. A lot of people look elsewhere for healthcare.”

The unionization may inspire other REI locations to unionize and adds momentum to the labor movement, which has been experiencing a resurgence over the past year or so. Though retail and service industries are overwhelmingly not unionized, workers at Starbucks are in the midst of a strong union drive that has seen over 100 union filings so far and three successfully unionized locations.