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Workers at Manhattan REI Unionize: What We Can Learn

Workers at an REI store in Manhattan voted earlier this month to unionize. The 88-to-14 trouncing creates the first union at the giant outdoor equipment and apparel retailer and marks a major win for the union.

REI operates as a cooperative owned by its customers (members).  The retailer has approximately 170 stores with over 15,000 employees nationwide.  This union win, much like the union wins at Starbucks in upstate New York, Seattle, Washington, and Mesa, Arizona, is a real black eye for the retailer who has for years prided itself on being a progressive company which believes in “putting purpose before profits.”

So, What Went Wrong?

REI has a younger than average workforce with an average age of its workers being 37, which is about 5 years younger than the national average.  Some experts believe this younger workforce which was drawn to REI’s core beliefs has an affinity for the ideological values that come with unions.  Meaning, their pro-union vote was not just about more money but was about support for an ideology many younger Americans are beginning to embrace.  If this is true, all business owners need to take notice.

Unionizing efforts at the Manhattan REI store began during the middle of the COVID pandemic in response to some employees’ beliefs that the company was not being responsive enough to COVID-related safety concerns.  To inflame things worse, some of the most outspoken workers regarding these concerns were not brought back after REI temporarily closed its stores due to the COVID outbreak.   

REI disputes this allegation.  REI explained that they reduced staff by less than 5 percent nationwide upon reopening, and the staff chosen for these reductions had nothing to do with their position on store safety or how outspoken they were on that issue.

Nonetheless, an election petition was filed with the NLRB in late January, and in less than six weeks all the votes were cast and counted.

Several Manhattan REI workers have said they voted for the union because of the perceived gap between REI’s stated values and the behavior it took with its employees.  They say the stores have become more impersonal and focused on profits as the company expands.

Not unsimilar to claims made by recently unionized Starbucks’ employees, the Manhattan REI workers claimed the company waged an aggressive anti-union campaign, having flown in company officials to argue against unionizing.  These officials highlighted the risks of unionization, posted anti-union materials in break rooms, and even created a website highlighting the risks associated with unions.

An REI spokesperson has denied these claims.  The company explained they only shared general information about unions and the meeting with corporate officials was simply a previously scheduled training session for the relaunch of the company’s membership program.

Were REI’s efforts too little, too late?  Was their message misguided?  At least one industry expert thinks so, noting that like Starbucks, REI’s attempts to dissuade workers from unionizing failed because its stores typically lack a large number of supervisors, which provides the opportunity for workers to talk union with little managerial oversight.  It also makes it difficult to get out management’s message.  As a result, when management finally finds out about union activity in their stores, it is too late – the workers’ minds are already made up.

Closing Thoughts

The unionizing efforts at REI is just one in a string of recent unionizing campaigns at high-profile retailers, including Starbucks and Amazon. Make no mistake, President Biden is following through on his promise to be the most pro-union President in history and many workers are following his lead.  If you suspect union activity at one of your stores or need help with dealing with a potential union campaign, seek competent labor counsel immediately.  These campaigns move quickly, and the only way management can be successful in defeating a campaign is if they are prepared in advance.  Remember, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. 

Brody and Associates regularly advises management on complying with the latest local, state and federal employment laws.  If we can be of assistance in this area, please contact us at info@brodyandassociates.com or 203.454.0560.