New Economic Realities   //   May 21, 2024

Why some REI unions are striking during its anniversary sale

In an attempt to put pressure on the company to reach a contract, workers at some of the unionized REI locations are engaging in one-day work stoppages during the outdoor retailer’s annual Anniversary Sale that kicked off Saturday.

As of Monday, at least two of the 10 unionized REI stores engaged in a work stoppage during the anniversary sale that runs through May 27. The first was on Saturday at the Chicago’s Lincoln Park location and two days later workers at REI’s Cleveland location walked off Monday. The workers are asking REI to commit to reaching a national agreement for its unionized stores by the end of 2024 — and to refrain from any workplace condition changes, retaliation or bad-faith bargaining in the process.

Margaux Lantelme, an REI worker at the Chicago store who is on the bargaining committee, said the contract process has been slow and frustrating — especially on important matters like merit-based wage increases.

“There have been some small agreements on the least important details, and it’s a lot of back and forth on semantics, and there’s not real bargaining happening at the table,” Lantelme said.

Just about 4% of retail workers in the United States are part of a union, and the overall share of American workers who belong to a union is at historic lows. But organized labor organizations see potential growth in the retail sector and are opening their doors to workers in stores like REI, Trader Joe’s and Apple. Some efforts are successful thanks to an influx of labor-conscious Gen Z workers combined with concerns about pay, working conditions and safety.

The first REI location to unionize was its Soho store in New York City in March 2022. There are now 10 REI unions out of more than 180 stores, with the latest voting to form in mid-April in Santa Cruz, California.

Such efforts are not always successful; a union vote an Apple location in New Jersey failed earlier this month. Once formed, the retail unions tend to face obstacles in getting a first contract, with negotiations regularly taking over a year. Around 400 Starbucks stores that are unionized with Workers Union have yet to reach a contract. Workers there and at REI have accused the companies of engaging in unlawful practices, like refusing to bargain or firing supporters.

An REI spokesperson told Modern Retail that work stoppages interrupt operations.

“REI is committed to negotiating in good faith with our stores that have chosen union representation,” the statement said. “Both parties have been engaged in numerous negotiations and have reached tentative agreements on various topics. We remain steadfast in our commitment to this process and to finding a mutually beneficial agreement with our stores that have chosen union representation.”

But for workers, engaging in a strike or work stoppage becomes a bargaining tool in and of itself. Lantelme from the REI Chicago union said that the union has had three walk-offs since it formed one year ago. “We’re always willing to use our strike power, but we never want to have to,” Lantelme said.

Jaz Brisack, a practitioner in residence at the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education, said one-day actions aren’t necessarily going to play a role in stopping production or operations. “It has a different, extremely valuable aim, which is putting public pressure and attention on a company,” Brisack said.

Brisack, who has worked as an organizer and co-founder of Starbucks Workers United, said that walking off the job helps workers get support from their local communities. In the case of the REI workers in Chicago and Cleveland, they were joined by local elected officials who emphasized the importance of organized labor.

REI workers aren’t the only ones who attempt to leverage high-volume sales days to gain awareness for their contract fights. Unionized hotel workers, hospital workers and auto workers have all reached tentative agreements with various employers following strikes in recent months.

Last November, thousands of Starbucks unionized workers walked off their jobs for the annual Red Cup Day, which is when it debuts its holiday designs and one of the coffeeshop’s busiest days of the year. A smaller group of workers did so the previous year. The company recently agreed to create a framework for a contract for its unionized stores, and Workers United has also said that it has received mediation requests from the company to settle lawsuits.

Meanwhile, an Apple Store in Towson, Maryland has authorized — but not yet begun — a work stoppage as they attempt to negotiate a contract.

Adam Denoyer, who works at the REI Chicago store, said that walking off helps send the message that the workers are united and want the same things. “Even on a big sale like the Anniversary Sale they’re having, we understand how much our labor is worth,” he said.

Denoyer wants to see a contract with REI that covers pay increases, guaranteed hours and opportunities for professional development.

Part of the reason he decided to start working at the outdoors retailer two years ago was the potential opportunity to become an outdoor guide who helps run classes and events. These opportunities, however, have yet to materialize. He said that when he and other workers apply to open new positions, they are not contacted and the positions are not filled.

“I would like to be rewarded and valued, and not just taken advantage of,” he said.