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Why workers at an REI store voted to join a union

By FashionUnited

14 Mar 2022

Retail

A window at REI SoHo. Image by Jennifer Mason

Workers at the New York City flagship of Recreational Equipment, Inc. (REI) voted to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), which will now be the first union at any store for the outdoor gear retailer. The vote, which took place in-person at the SoHo location on March 2 was an overwhelming win for the union with eighty-six percent voting in favor.

A visit to the store not long after dashed hopes of capturing the post-vote glow and reaction from a few of the organizers, some of whom have been campaigning for almost a year and a half since the inception of the drive in October 2020. A friendly greeter wearing a pro-union button directed all queries to the RWDSU. While a union representative provided the official statement, direct communication with any REI SoHo employee would not be arranged even after a week’s time. Still, a video of a Zoom press conference held a week prior to the vote offered some insight as to why so many workers ended up on the side of yes.

A pro-union button on an REI SoHo store employee’s vest. Image by Jennifer Mason

Scheduling and Late Policies

FashionUnited covered the release of an MIT Sloan Management Review study in January that pointed to unpredictable schedules as one of the main contributors to the mass exodus of retail employees from the workplace over the past few years. The case of REI SoHo reaffirms that finding. “Scheduling policies, late policies have been changed on us on a whim,” said Claire Chang, a full-time visual and retail sales specialist and member of the organizing committee. “It’s just being handed down from corporate with no say from us. Having even just a modicum of power in that, I think, is one of the biggest reasons why having a union is really important, because we’d actually get to negotiate with our employer on these policies. I greatly believe that this will lead us to have better relationships with our managers going forward as well,” she said.

Tyler Mulholland, a clothing sales lead at the store for the last two years noted, “Of course we’re excited about better and more equal living wages, but something specific that I think is relevant to our store—we have a late policy that has a 3-minute grace period, or as I always tease, it’s the disgrace period. You know in New York City if you commute to work and you miss the bus or the train, you’ll certainly be more than three minutes late. And that’s been a policy that we’ve all spoken about. Just a minute example that’s a unique circumstance for us.” It is true in New York that even if you catch your mode of transportation on time, the MTA will manifest its own causations for lateness to occur.

Workplace Safety and Basic Training

The pandemic was of course a huge driver of concern about workplace safety but not the only one at this store. “We’ve had a number of people injured,” shared Steve Buckley, a sales specialist on the soft goods team and an REI employee of only six months. “I work on the stock team multiple nights a week and we’ve had numerous people injured on the stock team and it's, I think, out of a lack of training and support. That’s definitely something we’re looking for is how we can have a true seat at the table and for people like me, who are newer, to have opportunities for growth, training and development, and to learn new skills.”

“Since coming back from the lockdown having been furloughed, we started seeing a lot of changes in the company,” Chang said. “This was pre-vaccines and we were seeing our co-workers getting sick and there was a lot of pushback when it came to employee safety. They used to say worker safety is number one but the actions and decisions that were made just didn’t really line up with what they were saying, and eventually they kind of stopped saying that.”

The store’s mask policy is posted at the entrance. Image by Jennifer Mason

Company Culture

The interesting thing is that these organizers, who could have easily left for other retail jobs, put in the work for this union drive in order to stay with the company. As Mulholland described, “There are a lot of people who were initially meeting with us that have left for other career opportunities. Personally for me, the reason that I want a union for REI is because I would like to be here in the future and I think it’s a very concrete way to make it a more viable, long-term option.”

Part of that sentiment is due to the unique environment that is specific to this company. “It is a slightly different type of retail,” Chang explained. “We’re a specialty retailer, we specialize in the outdoors. It’s a common draw for a lot of folks who work at REI because we believe in their slogan, ‘a life outdoors is a life well lived.’ We all have our common interests whether it be running, camping, backpacking, skiing and that’s what brings us all together. Our passion, our expertise is what ties us. So a lot of people tend to stay at REI to meet great people.”

But as she’s been with the company for four years, she’s noticed a cultural shift from management. “Over the past few years, I feel like this company has been moving further and further away from its values and just focusing too much on expansion,” she said. She acknowledged that REI, with its consumer co-op business model, “relies a lot on the co-op as its branding and image. There’s a huge emphasis on memberships. As a company, it recognizes a strength in numbers. It’s ironic to be like, yeah, we want more people because we can do good things collectively together. But then when it comes to the employees wanting to have a voice and trying to also engage in collective bargaining, that’s a big no-no.” REI has stated that it appreciates the hard work of its employees and respects each member’s right to choose whether or not to unionize, but was not in favor of unionization.

Still, as the negotiations are set to begin to address the criticisms, there is a positive approach that the company could meet in good faith. “I’m absolutely committed to getting us to a first contract and to help build a viable, long-term union presence at our store so that we can have that say long-term,” Buckley said. “I will say when I took this job, I was just looking for the next thing to hold me over, like a lot of people in retail. But, by meeting the people that I work with and getting to have some amazing customer interactions—One of my coworkers came in on their off day to get outfitted for their trip to Nepal by me because they trust me to help them find the gear they need. I love that. I want to continue to do that,” he stated. “I genuinely believe in what I do.”

labor rights
Recreational Equipment
REI
store employees
union vote