Unionizing REI Workers Want Their ‘Progressive’ Employer to Pay a Living Wage

“One thing I keep coming back to is the fact that REI prides itself on being a great workplace, but why is it that none of us are making a living wage?”
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images
On the Clock is Motherboard's reporting on the organized labor movement, gig work, automation, and the future of work.

REI managers began morning shifts this week at the company’s flagship store in Manhattan by reading aloud a series of talking points about the company’s stance against unionization. Kate Denend, a sales specialist in the camp department at REI’s Manhattan store said managers called the union “a third party” and claimed it would be bad for REI. 

“Our main communication from the company about the union drive has been through morning huddles,” she said. “The manager reads the same opening statement.” Denend said workers have responded by asking “‘what do you mean a union would be bad for us?’ and they’re like ‘we’ll get this info for you soon.’” 


Last Friday, 116 employees at the Soho store in Manhattan filed for a union election with the Retail Warehouse and Department Store Union, the first of the retailer’s 15,000 employees nationwide to seek to form a union. REI has long cultivated an image as one of the nation’s most progressive retailers, shutting down stores on Black Friday for the past seven years and offering workers annual incentives that kick in when stores hits sales targets. 

But REI workers in Soho have many concerns that reflect the general precarity of working a non-union job in the retail industry. In particular, they want full-time status and benefits, COVID-19 protections, and guaranteed hours after the holiday season. Denend told Motherboard that despite working 40 hours a week, she and many of her coworkers are classified as part-time, and will not receive the healthcare benefits that come with full-time status until they’ve worked at the company for a year. She says workers at her store are frequently told “we don’t know” when they ask about how they can be converted to full-time status sooner. “There’s a lot of accountability and transparency issues,” she said. New hires at the Manhattan store start at roughly $18.90 an hour. MIT’s living wage calculator says a living wage in New York City is $21.77 an hour for someone without children.


“One thing I keep coming back to is the fact that REI prides itself on being a great workplace, a leader of the outdoors, but why is it that none of us are making a living wage?” Denend said, explaining why she and her co-workers decided to unionize. “Why do you have to work 40 hours a week for 12 months to get health benefits? Why is there no guarantee of hours after the holiday season? These are very basic things  that REI has gotten away with not doing, despite this facade of being a progressive, liberal company.”

A day after workers filed for the election, Eric Artz, REI’s CEO and president, wrote an email to all REI employees at its 170 stores nationwide. 

“We always start from a place of respect, which is why I want to be clear with you about the co-op’s position on unionization: we do not believe placing a union between the co-op and its employees is needed or beneficial,” he wrote. “Our business is built around the idea of working together toward the common good.” He noted that being part of REI’s “co-op community meant uniting around a “shared mission and purpose.” “A union will not help us achieve that mission and purpose,” he said. 

Workers say Artz’s messaging has been recycled this week during daily morning captive audience meetings, and workers have also been pulled in to have one-on-one discussions with management about the union. 

The union drive follows other high profile unionization efforts at companies like Starbucks and Amazon, companies with anti-union management that have long resisted unionization. If workers vote to unionize, they have the potential to inspire thousands of others at REI and other retailers to form unions. 


REI is a co-op, which means that the company does not have shareholders, but it is at least in name owned by its members who pay a one-time fee of $20 for a lifetime membership. Employees aren’t automatically part of the co-op unless they buy in, but they do receive sales incentives. Employees who qualify receive 5 percent of their annual pay and up to 10 percent of additional funding when the company is profitable. (Last year, workers at the Soho location did not receive this bonus because the store did not meet its sales goals.) 

“I never feel like anyone is actually listening,” said Denend. “We hear about how REI is having record breaking profits this year. But a lot of people aren’t insured. A lot of people look elsewhere for healthcare. I feel like they’ve hung health insurance out there to keep me working 40 hours a week.” 

Chelsea Connor, the communications director of RWDSU, said the union could not provide exact figures on the number of workers who signed cards authorizing the union for an election, but noted that the number was close to a supermajority.

RWDSU, the union that is organizing the Soho store, is also in the midst of organizing Amazon warehouse workers in Bessemer, Alabama for a second election. That re-election is scheduled to begin on February 4. 

A spokesperson for REI told Motherboard, “At REI, we respect the rights of our employees to speak and act for what they believe….However, we do not believe placing a union between the co-op and its employees is needed or beneficial.” The spokesperson added that the company is cooperating with the NLRB on next steps and acknowledged that it remained committed to resolving the concerns of its employees in Soho.