Workers at REI’s Manhattan store seek to form a retailer’s union
Workers at a Manhattan REI store filed a union ballot on Friday, making the outdoor gear and apparel retailer the latest prominent service industry employer whose workers attempted to unionize.
Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama, opposed a union in an election last year, although the National Labor Relations Board later dismissed the result, citing inappropriateness on the part of the company, and ordered new elections to be held next month.
In December, workers at two Starbucks locations in Buffalo voted to organize, making them the only Starbucks company-owned locations in the country with a union. Employees at about 20 other Starbucks have since filed union elections.
The filing at REI’s SoHo store called for the labor board to hold an election attended by about 115 employees who want to be represented by the retail, wholesale and department store union, the same union that oversees the union campaign at Amazon’s warehouse in has Alabama.
Alongside the ballot application, REI workers have asked for voluntary union recognition, which would eliminate the need for a vote.
Like Starbucks, REI, a consumer cooperative made up of customers who buy lifetime memberships for $20, maintains a progressive image. REI’s website states that the cooperative believes in “putting purpose before profit” and that it invests more than 70 percent of its profits “back into the outdoor community” through initiatives such as dividends to members and employee profit-sharing .
The website also says REI is closing all of its roughly 170 stores, none of which are currently unionized, on Black Friday so employees can spend the day with family and friends.
The retailer employs more than 15,000 people in the United States, compared to more than 230,000 at approximately 9,000 U.S. Starbucks locations it owns.
In a statement, Graham Gale, an employee at REI’s SoHo store involved in unionizing, said the campaign was in part a response to “a palpable shift in work culture that is at odds with the values that brought most of us here.” ”
The statement also pointed to “the renewed fight against unsafe working conditions during a global pandemic”.
In a subsequent text Mx. Gale, who prefers gender-neutral courtesy titles and pronouns, said REI declined to bring back some longtime employees who spoke openly about workplace concerns after the retailer temporarily closed its stores in 2020.
Since the pandemic began, some REI employees have criticized the retailer for inadequate safety protocols, including a lack of transparency about which employees have tested positive for Covid and a decision to relax its masking policy. The retailer has said it is following relevant guidance from state and federal health officials, but adjusted some guidelines when it faced criticism.
In response to the union campaign in Manhattan, REI said in a statement, “We respect our employees’ rights to speak and act for what they believe in — and that includes employees’ rights to vote for or vote out of union representation.” However, we do not believe that it is necessary or beneficial to form a union between the cooperative and its employees.”
The statement went on to say that the cooperative has committed to working with employees at the SoHo store to address their concerns.
Despite organizing efforts at companies like Amazon and Starbucks over the past year, union membership has fallen to 10.3 percent of the workforce, the lowest level in Labor Department records from 1983.