REI Workers in NYC Vote to Unionize in Landslide Election

Employees at the flagship Manhattan store became the first in the camping chain's history to vote unionize on Wednesday. 
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On the Clock is Motherboard's reporting on the organized labor movement, gig work, automation, and the future of work.

Workers at REI Co-Op’s flagship store in Manhattan voted overwhelmingly to unionize on Wednesday, becoming the first of the outdoor and camping retail chain’s 170 in the country to unionize. 

On Wednesday, 86 percent of the store’s workers voted to unionize with the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union, despite a company-led campaign to derail the union that included mandatory meetings and huddles, a pause on promotional opportunities, and a 25-minute union busting podcast featuring REI CEO Eric Artz. The final tally was 88 votes in favor of unionizing and 14 votes against.

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“A union is necessary for many of us to achieve more stability and security in our lives which could allow for us to explore and play more outside of work,” said Claire Chang, a retail sales specialist at REI SoHo, in a statement.

The victory could spur a wave of organizing across REI’s 170 U.S. stores and inspire other low-wage workers to unionize in the retail industry, which has long evaded unionization. 

“We’re excited to welcome the workers of REI SoHo into our union, marking the first-ever unionized REI store in the whole country,” said Stuart Appelbaum, President, Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. “These workers…have stuck together through a horrendous union-busting campaign and have come out the other side stronger.”

REI has long cultivated an image as a progressive cooperative and employer, offering $20 lifetime members to customers and for the past seven years shutting down stores on Black Friday. But the company immediately expressed its opposition to its workers union drive, saying “we do not believe placing a union between the co-op and its employees is needed or beneficial.” 

In a podcast on a new REI website, Our.Rei.com, dedicated to convincing employees against voting in a union, Artz and chief diversity officer Wilma Wallace introduced themselves by their gender pronouns and land acknowledgements to the regions they were recording from. “Hello to everyone that is listening,” Artz began the podcast, “for those of you who I have not had the chance to meet, I use he/him pronouns and I'm speaking to you today from the traditional lands of the Coast Salish peoples.” 

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Artz went on to explain his stance against unionization, saying “the presence of union representation will impact our ability to communicate and work directly with our employees and resolve concerns at the speed the world is moving.” The episode and other anti-union messaging circulated at REI’s SoHo location drew widespread ridicule from progressive REI customers who support the union drive, some of whom pledged to stop shopping at the chain. 

“Today our SoHo store employees participated in an election to determine whether they would be represented by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU),” an REI spokesperson said. “The initial vote tally in the SoHo election is 88 votes for union representation and 14 votes against. The official results will be certified and are typically announced within five days of the vote tally. 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. 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.”

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The REI union drive coincides with a wave of new organizing at high profile companies, such as Starbucks and Amazon, that have long evaded unionization. Amazon warehouse workers in Alabama are currently voting on whether to unionize with the Retail Whole and Department Store Union, the same union that organized REI workers in SoHo. In recent months, three Starbucks stores have voted to unionize—the first stores to do so in U.S. history. In total, 2,033 Starbucks workers have filed for a union election at 78 stores since the start of 2022. 

Do you work at REI and have a tip to share with us about your working conditions or a union drive? Please get in touch with the reporter Lauren Kaori Gurley via email lauren.gurley@vice.com or securely on Signal 201-897-2109.

In January, 116 employees at the REI location in SoHo became the first of the company’s 170 stores nationwide to file for a union election. The concerns of REI workers in SoHo mirror those expressed by others working non-union jobs in the retail and service sectors. In particular, REI workers want a living wage (workers at the store start at roughly $18.90 an hour, but MIT’s living wage calculator says a living wage in New York City for a person without children is $21.77 an hour), full-time status and benefits, COVID-19 protections, and guaranteed hours. 

Kate Denand, a REI employee in SoHo that Motherboard spoke to in January, said she wanted to unionize because she and many of her coworkers do not receive full-time status and the healthcare benefits that come with it despite working 40 hours a week. 

The bargaining unit at REI’s SoHo location includes full-time 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.

“We're hopeful that 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, so we can all demonstrate that we really do go further,” said Chang. 

This post has been updated with comment from REI.