New Economic Realities   //   February 13, 2024

REI workers win union vote at ninth location

Workers at a ninth REI location have voted to unionize, this time in Indianapolis, Indiana. And while none of the units have secured a contract yet, the win is another victory for the worker-led labor movement that is cropping up in retail stores.

National Labor Relations Board records show the vote held Friday came in 27-17, indicating an approval rate of 61%. The store is located in Castleton, one of the largest and busiest shopping areas in the state.

As a legacy retailer with about 186 locations nationwide, REI has endeared customers with its co-op membership set-up and environmentalist ethos. Workers at a SoHo location first organized in January 2022, and the efforts have since spread to other cities and states. The Castleton workers are organizing under the United Food and Commercial Workers union, while several other stores joined the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. 

While REI has said it respects employees rights to organize, some associates involved in the efforts allege the company has engaged in unfair labor practice charges, like wrongful firings or hours cuts. At least one such charge has been settled. A spokesperson for REI said they expect the Castleton results to be certified within about five days.

“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 statement said. “REI is committed to engaging in good-faith bargaining with this location and the other stores that have chosen union representation.”

George Reed, an REI employee involved in the organizing efforts in Indianapolis, said he first supported the idea of a union because of concerns about scheduling. As a full-time employee, he gets a minimum of 32 hours a week but would like to secure more.

But then in October 2023 around 250 retail workers were laid off. Then in January, the company laid off 357 people, the majority of which worked at headquarters and distribution centers. Reed said these layoffs underscored the need for legal representation and having a say in the future of the company.

REI have acknowledged that the company is hitting financial struggles due to declined demand in the outdoor space after seeing a record $3.85 billion in sales in 2022.

While REI’s 2023 sales figures figures aren’t live yet, but CEO Eric Arts said in January that the company won’t be funding merit increases for its headquarters staff, or backfill any leadership departures. He said in a published note to employees that “outdoor specialty retail has experienced four quarters of decline—and that trend has been worsening. While we were able to outperform this trend for much of the last year, it caught up to us in Q4 and we now expect conditions to remain very challenging throughout 2024.”

“Right now we’re essentially being fed the edict of REI HQ and thats what we’re given,” Reed said. “We’re really wanting a say in our working conditions. We just want a say in how our scheduling, our health care benefits are determined, and how we get paid. We just really want to have that say in how these things are done and presented to workers.”

Rachel Erstad, the research director for the Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies at the University of Washington, said the organization of retail workers has traditionally been a difficult task. With scattered shifts and employee turnover, store associates don’t necessarily form the bonds that are required to go though with organizing. But today’s workers are getting creative, connecting in Facebook groups and What’s App chats that they can access while off the clock.

The fact that there have been sustained efforts at different locations across a long period of time shows that the efforts are serious, Erstad said. She drew parallel to the way Starbucks locations organized, starting in late 2020. The percentage of unionized retail workers ticked up from 3.7% to 4.3% last year, 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.

“Momentum is growing, when you see other stores doing something like that,” Erstad said. “This isn’t a flash in the pan, one-time thing …. “it’s not easy to organize a union in this country, it’s far harder than it should be, and yet we’re still seeing so much activity.”

Reed credits the success of the vote to the camaraderie that has been built among those who supported the union effort. The organizers held a rally the week before the vote that saw local politicians like Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett and state Sen. Fady Qaddoura lend their support. Though the vote wasn’t unanimous, Reed said that there is still a core of workers who are going to continue their efforts to form the union and work toward a contract.

“We’ve really build this strong sense of community and friendship through organizing,” Reed said.