REI Workers At New York Store Vote To Unionize
Workers at a flagship REI store in the SoHo neighborhood of New York City voted to unionize on Wednesday, creating the first organized location among the outdoor retailer’s more than 170 stores.
The union involved in the election, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, said in a statement following the ballot count that workers voted 88 to 14 in favor of joining. The National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency that referees union elections in the private sector, still needs to certify the results to make them official.
Claire Chang, a worker at the store and member of the union organizing committee, said after the vote count that she was proud to be “a part of this new wave of unionization efforts that is sweeping the nation.”
“We know we will be able to harness our collective strength to advocate for a more equitable, safe, and enriching work environment,” Chang said in a statement through the union.
REI acknowledged the union victory in a statement.
“As we have said throughout this process, REI firmly believes that the decision of whether or not to be represented by a union is an important one, and we respect each employee’s right to choose or refuse union representation,” the company said.
REI, a brand that’s cast itself as progressive when it comes to climate change, racial equity and other issues, opposed the union effort, saying it would “impact our ability to communicate directly” with workers. REI is a member-owned cooperative and has particular appeal among the younger, left-leaning outdoors set. It was widely mocked for a podcast it produced to discourage unionization that included Indigenous land acknowledgments.
The organizing campaign, REI Union, accused the retailer of deploying “textbook union-busting tactics,” including posting flyers around the store and holding mandatory meetings where workers heard anti-union talking points. Workers even circulated a petition calling on the retailer to “halt all union-busting practices.”
In the run-up to the vote, pro-union workers on Twitter said they were seeking higher wages, better control over their schedules, and a voice on the job.
The election win marks a significant victory for the RWDSU, which has around 50,000 members working in grocery stores, poultry processing plants, warehouses and other industries. The SoHo store gives the union a toehold inside a big-name retailer, with the possibility of workers at other REI stores joining the campaign and petitioning the labor board for elections.
The RWDSU has long represented workers at several Macy’s stores, but the retail business is overwhelmingly non-union in the U.S.: Just 4.4% of workers in the industry are union members, and they are more likely to work in grocery stores than apparel and equipment stores like REI.
Stuart Appelbaum, the RWDSU’s president, said in a statement Wednesday that the REI workers are “ready to negotiate a strong contract that will allow them to uphold the co-op’s progressive values.”
Last year, the union lost a high-profile election at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama, but the NLRB later determined that Amazon had broken the law and tainted the vote. Workers at the same facility are now casting ballots in a do-over election ordered by the NLRB.
The REI campaign coincides with an explosion of organizing at Starbucks locations across the country. The union Workers United has successfully unionized three Starbucks stores — two in New York and one in Arizona — and is seeking elections at more than 100 others around the country.
With union density hovering near a historic low, labor supporters hope such campaigns will spread to other household-name retailers and breathe new life in the labor movement.