Chicago REI Store workers seek to unionize
REI Union Chicago FB page.

CHICAGO—Can disappointment with your company’s failure to live up to its professed progressive ideals drive your organizing drive? Apparently, for the workers at the REI store at the corner of Kingsbury and Schiller in Chicago, the answer is “yes.”

Like REI workers elsewhere, including those who have unionized with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union in Manhattan, Berkeley, Calif., and the Cleveland suburbs, Angie Forshee, Ahmad Saad, and Sarah Diefenbach loved working for a retailer with professed ideals centered around a commitment to the outdoors, to the environment and to service to its customers.

And, or so it said, to treating its workers right.

But once the three began working at the Chicago store, they found the reality was different, even for Saad, a regular customer before he joined the workforce. That’s why they became leaders in the RWDSU organizing drive, they told an April 2 Zoomed news conference about seeking a National Labor Relations Board-run recognition election.

And REI fell short not just in ideals. Cuts in the workforce were so extensive, right before last year’s holiday rush, that “when you have only one person on the floor, you’re in survival mode,” said Forshee.

“Initially, the thing that drew me to REI was its values and initially it (working there) was a very good experience,” Saad explained. But then things “became somewhat uncomfortable” as REI started arbitrarily cutting people and reducing hours.

“There was a lack of transparency” about those changes, too. When Chicago workers asked the reasons for the cuts, they were told “it’s what usually happens,” Diefenbach said. “It’s still the same amount of traffic” in the Chicago store, she added. “We’re expected to do much more with much less.”

Then “the story changed” with managers now saying REI “overbought inventory“ and workers would have to make up for the resulting red ink, Diefenbach elaborated. “It was very scary,” she said.

And in Chicago, at a retailer’s pay, it was also very expensive, as jobs they counted on for basic income suddenly shrank. “We were told, ‘labor is a controllable expense.’

Hours on the job plunged. At the start of her career at the Chicago store, a year before, Forshee worked between 30 and 50 hours a week. Now it’s three to five, and schedules are erratic, making finding second jobs difficult.

All this, but especially the gap between the store’s image and ideals on one side and its reality on the other, led the REI Chicago workers to turn to RWDSU, just as their colleagues in Beechwood, Ohio, Berkeley, and New York City did.

“They don’t seem to have actual employees’ interest in mind,” Diefenbach said of REI management. “I don’t think the people in charge have any idea of what it’s like to work in a retail job.” Said Forshee: “Management…has kind of fallen short” of its ideals.

The three said a virulent anti-worker campaign has yet to start in Chicago, even though REI bosses turned down the union’s request for card-check recognition—bargaining with the union once organizers produce independently verified NLRB union recognition election cards from most workers. Now the Chicago workers are waiting for the labor board’s regional office there to set an election date.

Such a nasty anti-union campaign didn’t stop their colleagues in the Cleveland suburb of Beechwood from voting 27-12 to unionize, RWDSU reports. There were nine challenged ballots, not enough to overturn the outcome. RWDSU said all were from union supporters. The union will represent 56 workers.

Beechwood’s workers “endured an exceptionally harsh union-busting campaign that included an attempt by REI to delay their election entirely, as well as conducting intimidating one-on-one meetings with workers and managers, spreading inaccurate and incomplete information with workers at daily morning huddles run by management, and unlawful surveillance of the workers by outside REI management,” RWDSU said.

REI bosses’ tactics in Cleveland duplicate the playbook other retailers, notably Starbucks, follow against their workers who seek to unionize—and, in the coffee chain’s case, for many of the same reasons the three Chicago workers cited.

Longtime Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz denied union-busting in a Senate committee hearing just days before and claimed his chain’s corporate culture is pro-worker, too. That’s despite at least five NLRB injunctions against him, eyewitness Senate testimony from Starbucks workers, and the common theme of every Starbucks store’s workers letters to the CEO, saying they’re unionizing to help strengthen the coffee chain’s ideals and its commitment to its customers.

The latest response from Starbucks, two days after Shultz testified: They fired Lori Rizzo, the Buffalo-area seven-year worker and shift supervisor—who, despite the title, is not a manager. Rizzo, who touched off the whole SWU drive by organizing the first store there, was fired allegedly for being late four times for her shift. Twice, she said in a tweet, she was a minute late.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.