New Economic Realities   //   January 25, 2024

‘Maybe there can be changes’: REI settles unfair labor practice charge

While unionized REI workers in eight stores continue to fight for a contract, at least one accusation that the co-op had unfairly impeded organizing efforts has been settled, according to federal records.

The charge, filed in May 2023, alleged that a manager at REI’s Chicago location had made an implied threat to employees that their hours would be reduced if they wore union insignia and/or joined or supported a union. The incident occurred earlier in the spring of 2023 when the store was in the midst of an organization drive that eventually was successful. National Labor Relations Board records show the case was settled at the end of 2023.

Kat Tong, the former employee at the center of the charge, told Modern Retail that she had been wearing a shirt about the unionization effort when giving her two weeks’ notice to a manager. She told them the reason was because she hadn’t been getting enough hours — then she claims the the manager gestured to shirt as a potential explanation. While she has since secured another job, Tong said she wanted to see the unfair labor charge filed because the union was “hitting a brick wall” in getting REI to respond to their concerns and she wanted to “be supportive from the sidelines.”

She described the settlement as “a spark of hope — maybe there can be changes that can be made.”

Settling the charge means the NLRB won’t file a complaint against REI over this particular accusation. As part of the deal, the store posted a notice to employees saying the National Labor Relations Act gives employees the right to form, joint or assist a union, among other labor rights. The posting also says the company will not “interfere with, retrain or coerce you in the exercise of the above rights,” or “impliedly threaten to reduce your hours for wearing union insignia or joining or supporting a union.”

The settlement is a minor win in a much larger fight — both for the unionized REI workers and the broader organization movement that’s bubbling up in retail. There are more than 80 other unfair labor practice charges filed with the National Labor Relations Board against REI. Eight stores out of the more than 180 locations across the country have organized with the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union and the UFCW.

Other retailers where unionization efforts have sprouted up in recent years include Trader Joe’s and Barnes & Noble. The overall number of retail trade workers edged up slightly in 2023, from 14.9 million to 15 million. And so did the percentage of unionized retail workers, going from 3.7% to 4.3%, according to new Bureau of Labor Statistics data. Across all sectors, about 10% of U.S. workers are in a union, little changed from the prior year.

For its part, REI made a record $3.85 billion in sales in 2022, according to its the last reported financials. The unionization effort doesn’t seem to have impeded its growth strategy, either, with 10 locations planned to open throughout 2024. Yet workers at the unionized locations are continuing to bargain for a contract with attorneys from Morgan Lewis, the same firm Amazon had hired for its negotiations.

REI declined to respond to Modern Retail’s questions about the decision to settle this charge. But it shared a statement that said: “REI disagrees with the union’s contentions and will continue to fight their allegations. We are committed and engaged in good-faith bargaining with stores that have chosen union representation and will continue to participate fully in the negotiating process.”

The workers’ response

With an ethos of inclusivity and a co-op membership structure, the idea that REI would resist unionization came as a shock to some workers and shoppers, Tong said. She remains disappointed with REI’s response to the unionization effort, noting how the company heralds its co-op status and sustainability initiatives. “It feels like they were in a sense being a bully, where they didn’t take everything with a grain of salt, they just kind of bulldozed through and tried to do what they could to stop it,” Tong said.

The first store to file a petition to form a union was REI’s Manhattan Soho store in January 2022, with seven other stories follow. Tong’s store in Chicago voted to unionized on May 4, 2023. The unionized workers then came together in late November to file the complaints filed with the NLRB accusing the company of cutting jobs and limiting hours in response to their organizing efforts, as well as bad faith bargaining.

While the labor charges play out with the NLRB, there has yet to be a contract reached between REI and any of the union locations. A Bloomberg Law analysis from 2021 said that it takes an average of 465 days for a new unit to secure a contract — meaning REI’s timeline isn’t necessarily anomalous. That’s little consolation to those at the bargaining table.

Andy Trebing, one of the members of the bargaining committee at the Chicago store, has been a part-time employee for the company for over two years, working on both stocking and camping gear sales. One of the biggest reasons he felt the workers needed to unionize was because issues in the store weren’t getting resolved on their own — like a broken door in the delivery bay that meant he and his co-workers had to haul large shipments through the customer garage entrance and up into an elevator. 

“It was months and months of that,” he said. 

While the bargaining efforts surpass the eight-month mark, Trebing said he takes his role on the bargaining committee seriously, as he has to see his co-workers who elected him to the role every shift. 

“Seeing their dissatisfaction, seeing them lose hours or their schedules get messed up, seeing the problems they’re having at work makes me really passionate about it,” Trebing said.  “It really is a collective fight and I have to represent every one of those people.”

A broader movement

John Ahlquist, a professor and associate dean at UC San Diego’s School of Global Policy and Strategy who studies unionization efforts, said that it’s becoming the “standard playbook” for companies to resist a unionization campaign. But that can run up against the legal rights of workers, who have certain legal rights when it comes to showing your support.

“You can’t be displaced by management for your position on a union, and for being pro-union,” he said.

But there are multiple allegations of companies not adhering to this. Amazon workers who unionized were later terminated, resulting in unfair labor practice charges filed last summer. And in late December 2023, an NLRB judge in Colorado ordered Starbucks to re-hire a fired union organizer and give her back pay and an apology.

While it’s unclear how long it may take the eight REI stores to get a contract — or whether their efforts will spread to other locations — there’s a chance that this year could see other unionization efforts at the retail level. While historically, service workers and retail workers weren’t up for unionizing in part of because of part-time hours and high turnover, that’s changed in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic that saw these jobs labeled “essential” as they interfaced with the public among a spreading virus.

Starbucks may be the biggest example. More than 380 stores have been organized since the movement began in late 2021. But for all the headlines, that’s still under 4.5% of the some 8,900 company-owned Starbucks locations in the country. And there’s yet to be a contract reached for any Starbucks location, though the company has signaled it would commit to more bargaining in a letter sent to the union president in December.

Overall, Ahlquist said, workers are becoming more “union curious,” especially among younger generations. They are more likely to say they are interested or joining a union, or would consider it. Similarly, unions are seeing relatively high public support, as one recent Gallup survey indicates.

“There are real grievances and problems to solve in the way we structure work in the United States, especially among hourly frontline workers,” he said. “But whether they can sustain organization under pressure that will let them win is an open question.”