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REI’s SoHo Store Workers Vote to Unionize

Workers at REI‘s Manhattan store voted to unionize, marking an historic first for the outdoor retail co-op.

The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) announced Wednesday that an 86-percent majority of workers at the company’s SoHo store voted in favor of unionization, making the location the only unionized REI store of its 174-strong fleet. Voters cast 88 ballots for union representation, and 14 votes against, with the official results to be certified in the coming days.

“I am proud to be here in this moment with my coworkers at REI SoHo as a part of this new wave of unionization efforts that is sweeping the nation,” Claire Chang, a member of the store’s organizing committee and retail sales specialist, said in a statement. The RWDSU continues to manage the Bessemer, Ala. Amazon union campaign that began last year. “We know we will be able to harness our collective strength to advocate for a more equitable, safe, and enriching work environment,” she added.

REI workers who filed a union election request with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in January felt that collective bargaining power was “necessary for many of us to achieve more stability and security in our lives,” Chang said. SoHo employees reported unsafe conditions throughout the pandemic and a workplace culture that some said made them uncomfortable.

The REI retail store in Manhattan's SoHo neighborhood.
The REI retail store in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood. Ron Adar / SIPA Images / Associated Press

“As green vests, we believe ‘a life outdoors is a life well-lived,’” Chang added, referring to REI’s retail store uniform. “In order for that to be viable and accessible to us, we need to be at the bargaining table alongside REI leadership.” Employees hope “REI meets us in good faith during negotiations for our first contract, while keeping our co-op values in mind and applying them to workers,” she said.

Stuart Appelbaum, president of the 100,000-member RWDSU, welcomed the workforce into the union. “These workers have vast expertise in their field and have worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic to serve the outdoor community,” he said. “The workers of REI SoHo are ready to negotiate a strong contract that will allow them to uphold the co-op’s progressive values while providing the top-notch service REI customers have come to expect.”

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The RWDSU will represent about 116 REI workers in contract negotiations, including all full- and part-time sales specialists, technical specialists, visual presentation specialists, shipping and receiving specialists, certified technicians, operations leads, sales leads, and shipping and receiving leads. Those talks should begin in the coming months.

Appelbaum said employees resisted REI’s alleged union-busting campaign. The RWDSU accused the Kent, Wash.-based company of employing dissuasion tactics like preventing workers from meeting to discuss their issues with the company. REI CEO Eric Artz faced criticism over a leaked email to staff claiming that a union would not help workers achieve the co-op community’s “shared mission and purpose.”

REI on Wednesday acknowledged the outcome of the break-room vote. “As we have said throughout this process, REI firmly believes that the decision of whether or not to be represented by a union is an important one, and we respect each employee’s right to choose or refuse union representation,” a company spokesperson told Sourcing Journal. “We are, at our core, cooperative. Our employees are the heart of the co-op community, and their expertise, enthusiasm and joy in helping people get outside make us who we are. We greatly appreciate their hard work and dedication through what continues to be a remarkably challenging time in the world.”

REI targets record growth

REI on Wednesday also detailed plans to “significantly” evolve its lifetime membership program “for the first time in 84 years” to grow the co-op community.

REI said the new member benefits should help it reach 50 million members by 2030 from 20 million today. The incentives include access to a broader selection of goods such as brand collaborations and limited-edition products as well as early access to sales and promotions. Members will also receive free shipping on all orders and discounts on bike and gear repairs.

Members also get exclusive access to REI’s secondhand Used Gear selection. Powered by re-commerce platform Trove, the program, now renamed Re/Supply, offers outdoor apparel, footwear, accessories, and camping gear. Consumers can purchase these items through a microsite on REI.com, or at one of two resale storefronts in Manhattan Beach, Calif. and Conshohocken, Penn. Trading in used REI products unlocks store credit toward future purchases.

REI's updated membership includes access to exclusive products and secondhand goods via Re/Supply.
REI’s updated membership includes access to exclusive products and secondhand goods via Re/Supply. @REI

REI updated the program to attract new members. It said it will donate $5 of each $30 membership fee to its Cooperative Action Fund, a non-profit arm that supports outdoor exploration-focused organizations and conservancies. Last year, the fund donated $1 million to 19 national groups and this year, REI aims to donate more than $7 million.

“Our relaunch is the beginning of a new chapter for the co-op and represents the first step of many toward a member experience overhaul that has community engagement at its core,” senior vice president and chief marketing officer Vivienne Long said. “We heard from a diverse group of potential members who shared that the new program has broad appeal to be part of a broader community and creates the opportunity to make a meaningful impact.”