Workers at REI’s only Chicago location filed for a union election on Friday.
The REI staff include about 70 employees who work at the store selling outdoor gear and apparel, handling inventory and repairing products, including bikes and skis. The workers are seeking representation with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.
Members of the Chicago staff presented store management with a letter announcing their intent to unionize at a Friday morning meeting at the store, which is located along the banks of the Chicago River at 905 W. Eastman St. The workers asked REI to voluntarily recognize their union; RWDSU communications director Chelsea Connor said the company declined to immediately do so. Workers proceeded to file for a union election at the National Labor Relations Board offices in downtown Chicago, she said.
In a statement, a representative for REI confirmed the company declined to offer voluntary recognition and said it would “fully support the petition process and vote in Lincoln Park — including the right of every employee to vote for or against union representation.”
If the Chicago REI employees vote to unionize by majority vote, the store could become the fourth REI in the country to do so. RWDSU represents workers at two REI locations: a store in New York’s Soho neighborhood, which was the first to unionize in March 2022, and another in a Cleveland suburb that voted to unionize about a month ago. Staff at a Berkeley, California REI unionized with the United Food and Commercial Workers last year.
The unionized stores represent a fraction of REI’s national footprint: The outdoor goods retailer has about 180 locations across the U.S. But the filings come amid a swell of organizing among workers at high-profile retail giants such as Starbucks, Amazon and Apple.
Chicago REI employees said they were spurred to unionize by the feeling that they did not have a voice to address issues related to their working conditions, including reduced hours they said caused financial hardship and understaffing on the shop floor.
“Employees at REI Lincoln Park are struggling to pay rent, to buy groceries, because the hours have been so reduced,” said Emily Burchett, a sales lead who works in the store’s action sports department outfitting Chicagoans with gear for their bicycles, skis, snowboards and more.
Burchett is a full-time employee, but said that this fall and winter, she was sometimes scheduled to work only 24 hours a week, below her typical 32 to 40 hours. “I was living on ramen,” said Burchett, a member of the workers’ organizing committee.
After receiving a 3% raise this spring, Burchett now makes $24.55 an hour, she said. The lowest-paid employees at the store make $19 an hour, according to Connor.
REI did not comment on concerns raised by employees about reduced hours and understaffing.
“It’s about a lack of respect,” said Eric Stuck, a shop service lead in the store’s repair shop, where he said he has raised concerns to management about understaffing to no avail. “It’s about a dismissive attitude toward their employees and their employees’ ideas to better the business,” he said.
Stuck said that many retail employees who worked during the pandemic realized ”how literally essential they are just to the everyday running of the business.”
“There was a big talk, ‘You guys are essential, and you’re doing the work, and ‘Wow, you really saved us,’ ” Stuck said. “And that was a lot of talk, and not a lot of action.”
That experience was common among retail employees who worked through the pandemic, said Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Though a wave of retail organizing was already underway when the pandemic began in March 2020, the labor movement has notched “much bigger wins” in retail since, Bronfenbrenner said.
Events such as the unionization of Amazon workers on Staten Island and the Starbucks organizing wave “got people going all over the country,” said Bronfenbrenner, speaking generally about retail unionizations before the Chicago REI campaign became public.
Challenges of organizing the retail industry include high turnover, Bronfenbrenner said, as well as the fact that many retail workers lack union experience.
“But the biggest thing is the degree of employer opposition and the power of the companies to oppose unions,” she said.
Companies such as Starbucks have taken a hard-line approach to unionization — the coffee giant has been accused by labor board officials, administrative law judges and federal judges of violating labor law and has been ordered to reinstate baristas it fired during the union campaign, according to the NLRB. This week, former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz testified on the company’s labor practices in front of a Senate committee under threat of subpoena; he denied the company had broken the law and said it was appealing decisions issued against the company.
During the REI campaign, RWDSU has accused the company of making “every effort to union bust coast-to-coast.” Workers have filed unfair labor practice charges with the company regarding the Ohio, California and New York campaigns. Those charges remain under investigation by the NLRB.
REI is a consumer co-op, and the company highlights its commitment to the environment and putting “purpose before profits” on its website. Chicago REI employees told the Tribune their union campaign, in part, was about holding REI accountable to the progressive ideals it espouses.
Employees said they appreciated some of the company’s policies, such as the health coverage it offers and its practice of giving employees a paid day off on Black Friday, but wanted to hold the company more accountable to its public-facing image.
“REI has put a lot of time and effort into crafting this very liberal image of a company that cares deeply about its customers and the environment and its workers,” said Jim Tully, a sales specialist at the Chicago store who has worked for REI for more than a decade and is also a member of the workers’ organizing committee. “And I really just wanted to hold them to that image in a more meaningful manner.”
Workers at the unionized SoHo and Berkeley REI stores are actively bargaining with the company for their first collective bargaining agreements, Connor said. Bargaining has not yet commenced in Ohio.
REI’s other Chicago-area stores, where employees have not announced any public union campaigns, are in Northbrook, Oakbrook Terrace, Vernon Hills and Orland Park.
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