Speaking Union at Recreational Equipment, Inc. (REI)
“For those of you that I haven’t had the chance to meet, I use the pronouns he/him and speak to you today from the traditional lands of the Coast Salish peoples.
The first words of a presentation by a community activist, a college teaching assistant, a performing artist? Maybe a progressive candidate for city council? Guess again.
They were spoken by REI CEO Eric Artz in an address earlier this month to employees of REI SoHo, the company’s flagship store in New York. Artz, who was paid around $3.2 million in 2019wanted his workers to understand why he “doesn’t think forming a union is the right thing for our employees.
Employees listening to Artz’ podcast rolled their eyes as he unrolled the standard anti-union playbook, representing a union – in this case, the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) – as if it were a third, not made up of the workers themselves. He assured them that “REI is becoming a more impactful organization” where workers can “bring your authentic self.” He did not address the fact that most store workers are kept under forty hours a week and without health insurance for at least a year, often longer. They have short notice and no entry on their schedules. They don’t believe they are being paid a living wage. They feel they have little say in their workplace.
I recently visited the three story SoHo store. It was a busy place on a weekday, stocked with top of the line camping and climbing gear, with clothing for all outdoor activities. Most of the workers gave me a thumbs up or said, “I like your button” (“Union yes!”). They were mostly under the age of thirty and mostly white, and many wore similar buttons (“Get up, keep fighting”). I spoke with a worker I’ll call Bud, who told me he lives near the store, but some commute almost two hours away. He said a solid majority of store workers had signed cards for an election. REI refused to voluntarily recognize the union.
Bud loves his job but has mocked the CEO’s appropriation of “social justice language,” and he laughed at the sudden appearance of free Paneras for employees. He resents what he sees as a management disinformation campaign against RWSDU and his colleagues. A document released in the break room by management was particularly murky, citing contract changes at a nearby Macy’s store as what REI workers could expect if they unionized.
An older worker, a longtime employee who didn’t wear a union badge, told me he was undecided on how to vote. This worker works full time, has a regular schedule and receives all benefits. Younger colleagues are sensitive to the fear of change but hope that workers like him will return.
REI declared income of $2.75 billion in 2020. Nationwide, the company has approximately 11,000 workers in 165 outlets. As with Starbucks, pro-union employees believe a victory at the SoHo store could open the door to their counterparts across the country. REI is reacting, step by step, to defeat the union campaign, but is using softer rhetoric to avoid further alienating its workers. the company website and other materials describe themselves as a “cooperative community” with a commitment “to put our values first in everything we do”.
The more than 100 REI employees in SoHo will vote in person at the store on March 2 to decide whether or not to form a union. Workers across the country will be watching.