REI Retail Workers in Manhattan File to Form Company’s First Union

Workers at an REI store in New York City filed to form a union among the location’s 116 employees on Friday. If the effort is successful, the store would be the first of the outdoor recreation equipment company’s 168 locations and 15,000 employees to unionize.

The workers have filed for representation by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU). They have also requested voluntary recognition of the union by their employer, which would bypass the need for a vote.

It’s unlikely that the company will simply allow the workers to unionize without an election, however. In response to the filing, the company said it stands against unionization for their employees.

“We respect the rights of our employees to speak and act for what they believe – and that includes the rights of employees to choose or refuse union representation,” the company said in a statement. “However, we do not believe placing a union between the co-op and its employees is needed or beneficial.”

The statement echoes language from an email sent to organizing workers over the weekend, according to Daily Union Elections on Twitter. According to a screenshot of the email, CEO Eric Artz sent the message.

Framing a union as divisive is a common union busting technique. Starbucks has used similar language in attempts to discourage its employees to unionize, claiming that a union divides workers and creates tension. (Starbucks has also taken steps to schedule workers erratically seemingly in order to make it harder to unionize, workers have said.)

Workers say the union is necessary due to unsafe working conditions for employees amid the pandemic. Additionally, there has been “a tangible shift in the culture at work that doesn’t seem to align with the values that brought most of us here,” according to a statement by organizer Graham Gale.

Indeed, like Starbucks, the company claims to have progressive values. In 2016, the company rebranded to include “co-op” in their logo to emphasize its membership program and garner a sense of community between the company and its customers. Its website says that REI is “A different kind of company,” and says that a large portion of its profits are invested back into its members and employees.

The 2016 rebrand came after a tussle between the company and its workers, when Seattle retail employees waged a campaign for higher pay and better scheduling policies. The workers also were in the beginning stages of organizing a union campaign.

Before workers could file a petition for unionization, however, the company shut it down. It posted a memo to employees at the store warning that signing a union card could have “consequences.”

“REI management is not anti-union,” read the memo, according to The Stranger. “We just don’t need one at REI…. We sincerely urge you not to sign a union authorization card.”

As a result of the push, employees eventually won a wage raise to $15 an hour for its Seattle workers. However, then-CEO Jerry Stritzke said that it would be too expensive to do the same for employees across the country; according to Indeed, average salaries at the company are still below $15 an hour for lower level retail employees.

The company had also earned widespread praise when it decided in 2015 it would no longer open on Black Friday, garnering an image as a company that treated its employees well.

New York workers’ push comes during a time of heightened unionization activity at major corporations. Starbucks workers have filed an extraordinary number of union filings over the past month, and have so far succeeded in unionizing two locations despite a fierce union-busting campaign from the company.

Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama, have also filed to unionize with RWDSU and will begin their second election in February after the National Labor Relations Board found that the company broke labor laws during the first vote in 2021.