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REI New York Retail Workers’ Petition to Unionize Spurs Blowback From CEO

REI Co-op employees in New York City are seeking to form the company’s first union. And despite its longstanding reputation as a co-operative led by the values of its members, the company is attempting to squash the effort.

Workers at the outdoor retailer’s Manhattan flagship filed a request with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on Friday for an election that would impact about 115 individuals. The SoHo-based store’s workforce is seeking representation from the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), which managed the union campaign at Amazon’s Bessemer, Ala. warehouse in spring 2021—and the subsequent complaints against the company’s conduct. RWDSU filings in the fall citing Amazon’s interference with the vote led to the labor board’s decision to grant a new election on Feb. 4.

Unlike Amazon’s warehouse workers, REI employees have asked for that the union be voluntarily recognized, making the voting process unnecessary.

“Over the past several years, we have faced a lot of change working at REI,” the SoHo store’s technical specialist and organizing union committee member Graham Gale said in a statement provided by RWDSU. “There has been a tangible shift in the culture at work that doesn’t seem to align with the values that brought most of us here in the first place.”

The struggle of facing unsafe working conditions during a global pandemic has prompted workers to seek union representation, they added. “We have filed for our union vote with RWDSU to have a seat at the table,” Gale said, noting that employees hope the company will uphold its stated community values and recognize the effort. “But we cannot continue to allow our job security, safety and well-being to be at stake.”

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Calling workers “the carriers of the co-op’s success,” Gale said that workers need quality of life in order to continue to facilitate the certified B Corp’s “positive influence on the retail industry.”

On Tuesday, REI acknowledged the filing and told Sourcing Journal that it is “working in good faith with the NLRB on next steps.”

“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,” the company said. “However, we do not believe placing a union between the co-op and its employees is needed or beneficial.”

Noting its intention to stand up for the values of its community, REI said it measures success through “positive impact on our employees, our members, society, and finally our business—in that order.”

Despite these proclamations, REI CEO Eric Artz is now facing scrutiny for an email sent to the company’s entire U.S. workforce on Sunday, two days after the labor board filing. The correspondence, obtained and posted by Twitter user @UnionElections, elucidates the company’s anti-union stance. “Each of us has chosen to become a part of our co-op community, united by a shared mission and purpose,” he wrote. “A union will not help us achieve that mission and purpose.”

The Twitter thread was posted to REI’s online community forum, where co-op members unilaterally voiced disapproval of Artz’s tone—and what they perceived as a decision to try and influence or intimidate employees.

“REI needs to think carefully before they decide to play hardball with their unionizing employees,” wrote one user. “If they lose the goodwill of their customer base, they will crash and burn.”

“I have been a co-op member for 20+ years and love the store and its employees,” added another. “But I will not be part of any attempt to bust a union organizing campaign by REI management,” they added, “and will urge other co-op members to join me in the event that REI management pursues such a wrongheaded policy.”

REI underscored the values inherent to its unique business model in its statement this week. “By definition, we do business differently,” it said. “We are collaborative by nature, working toward common goals.”

Founded in 1938, the company has 20 million lifetime members and nearly 15,000 employees who determine how 70 percent of annual profits are invested into its community. REI offers dividends to members, employee profit-sharing and retirement, and funds non-profits related to the outdoors, it said.

“It’s clear that some of the employees in our Soho store have concerns,” it added. “We remain committed to our people first—and, as we always do, we will work closely with our SoHo store team.”