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REI workers face protracted union fight

ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

REI, the shopping mecca for outdoor enthusiasts, has a reputation as a progressive brand, but the company has balked at recognizing its newly unionized workers, leaving some staff disenchanted. NPR's Alina Selyukh reports.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Claire Chang came to REI just over five years ago - the first and only retail job she ever considered taking.

CLAIRE CHANG: Yeah, I only wanted to work at REI.

SELYUKH: The chain's reputation precedes it. REI promotes sustainability and famously closes on Black Friday, urging people to play outdoors. It gives workers a sabbatical - a paid month off after 15 years - and it's built as a co-op co-owned by its shoppers.

CHANG: I mean, we all started working at REI because of its values.

SELYUKH: Chang says, we, meaning her team at a flagship store in Manhattan. After health and safety concerns during COVID, followed by furloughs and job cuts, in March 2022, they formed REI's first union shop. Workers knew they faced a big corporation, but they thought maybe REI would be different.

CHANG: Like they say they are. So we were hopeful that they would voluntarily recognize the union and, you know, meet us at the table and negotiate in good faith.

SELYUKH: REI did not voluntarily recognize the union. Since then, seven more stores have unionized in far-flung parts of the country. A ninth one had a vote that remains too close to call. Now, pro-union employees accuse the company of breaking labor laws, threatening workers, disciplining and firing organizers. REI denies this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ERIC ARTZ: I do not believe a union will serve REI employees' best interests.

SELYUKH: That's CEO Eric Artz on a corporate podcast last year. In a statement, REI representatives argued staff get industry-leading wages and benefits and plenty of ways to reach out to leadership.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ARTZ: I believe the presence of union representation will impact our ability to communicate and work directly with our employees and resolve concerns at the speed the world is moving.

SELYUKH: A version of this has played out at other companies that spend decades building a progressive image of a generous employer. At Trader Joe's, workers have clashed over pluses and minuses of a union. At Starbucks, its anti-union fight is now a prominent plotline in its American story. Denise Rousseau is a professor of organizational behavior at Carnegie Mellon University.

DENISE ROUSSEAU: The idea that a firm that purports to be progressive and sustainable plays hardball with its workers on economic issues when it's actually doing pretty well - I think it makes it hard to keep that message.

SELYUKH: After more than a year of negotiations, REI and workers at the Manhattan and other stores are nowhere close to a collective bargaining contract. Unions accuse the retailer of delay tactics, which the company rejects. Shortly after the first store unionized last year, REI raised pay nationwide - 1 to $3 an hour for most workers.

JEZZI REYNOLDS: We were all very ecstatic when we heard about that.

SELYUKH: Jezzi Reynolds works at REI in Washington state.

REYNOLDS: And then almost immediately, within a couple of months, they cut our hours.

SELYUKH: Hours are the most common issue REI workers bring up. Pro-union staff want guaranteed hours. They describe schedules so inconsistent that a part-timer might get 14 hours one week, then 24 hours the next and four the following.

REYNOLDS: We each talked to our managers and explained that, hey, we can't make rent. Can I have a couple more hours? Like, I really need this.

SELYUKH: Reynolds' store just unionized last month. It's in Bellingham, north of Seattle. Before the vote, corporate leaders traveled up to the store. She says the break room was flooded with leaflets about drawbacks of unionizing.

CHANG: It's just - it is disappointing, you know...

SELYUKH: That's Claire Chang again from New York.

CHANG: ...That REI has reacted in this manner and continues to double down.

SELYUKH: Her store is in a big dispute over those raises last year. The newly unionized shop could only get the pay bump by signing a temporary deal with the company promising not to strike, among other things. A few weeks ago, when the workers refused to renew the deal, REI took their raises away.

CHANG: My pay cut was close to $4 an hour. You know, I am pretty much living paycheck to paycheck. A lot of my coworkers are. They hit a lot of people pretty hard.

SELYUKH: Federal labor officials are now reviewing this and two dozen other claims of unfair labor practices against REI, all of which the company says are without merit. Chang also says something other organizers told me - this can be a great job.

CHANG: We love the outdoors. We want people to experience that, you know? And the truth is, like, people really enjoy working at REI, so we want to stay and make it better.

SELYUKH: Even if it takes a while.

Alina Selyukh, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Alina Selyukh is a business correspondent at NPR, where she follows the path of the retail and tech industries, tracking how America's biggest companies are influencing the way we spend our time, money, and energy.
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