“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.”
The opening words of a presentation by a community activist, a college teaching assistant, a performing artist? Perhaps a progressive city council candidate? Guess again.
They were spoken by REI’s CEO Eric Artz in an address earlier this month to the employees of REI SoHo, the company’s flagship store in New York City. Artz, who was paid approximately $3.2 million in 2019, wanted his workers to understand why he doesn’t “think that introducing a union is the right thing for our employees.”
Employees listening to Artz’s podcast rolled their eyes as he reeled off the standard anti-union playbook, depicting a union—in this case, the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU)—as if it were a third party, not made up of the workers themselves. He assured them that “REI is on a journey to become a more impactful organization” where workers can “bring your authentic self.” He did not address the fact that most of the store’s workers are kept below 40 hours a week and don’t get health insurance for at least a year, often longer. They have short notice and no input on their schedules. They don’t believe they’re paid a living wage. They feel they have little say in their workplace.
I visited the three-story SoHo store recently. It was a busy place on a weekday, bulging with high-end camping and climbing gear, with clothes for every outdoor activity. Most of the workers gave me a thumbs-up or said, “I like your button” (“Union Yes!”). They were primarily under 30 and primarily white, with many wearing similar buttons (“Stand up, keep fighting”). I spoke with one worker I’ll call Bud, who told me that he lives near the store but that some commute from nearly two hours away. He said a solid majority of the store workers signed cards for an election. REI declined to voluntarily recognize the union.
Bud likes his job but scoffed at the CEO’s appropriation of “social justice language,” and he laughed at the sudden appearance of free Panera cards for the employees. He resents what he sees as management’s disinformation campaign against RWSDU and his fellow employees. Particularly obfuscating was a document posted in the break room by management citing contract amendments at a nearby Macy’s store as what REI workers could expect if they unionized.
One older worker, a decade-long employee not wearing a union button, told me he was undecided on how to vote. This worker is full-time, has a regular schedule, and receives full benefits. Younger colleagues are sympathetic to the fear of change but are hoping workers like him will come around.
REI reported revenue of $2.75 billion in 2020. Nationally, the company has approximately 11,000 workers at 165 retail outlets. As with Starbucks, pro-union employees believe a victory at the SoHo store could open the door for their counterparts across the country. REI is trying, step by corporate step, to defeat the union drive, but is using softer rhetoric to avoid further alienating its workers. The company’s website and other materials describe it as a “co-op community” with a commitment “to put our values front and center in everything we do.”
The more than 100 employees at REI in SoHo will vote in person at the store on March 2 to decide whether to form a union. Workers across the country will be watching.