REI student workers anticipate NLRB union certification
The REI in SoHo is the first location to unionize. NYU student employees hope the union contract will lead to improved working conditions.
Mar 10, 2022
Workers at the REI flagship location in SoHo won a vote to form a union 88 to 14 on Wednesday, March 2, making them the outdoor equipment retailer’s first unionized store. Employees say this result was achieved in large part due to increased transparency and courteousness between management and workers.
As a result of the store’s unionization, more than 100 full-time and part-time workers will now join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union in contract negotiations. Workers submitted a petition to the National Labor Relations Board on Jan. 21 to hold an election to form the union. REI has not yet recognized the union, as it is currently awaiting certification by the NLRB. Once recognized, the union will be able to begin contract negotiations with REI — but a timeline is still unclear.
“The union gives us bargaining power, it gives us collective power, and I think we were very much lacking that community strength rather,” said Mari Tompkins, a Tisch sophomore who has been working at REI SoHo since August 2021.
REI employees hope that the unionization effort will address concerns about training, scheduling, vacation time and workplace safety. Brandon Elam, a Steinhardt graduate student, said he sometimes felt uncomfortable during his shift when managers would follow him and other employees around throughout their shifts and repeatedly address them using incorrect pronouns.
“As an African American male it is very uncomfortable being followed around by white-identifying management with no real explanation,” Elam said. “I don’t think it was racial profiling, just a lack of understanding of how being followed could impact a person of color.”
Some employees at REI SoHo report feeling that their concerns regarding workplace favoritism and unequal benefits were brushed off by management.
“Management has favorites within the store location so certain employees will get more hours than the others, time off and other accommodations,” Elam said. “I have the privilege of being well-liked by management but I have seen the difference in treatment if they do not like you.”
Besides concerns about employee benefits and healthcare, general safety and workplace compatibility during COVID-19 have also been important issues for many workers.
“Store limits on capacity weren’t being dealt with, employees didn’t feel safe,” Tompkins said. “Particularly in the SoHo store, we don’t have certain backlogs and certain items like personal protective equipment. We were slow to get masks for everyone.”
Elam said members from REI’s corporate office met with many store employees one-on-one to supposedly support the management team in employee relations. But Elam believes the meetings were part of a union-busting effort to learn which staff members were in support of the union and which were not.
After workers went public with the unionization effort in January, employees said REI began using anti-union measures, such as anti-union websites, posters and handouts in the break room and a 25-minute podcast by CEO Eric Artz and Chief Diversity and Social Impact Officer Wilma Wallace against the SoHo union efforts.
“REI made it loud and clear that they knew it was our decision to vote yes or no,” Tompkins said. “That being said, we were subjected to ambiguous and misleading information about unions, specifically RWDSU. Posters were plastered on our walls, handouts left on break room tables, et cetera. Everyone of these things made it clear that REI did not support this effort. We never got definitive answers to why.”
Union organizers waited until they had the support of around 75% of their colleagues to disclose their plans, hoping that a supermajority would dampen union-busting measures before they could begin the fight for formal organization.
Once the unionization effort went public, REI student workers found support in the NYU community. NYU’s chapter of the Young Democratic Socialists of America organized a banner drop at the NYU sociology department — which is located in the same building on the floors above REI — to demonstrate solidarity.
But after the university said the Puck building’s lease doesn’t allow objects to be hung outside, the demonstration was moved to Washington Square Park, where members held a banner to support the union efforts. Members of the New York City chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America were also present, including labor branch member Ella Mahony, who said she believes unions are essential to achieve better workplace environments.
“Unions are the most powerful tool that working people have to improve their conditions,” Mahony said. “Without them, no workplace has ever given workers the dignity they deserve.”
Members of the new union are hopeful that future negotiations with REI will lead to a contract that addresses all the demands and concerns of employees.
“I am very proud of the work that went into organizing and advocating for a seat at the table,” Tompkins said. “What is most important now is the negotiation process and creating a contract that represents the true value of the REI SoHo employees.”
Contact Elias Lopez at [email protected]