REI workers are the latest to step into unionization efforts.
On Friday, the National Labor Relations Board received a petition for union election at Recreational Equipment Inc., (or REI as it’s known) on behalf of 116 REI SoHo employees who wish for formal union election and recognition. The organizers sought representation from the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union, or RWDSU, and the United Food and Commercial Workers coalition, or UFCW.
This store, in particular, has been a happening spot throughout the pandemic, as outdoor activities and enjoyment have been on the rise.
In a statement shared with WWD, the company acknowledged employee rights, but stood firm on its co-op model.
“At REI, 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. However, we do not believe placing a union between the co-op and its employees is needed or beneficial,” the company said.
“We are, at our core, a cooperative. By definition, we do business differently; we are collaborative by nature, working toward common goals. We stand up for our shared values in all we do. And we measure our success by our positive impact on our employees, our members, society, and finally our business — in that order.
“It’s clear that some of the employees in our SoHo store have concerns. We remain committed to our people first — and, as we always do, we will work closely with our SoHo store team.”
REI employees are speaking out against lax mask-wearing or COVID-19 safety and disclosure protocols in store (REI saw policy changes last year adapted from the CDC, as well as state and local guidance) and values shifts, according to union organizers.
Separately, REI’s president and chief executive officer Eric Artz proactively sent an email expressing REI’s stance to employees, which was later shared on social media.
The REI Co-op was founded in 1938 on the premise of a collective love of the outdoors, mountaineering and recreation of all kinds, whether hiking, skiing, camping or the like. About 1 million new members join the co-op a year for a onetime $20 fee, receiving dividends back on their purchases each year for life. The co-op counts roughly 13,000 employees.
But REI also counts 20 million lifetime co-op members who may have an opinion on the latest organizing efforts — a handful of whom have already expressed pro-union stances in customer feedback forums and the like online.
“The arguments against it we should expect,” said Victor Narro, project director and professor of Labor Studies at the University of California Los Angeles Labor Center. “We should expect these companies to hide behind their own models that they claim is better than unionization and gives the workers a better voice, better harmony.…There’s this perception that unions are antiquated, they use co-ops or other models to claim they have a better model in place. [They think] ‘there’s no need for a union’: I think they truly believe in that.”
Regardless of how cooperative business can be, retail, service and hospitality workers are suffering under the daily grind.
According to a January report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 158,000 fewer employees in the retail workforce, compared to February 2020. Union membership is also on the decline. According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics released last week, 10.3 percent of the U.S. workforce was unionized last year (a 0.5 percent dip that put membership in line with 2019 lows). This represents roughly 14 million workers today compared to 17.7 million in 1983 when the Bureau began comparing data.
As activist agendas and new bills like New York’s “Fashion Act” are evolving conversations on what sustainability in fashion looks like, labor efforts are coalescing with Canada Goose and Amazon as other examples.
When Winnipeg-based Canada Goose factory workers began their organizing efforts last January, it was not without trial. One year later, the efforts paid off with more than 1,000 (or 86 percent of workers) voting to unionize two production facilities as of Friday.
Amazon — one of America’s two largest employers — has also had its go with unions. RWDSU-represented “BAmazon,” the organizing efforts in Bessemer, Ala., will see a repeat election begin Feb. 4 (with votes counted March 28) after the NLRB threw out the previous one because Amazon “interfered with the employees’ exercise of a free and reasoned choice.”
“What we saw since the pandemic is worker uprising everywhere, union favor,” Narro said. “I think workers are fed up in this country. The labor movement has a moment to look at new strategies.”