REI Workers Win Fight for Union Election

Corporations are utterly dependent on workers. They need workers to make their products, to ship their products, and to sell their products. Corporations also hate that dependence. Their least favorite part of capitalism is that workers, if they’re well-enough organized, can bring a company to its knees. The people running most corporations seem to feel that it is unjust for the peasantry to have that kind of power, so they’ve spent vast amounts of money to get the government to take their side. The work of last century’s labor movement has meant that they can’t just murder workers who refuse to work anymore, so they rely on the government to ensure that the general population is so poor and desperate that they’d literally run out of food and shelter if they tried to use a protracted strike to get better conditions. Unfortunately, this dynamic is a feature of the economic system we inhabit, and so it also applies to “good” companies that aren’t technically owned and run for greed alone.

REI is a good example of this. I worked there for a few months just prior to leaving the United States, in a lot of ways, they seem like a better form of corporation. They’ve got a nice story – a group of outdoorsy types decided that the equipment was too expensive, and decided to form a cooperative business for themselves and like-minded folk, to make their hobby more affordable. The company is a cooperative, but rather than being owned by workers, it’s owned by customers. To be clear – all REI workers are co-op members, but they’re a minority, and have probably a bit more power to affect company policy than the average U.S. voter has to influence government policy. Probably not zero, but close enough that, well, the workers still need to organize to get fair pay and treatment.

After REI employees in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio walked off the job Friday morning, the recreational equipment retailer agreed to schedule a union election vote next month and stopped pushing to exclude certain workers.

Following successful union drives at two other REI stores, employees in Beachwood last month filed for a union election with National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) seeking representation with the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU).

John Ginter, a sales associate at the Beachwood REI, told Cleveland-based Ideastream Public Media that he and his co-workers are seeking better working conditions.

“We are basically making demands that we have a livable wage, that we are able to live our lives outdoors, like REI’s mission statement includes,” he said. “So having a better work-life balance, being able to care for ourselves and to increase benefits for employees across the spectrum, whether or not they are part-time, full-time, whatever that situation would be.”

According to the report: “Ginter alleged REI has some ‘pretty rigid stipulations’ with regard to which employees are eligible for benefits and accrual of sick time. He also said he believes his REI location is ‘not living up to our diversity, equity, and inclusion statement.'”

Beachwood workers launched their brief unfair labor practice (ULP) strike Friday as an NLRB hearing got underway at the federal agency’s Cleveland office.

In a ULP charge that RWDSU filed Thursday with the NLRB, the union claimed REI “engaged in the unlawful surveillance of workers and/or created an impression of surveillance of the workers at the Beachwood store.”

RWDSU has also accused REI of putting forth “meritless assertions to delay the election” by claiming that sales leads, bike shop workers, and “casual” employees—or those who work part-time with irregular schedules—should not vote.

“RWDSU vehemently disagrees with REI’s objections,” the union said in a statement. “It is especially galling because, as the company unnecessarily fights RWDSU in Ohio, it is currently bargaining contracts with workers holding these same classifications at the SoHo, New York and Berkeley, California stores. REI’s hypocrisy is union-busting plain and simple and is a meek attempt to exclude more than half of the proposed bargaining unit to be eligible to vote.”

REI was far from the worst job I’ve had. I was hired as a cashier, and I honestly enjoyed the work. I got to help people plan for trips that I’d been on, share my experience with people who wanted advice, and I got a good discount on everything I bought. More than that, customers who buy from REI get money back based on how much they’d spent, and that dividend could come in the form of actual money, not just store credit. For people who buy a lot of outdoor gear, it’s actually a great deal, and I would recommend it. I’d honestly have been happy just working there, had the job not been in the United States.

During that stretch of time, Tegan and I were paying $300 per month for intensely mediocre insurance that, because we were trying to get at least a little government assistance (Obamacare and all that), came with a huge amount of paperwork, contradictory statements and instructions, and several insurance cards sent to us over the course of a year. When I went for my last doctor visit before leaving the country, none of the cards worked, and I was forced to pay $200 out of pocket for a 10 minute “checkup”. I think there was an option for insurance through REI, but it wasn’t viable for me as a part-time worker.

Still, REI puts a lot of effort into the whole, “we’re one big happy corporate family” message, and it’s honestly more compelling from them than most companies. Everyone got a voucher for one day off, planned in advance, specifically for the purpose of doing something outside, for example, and there were regular weekend activities like hikes or bike rides that people could join if they wanted.

But I’d like to draw your attention to something. The article I quoted is titled “‘Strikes Work’: REI Agrees to March 3 Union Election After Ohio Walkout”. I fully agree that strikes work, and that we should support them by default, but there’s something wrong with this situation. This wasn’t a strike for better pay, or a strike for safer conditions, or better health insurance, it was a strike to get an election in which they can vote on whether or not to form a union.

Again – simply forming a union required coordinated labor action, and permission from the company. Biden recently tweeted that workers have a right to form a union, but do they? REI workers had to strike just to get the right to vote on whether to form a union. It seems to me that, as with voting in elections, people shouldn’t have to fight every time they want to exercise their rights. Instead, people in the U.S. have to fight to exercise a whole host of rights and freedoms that they’re supposed to have, while companies steal from them, put them in danger, and spend the money that the workers make for them on union-busting, and on lobbying the government to further stack the deck in their favor.

The sad reality is that even with a supposedly progressive company like REI, the way capitalism is set up, management is always pitted against labor. Even in cooperatives that are owned and managed by workers in a democratic fashion, the workers themselves often have to take on the adversarial role of management, for the company to have a shot at surviving in an economy that’s very much built around the whims of the aristocracy.

This is why I don’t think “social democracy” is good enough. It’s better than what the United States has, to be sure, but it leaves capitalists in the driver’s seat, and requires constant struggle by the working class to exercise and maintain the rights they’ve won. That doesn’t mean I’d oppose it, of course. I’d happily take the version of the U.S. that a moderate like Bernie Sanders might create, but it’s not just about whether or not people have a decent life. It’s also about whether other people have the power to take that life away. The reality is that the American Dream was always a lie, and the ruling class, both in and out of government, have worked hard to make sure that it stayed a lie, as they’re doing to this very day. Organizing for better treatment is, without question, an important thing to do all by itself, but as has been noted many times in the past, it’s a first step, not the end goal. As long as the fundamental organization of the economy is designed to create so much inequality in power and wealth, the folks at the top will always be working to gain more control over the peasantry, and that will always be far easier for them than what workers have to do to keep what freedom they have.

I’m glad that REI outlets are unionizing, and I hope the trend continues, but I think this is a good reminder that even as we celebrate the progress we make, we have to be thinking about the next fight.

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  1. lochaber says

    Might be getting slightly off-topic here, but I used to rather like REI as far as stores/corporations go. They had a really good return policy, and generally carried pretty decent gear. Prices weren’t the best, but with the membership rebate, they weren’t bad, and I figured it was an acceptable trade-off for the return policy and other benefits.

    I’m not sure when exactly, but somewhere in the past ~5-10(?) years, their have been several marked declines in what appealed to me about them. Most notable was when they reduced the lifetime return policy to a 1-year limit (given the rampant abuse of the lifetime return policy, I’m not terribly surprised…), but also the general quality of their products has been steadily decreasing. They’ve altogether dropped some of the nicer brands in some sections, and are just carrying a lot more low-grade junk overall.

    And relatively recently, the REI credit card switched from US Bank to Capitol One. This might not be as under REI’s control as the inventory, but there were some unwelcome restrictions and loss of benefits on the credit card.

    It’s a little sad, I don’t know whats actually going on, but it feels like a corporate gutting in an effort to maximize short-term profits, without any consideration for long-term reputation or survival.

    That said, I hope the unionization efforts work out for the employees.

  2. says

    I’m honestly not clear how the incentives work at REI. Supposedly members get back $ based on what they pay in (by shopping), and there aren’t any shareholders to benefit from a larger profit margin. I know that some products stopped being carried because of politics – I think Camelback was dropped because of their opposition to gun control or something like that, for example. I don’t know if getting shittier goods would actually benefit them, but it’s also possible I’m missing part of the picture.

    Personally, the most tragic victim of success I saw was L.L.Bean. My grandparents lived near Freeport, so when I was a kid, I got to see the main store before it became a sort of WASP home goods and clothing outlet that had a sporting goods section. They reliably had good gear at decent prices (excellent boots), and didn’t have much of anything that wasn’t aimed out some sort of outdoor activity.

    But honestly I haven’t had the resources to spend money on camping in a very, very long time, so I can’t speak to anyone’s quality at the moment.

  3. Katydid says

    LL Bean had stores all over the place, as did Lands End. Back in the 1990 – 2000s, they were both a place for high-quality, rugged clothing, shoes, and sporting goods. Every summer, the kids went to LL Bean and got a new pair of a certain brand of rugged sandals. I had my sandals for 10 whole years before they wore down, went to get a new pair…and LL Bean had shut down. I went to REI because they carried that brand…and the women’s sandals were all pink and sparkly and much more poorly made than the men’s sandals of the same brand.

    Also, I don’t know if it’s all REIs or just the store nearest me, but their women’s sizing is ridiculous. My typical size is a medium and I can never find anything that fits at that REI. Women’s clothing there comes in sizes Grade School, Newborn, and Embryo.

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