Why REI Workers Are Taking a ‘Hike’ in Washington

REI Co-op’s unionized workers are going on a hike.

This isn’t an ordinary ramble in the woods, however. On Thursday afternoon, just after 1 p.m. Pacific time, members of the REI Union National Steering Committee will be marching to the outdoor equipment and clothing purveyor’s headquarters in the Washington city of Issaquah with a singular demand: that it bargain with them in good faith.

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The event is the culmination of two weeks of walks, bike rides and, indeed, hikes that employees at REI’s nine unionized stores, from SoHo, N.Y., to Maple Grove, Minn., have undertaken with their communities and co-op members to share one of 10 “essential” demands that they’ve been fighting for with support from the Retail, Wholesale & Department Store International Union and the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.

A store in Boston, for instance, is highlighting “insulation,” referring to job security. Durham, N.C,. is pushing for “navigation,” meaning predictable scheduling that can keep employees on course at work and in their personal lives. Cleveland, Ohio, is championing “first aid,” or a viable sick policy, while Castleton, Ind., believes in “sun protection,” which includes adequate parental leave and job flexibility. In Berkeley, Calif., the second of REI’s 170 nationwide stores to unionize, employees are calling attention to “nutrition,” i.e., a leave and vacation policy that can sufficiently “nourish” their lives. For workers in SoHo, the first REI outlet to petition the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for a union vote in 2022, the essential of “shelter” translates to a living wage and guaranteed minimum hours.

Asked for comment, “REI is committed to and will always negotiate in good faith with our stores that have chosen union representation,” a spokesperson said.

The negotiation process has been especially fraught, said Zoe Dunmire, an associate at the SoHo store, where workers have been bargaining for two years for a union contract. The day after they won their bid to unionize, REI announced that it would be handing out raises to every location except for theirs. Any tentative progress was also rolled back a year into negotiations when the retailer announced that it was changing its legal counsel to Morgan Lewis, which also represents Amazon “and their union busting,” she said. REI then made the “cruel choice” of cutting all the SoHo employees’ wages “ knowing that this would put extreme hurt on their workers.” A few weeks ago, Dunmire said, the company revealed that it would be excluding all unionized stores from the annual merit-based raises, “again violating our status quo.”

REI’s so-called stalling tactics are more than familiar to Victor Delgado, who works at the Berkeley outpost and called 2023 a “rough year in bargaining.” While the unionized workers finally received word about two tentative agreements this week after a year of talks with REI’s lawyers, not REI itself, the slow pace has been demoralizing. “The only way we can make any improvements or advancements is by unifying our efforts, and this is exactly what we’re doing here,” he said of the unionized stores’ decision to band together this way.

The REI Union National Steering Committee isn’t afraid of calling in the big guns, either. In November, unionized workers and their parent unions filed coordinated unfair labor practice charges with their regional NLRB offices to accuse the company also known as Recreational Equipment Inc. of bad faith bargaining practices and unilateral workplace changes, such as dismissals, work schedule modifications and disciplinary action, that characterize its “egregious anti-union behavior.”

REI’s recent spate of layoffs—more than 300 employees alone in January—has only fired up workers’ interest in the bargaining process, said Dave Hein, a shop mechanic at the Cleveland store. “The reason that is given is always that REI’s not profitable; REI’s not in a position to make money this year, despite billions in revenue,” he said. The retailer closed 2022 with a record $3.9 billion in sales, so “it’s not a question of are they making money? It’s a question of where are they spending it?” Hein added.

Writing to employees in January, CEO Eric Artz said that the year’s revenue is expected to be down from 2023 because of “macroeconomic conditions” that REI is anticipating for 2024. “When we plan our revenues down, we must adjust our plans and cost structure accordingly,” he added. “We must also continue our work to return REI to profitability to set the co-op up for long-term health and success.”

REI’s union members say they are energized by Starbucks’ volte-face this week that it will hash out a “foundational framework” on collective bargaining with the unions representing its workers. On Wednesday, ​​the Strategic Organizing Center, the coalition behind Starbucks Workers United, said that it would be dropping a proxy effort to add three members to the coffee Goliath’s board of directors.

“I think this is a testament to kind of the power of organizing,” said Caleb Walker, a sales specialist from Boston. “Starbucks would have never made this decision if the workers there did not put pressure on the company through collective organizing.”

Walker also believes that an infusion of younger people in the labor movement has been a boon. “Starbucks employs a lot of young people and them kind of realizing that their market base is not going to tolerate this is where this is coming from,” they said. REI, Walker added, “also employs a lot of young people.”