REI workers seize their moment

By RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum

Originally appeared in Amsterdam News

Workers at the REI outdoor sports retail store in Soho have joined the RWDSU, becoming part of a national movement of workers standing up for themselves and demanding a voice at work. Starbucks employees, workers in the tech, new media, and video game industries, and employees at Amazon facilities—all are seizing this moment to improve their jobs and their lives through union membership. Last fall, we saw the “Striketober” wave, where more than 100,000 American workers participated in or prepared for strikes as workers’ leverage increased during the ongoing pandemic.

We are seeing this increased activism because workers are demanding better, and declaring that they are worth more than corporate behemoths have been giving them. Low wages and poor treatment have spurred on the “Great Resignation,” which has caused a labor shortage as working people have stood up and said they’ve had enough.

The 116 retail workers at the REI store in Soho demanded better. They knew that joining the RWDSU could help them deal with workplace issues including pay, a one-year wait for health insurance, scheduling problems, and understaffing. Like so many other working people, they stood up and demanded change at their jobs.

However, like so many other working people, they faced an employer willing to do anything to stop their campaign, rather than addressing their concerns and creating a better workplace. REI touts itself as a “progressive employer” who closes its stores on Black Friday, invests in outdoors organizations, and above all, puts “purpose above profits.” However, when the workers’ started their union organizing campaign, REI, which claims to be a “different kind of company,” started behaving much like many other companies who have gone to great lengths to crush workers’ union campaigns, including behemoths such as Amazon and Wal-Mart. REI hired union-busting lawyer “consultants” to design and execute a classic union-busting campaign. They halted promotion opportunities for workers and held lengthy mandatory meetings where they spread misinformation about the union. And, in a unique, unprecedented new flourish, REI management produced a 25-minute anti-union podcast. It was all designed to intimidate and frighten workers.

We saw a similar situation in New York last year, when “progressive” employer Housing Works, a nonprofit employing more than 600 new RWDSU members in NYC, engaged in the same kind of union-busting tactics.

Fortunately, workers at both REI and Housing Works saw through the lies and misinformation, and with the aid of RWDSU organizers, were prepared for the union-busting onslaught. But the fact that these companies—espousing progressive values in progressive NYC—thought they could behave this way is frustrating, troubling, and outrageous.

Workers in America are waking up to the fact they deserve better. And unions such as the RWDSU are fighting to help their voices be heard. But as long as employers feel comfortable lying to employees and intimidating them, it’s going to be an uphill battle for too many workers. We all need to speak out against union-busting dirty tricks, and we need to support these workers as they fight for better jobs and better lives. This is their moment, and with our help, it can grow into a flourishing movement.