REI workers march on co-op headquarters, bringing contract goals
REI workers demand justice at the work place. | Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU)/Facebook

SEATTLE—Workers at REI Cooperative stores, some from as far away as New York, Chicago, and New Castleton, Ind., marched on company headquarters just outside Seattle on March 7, demanding the co-op bargain in good faith with them, and bringing their contract goals.

“This is a large-scale movement in REI’s face,” demanding that the co-op live up to its progressive outdoors-oriented and “green” goals, said Victor Delgado of the Cleveland REI (Recreational Equipment Inc.) store, one of eight—so far—whose workers voted to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.

“They can’t run away from it,” said Delgado, one of the bargaining committee members who spoke on a March 6 Zoom telephone press conference.

Key issues for the workers include the co-op’s increasing reliance on part-time workers and erratic scheduling, said bargainer Jeff Rosemeyer of the New Castleton store, the latest to unionize. As workers, “We want to be part of REI for a long time, but they don’t want that.”

Part-time work and fluctuating hours also make it hard for REI workers to plan their own budgets and spending—a common point made by their colleagues among other exploited workers in low-paying industries such as retail, warehousing, as adjunct professors, and among port truckers. High turnover is common, too.

Caleb Walker of Boston added that as soon as its workers voted to go union with RWDSU, “we saw an increasing use of temps.” The Boston vote, last July, was 44-23 out of 79 workers. “That’s one way to keep people on edge. How REI could do that at other stores is a little frightening.”

Bosses withheld company-wide pay raises from workers at the eight unionized stores, said Zoe Dunmire of the REI store in Manhattan’s Soho neighborhood. “And we don’t get paid time off or vacations” when they desire them and ask, added Tini Alexander of Bellingham, Wash.

“That’s because there are not enough people” on the floor, Alexander said—a point the other bargainers echoed. “We don’t have enough people at the right place at the right time” to serve co-op members” and other customers.

“As the company cuts staffing, individuals become overwhelmed and overworked.”

The workers said management made the excuse that the multi-million-dollar company is still losing money and thus can’t afford raises, or to hire more people. Indeed, REI CEO Eric Artz announced on January 25 that the co-op was laying off 325 people, with 200 of them at its Seattle-area headquarters. But his e-mail went only to those losing their jobs.

Racked up big sales

Last April, Artz reported REI racked up $3.85 billion in sales in 2022, the last year with figures, reported no profits, and “distributed $323 million back to its co-op community” i.e. its members.

Yet REI has the money to hire the union-buster, at hundreds of dollars per hour, the workers noted.

“Their whole game plan is using their lawyers to stall and stall” through up to two years’ worth of fruitless bargaining, he said during a March 6 Zoom telephone press conference with the joint bargainers from all the unionized stores.

Not only do the lawyers take weeks or months to reply to workers’ specific contract proposals, but the lawyers consistently reject them without comment.

In common with the other youthful workers whom organized labor, including the RWDSU, is busily connecting with, the REI workers have goals that go beyond dollars and cents in paychecks, health and safety on the shop floor, and health insurance at the workplace—though all are part of the workers’ bargaining goals.

But given REI’s progressive reputation, another goal is to diversify its workforce, said Jim Tully, who’s worked for nine years at REI’s store on Chicago’s near Northwest Side and for two years before that in the store in suburban Morton Grove, Ill.

“There are inequities in society and in the workplace,” he explained. “Our customers are a lot of middle-aged white people,” said Tully, who is also white but not middle-aged. REI, he said, started the REDI program to address diversity, equity, and inclusion in its workforce, but “abandoned” those goals.

“We want to go back to what they represent.”

The workers haven’t gotten very far in their bargaining. One big reason is that after a year with some progress, REI’s bosses switched lawyers—to the notorious union-buster Morgan, Lewis, and Bockius. Not only are its lawyers antagonistic to workers, the bargainers reported, but they take weeks or months to reply to union proposals, and when they do so, it’s with flat refusals.

And it’s taken the second year of talks to get the bosses’ lawyers “up to speed” on what was discussed—and even agreed upon—before. “It’s really bad. They’re wasting everyone’s time,” said Cleveland store worker Delgado. And when the layoffs came, the five at the Boston store were pro-union workers, said Walker. Under labor law, that’s potential illegal retaliation.

None of this discourages the REI workers, but they want to take their story public. Thus, the march on headquarters, and the Zoom press conference. Chicago’s Tully also says they’re riding a wave.

“We have the numbers. We have the momentum. And we have a big organized platform and message.”

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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.