REI workers in New York vote to unionize

Workers at a REI store in New York voted to unionize on Wednesday, creating the outdoor gear and apparel retailer’s only union. The vote, which took place at the store, was 88 to 14.

The poll, in the SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan, followed a series of organizing efforts at prominent employers in the service sector. Workers at three Starbucks stores have voted to unionize since early December, creating the only union in company-owned stores. Workers at two Amazon warehouses will finish voting in union elections at the end of the month.

REI, with approximately 170 stores and 15,000 employees nationwide, is a cooperative owned by customers who purchase lifetime memberships, currently $30, and presents itself as a progressive company, in the vein of Starbucks. His website said that the co-op believes in “putting purpose before profit” and that it invests more than 70% of its profits in “the outdoor community”, including contributions to non-profit organizations .

“REI SoHo workers 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 that REI customers have come to expect,” said Stuart Appelbaum, president of the co-op. Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which helped organize workers.

After the vote, the company said in a statement: “As we have said throughout this process, REI strongly believes that the decision of whether or not to be represented by a union is important, and we respect the right of each employee to choose or refuse union representation.

John Logan, a social studies professor at San Francisco State University, said that like Starbucks, REI attracts workers who appear to have an ideological affinity for unions beyond potential practical benefits, such as a raise. salaries.

“REI appears to be another example of predominantly young workers who do not buy into arguments that unions are special interest groups,” Logan said in an email.

The company has set the average age of its workers at 37, about five years younger than the middle age of all American workers.

Store workers began organizing in the fall of 2020, in part because many felt that employees who openly raised Covid-related safety concerns were not allowed to return after REI temporarily closed its stores that year. An electoral petition was filed five weeks ago.

In a video conference call with reporters last week called by the retail workers union, Claire Chang, a visual presentation specialist who has worked at the store for more than four years, also raised concerns about coronavirus safety.

Ms Chang said that after the store reopened in 2020, officials asked workers if they would feel comfortable reopening the fitting rooms, where employees frequently come into contact with clothing worn by shoppers. clients.

“The majority of staff, if not all of the staff, said they weren’t comfortable with it, and they went ahead and did it anyway,” Ms Chang said. .

Steve Buckley, a sales specialist who has been at the store for about six months, said during the videoconference that he was one of many workers who were infected with the coronavirus during the Omicron push, while the store was crowded with customers.

A spokeswoman for REI said the retailer laid off less than 5% of its employees nationwide when it reopened and the decisions had nothing to do with outspoken employees. She said fitting rooms were stocked with sanitizing supplies and the store had limited capacity throughout the pandemic.

She cited a 2021 survey showing employees generally gave the company high marks on issues such as whether it treated them as valued employees.

Several workers said they sought to unionize because of a discrepancy they perceived between REI’s behavior and its stated values, saying the workplace had become more impersonal and profit-oriented as it sought to develop.

“There has been tremendous pressure to sell memberships,” Graham Gale, an employee involved with the organization, said in a text message to a reporter in January.

Workers also said REI had waged an aggressive anti-union campaign, bringing in company officials to hold meetings with employees about the risks of unionizing and hanging equipment in breakrooms and creating a website who highlighted these risks.

Mr Buckley said a meeting he attended with senior officials in February lasted around two hours and discussed issues such as health insurance. Officials were “openly yelling at us that we were wrong about our store’s basic policies and the basic terms we faced,” he said. “How is that a respectful environment?” The company offers health insurance to workers who work an average of at least 20 hours a week after one year.

The spokeswoman said the company had sought to share information about unions and that the February meeting was a long-planned training session to relaunch the company’s membership program.

Mr. Logan, the labor studies professor, said one reason why REI’s efforts to dissuade workers from unionizing, like those at Starbucks, might not have been effective was that the stores were generally not heavily loaded with supervisors.

“They operate relatively autonomously, with little management presence or oversight, providing plenty of opportunity for union talk,” Logan said. “After that, anti-union propaganda becomes less effective – their decision is made.”

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