March 15, 2022
From Liberation News

Photo credit — RWDSU

In a landmark victory, an overwhelming majority of REI Co-op SoHo workers voted this month to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. 86% of the workers who cast ballots in the vote overseen by the National Labor Relations Board voted yes to unionizing. Located in one of the busiest shopping areas of Manhattan, workers at the store are now the first union in the country at an REI location – a chain of stores that sells outdoors and sporting equipment. 

The bargaining unit includes full-time and part-time job titles ranging from sales specialists, technical specialists, visual presentation specialists, shipping and receiving specialists, certified technicians, operations leads, sales leads, to shipping and receiving leads — totaling approximately 116 workers who will now be RWDSU members. 

Claire Chang, a member of the REI Organizing Committee and Retail Sales Specialist-Visual at the SoHo store spoke about what being unionized will mean for her and her coworkers: “As members of the RWDSU, we know we will be able to harness our collective strength to advocate for a more equitable, safe, and enriching work environment.”

REI: Co-op or Co-opts? 

Workers persisted through a relentless anti-union campaign to win their union victory. Despite a number of management’s anti-union tactics such as captive audience meetings, a halt on promotion opportunities and a website dedicated against the union drive, REI Soho workers endured and pushed back.

Management even released a 25-minute long podcast featuring CEO Eric Artz and Chief Diversity and Social Impact Officer Wilma Wallace. Filled with standard union busting talking points that attacks the union under thinly veiled liberal euphemisms, the podcast proved that REI management, like all employers, was fighting tooth and nail in an attempt to break the union and keep lining their own pockets.

For many workers, the COVID pandemic further cracked open the reality of capitalism’s exploitative drive for profits above all else. Class consciousness continues to grow, and one of the few ways workers can find some basic level of stability and power is through a union. Companies are taking note, and shifting their messaging to appear supportive of workers, adopting empty slogans like “heroes work here” and liberal political rhetoric, while denying workers their demands for better pay, safer working conditions, and more.

The REI union drive demonstrates how bosses are taking advantage of the popularization of “progressive values” and reworking them into their playbook of anti-union talking points. Where employers once said, “We’re a family and we don’t need a union to come between us,” they now say, “we’re already so progressive we don’t need a union.” But workers did not fall for these tactics, and in fact workers pointed out these contradictions between REI’s supposed progressive values and their insistence on union busting. 

The next stage of struggle

Having won their union, REI Soho workers must continue their militancy next at the bargaining table for their first contract negotiations later this year. While the employer is technically obligated to bargain in good faith, the necessity for constant worker solidarity and pressure continues.

Claire Chang, REI SoHo worker and Organizing Committee member, emphasized, “We’re hopeful that REI meets us in good faith during negotiations for our first contract, while keeping our co-op values in mind and applying them to workers.”

The challenges facing workers at large franchises and chain stores who want to organize and win no longer seem so insurmountable. During a time when workers have more leverage than usual, this REI SoHo union drive serves as a testament to this possibility. After this successful union election, REI workers at other store locations may follow the SoHo worker’s lead.