Why REI’s Grassroots Unionization Efforts Are Spreading Across the Fleet ‘Like Wildfire’

Last week, employees at a Boston REI store joined a movement underway in the outdoor retailer’s stores across the U.S. when they voted in favor of  unionizing their location.

This initial union win marked the latest victory for a relatively recent organizing drive taking root across REI stores — and across retail more broadly. In addition to Boston, four other REI stores — in Chicago, California, New York City and Ohio— have voted in favor of unionizing in the last two years, and others across Oregon, North Carolina and Minnesota have begun the process as well, filing filed petitions with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for union elections.

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Meanwhile, retail workers at other major corporations have led union pushes in the months and years following the pandemic — a time when many employees worked on the frontlines of essential retail businesses while office workers and other employees stayed at home. More than 300 Starbucks stores have unionized since 2021, in one of the most extensive organizing campaigns to have spread within one retail company. Elsewhere, employees at Trader Joe’s stores and Amazon warehouses have also begun their own union drives, albeit on much smaller scales.

“The pandemic seems to have sort of changed the labor environment in a way that sort of opened up an opportunity for unions,” said John Logan, a labor professor at San Francisco State University. “Particular kinds of workers are very attracted to the idea of organizing right now as a result of the way they were treated during the pandemic.”

At places like Starbucks and REI, these workers tend to be younger, college educated idealistic and driven by their values.

“[They typically have no] previous involvement with unions, but sometimes a background in activism in things like Black Lives Matter, abortion rights, and so forth,” Logan said. “This generation of young workers appears to be politicized and pro-union in a way, even more so than previous generations.”

That’s part of what likely attracted many of these employees to companies like Starbucks, or a members-owned co-op like REI, both of which espouse values like embracing the LGBTQ+ community, condemning racism and mitigating environmental harm. In many ways, pushing for a collective voice through a union is an extension of those philosophies.

“It’s time that REI practices its values,” said Cloud Schneider (They/Them), a member of the REI Cleveland Organizing Committee and visual sales lead at REI in a statement when the Cleveland store filed for a union election. “At REI, we live by the phrase ‘a life outdoors is a life well lived’. Yet employees are not paid fair wages and have to deal with irregular scheduling preventing us from enjoying the great outdoors.”

“Employees have really bonded around solidarity,” said Jason Greer, a labor relations expert and consultant and former board agent with the NLRB. While these employees might be advocating for better pay and hours on the surface, it’s the sense of collective power and community that is making this catch on, Greer explained. REI stores starting the unionization process have said they have been inspired by previous REI wins, such as at the trailblazing New York City store.

“Seeing the stores in SoHo and Berkeley vote to unionize really inspired the rest of us,” said Durham REI worker Alice Bennett in an email to FN. “We realized that within our own stores, we weren’t alone with our issues and that stores across the company needed change.”

While not quite at the scale of Starbucks, the REI union effort has benefited from visibility on social media. Unionizing stores have set up pages on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, with some pages garnering thousands of followers. In addition to posting their own journeys and wins on social media, the accounts also interact with one another, offering collective support as a broader REI unionization effort.

For its part, REI has at least publicly maintained a supportive stance for the efforts.

“REI believes in the right of every eligible employee to vote for or against union representation,” the company said in a statement following Boston REI election results, echoing previous comments regarding unionizations efforts at different stores. “We fully supported our Boston employees through the vote process and we will continue to support our employees going forward as they begin to navigate the collective bargaining process.”

However, some employees maintain a different story. REI workers at a store in Durham, N.C. went on strike earlier this month to protest management’s response to their unionization efforts. They said they were striking because of an Unfair Labor Practice charge they filed against management, citing “illegal discipline of workers who are involved in the union organization efforts,” a release said. According to a release, REI put an active union organizer on “‘administrative leave’ without clear information about his status.” The employees also called on management to “cease manipulating the election process.” The Durham store is set to vote for union representation on May 25.

“They’ve been heavy-handed in their union busting tactics in a way that has really disappointed me and my coworkers,” Bennett said. “The lengths REI has been willing to go to to persuade us to vote ‘no’ when we are actually just seeking the genuine collaboration a co-op should offer has been really sad for those of who believe in REI’s values.”

As of last week, NLRB regional offices were investigating a total of 22 unfair labor practice charges filed against REI at various stores.

Now that the movement has garnered momentum, the public — and not to mention REI’s more than 23 million co-op members — are watching the way management responds. Instead of using force to quash the union, negotiating in good faith and listening to employee concerns is likely the best tactic for management, Greer said.

“This thing has spread like wildfire,” Greer said of the REI unionizing campaign. “Once the fire gets started, it is going to be very hard to put it out.”

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