Workers at REI Store in Manhattan Seek to Form Retailer’s Only Union

Employees at an REI store in Manhattan filed for a union election on Friday, making the outdoor equipment and apparel retailer the latest prominent service-industry employer whose workers have sought to unionize.

Amazon employees in Bessemer, Ala., rejected a union in an election last year, though the National Labor Relations Board later threw out the result, citing improprieties on the part of the company, and ordered a new election to begin next month.

In December, workers at two Starbucks stores in Buffalo voted to unionize, making them the only company-owned Starbucks locations in the country with a union. Employees at about 20 other Starbucks have since filed for union elections.

The filing at the REI store in SoHo asked the labor board for an election involving about 115 employees, who are seeking to be represented by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, the same union that has overseen the union campaign at the Amazon warehouse in Alabama.

In addition to filing for the election, the REI employees have asked for voluntary recognition of their union, which would make a vote unnecessary.

Like Starbucks, REI, a consumer cooperative made up of customers who buy lifetime memberships for $20, cultivates a progressive image. REI’s website says that the cooperative believes in “putting purpose before profits” and that it invests more than 70 percent of its profits “back into the outdoor community” through initiatives like dividends to members and employee profit-sharing.

The site also says that REI closes all of its roughly 170 stores, none of which are currently unionized, on Black Friday to allow employees to spend the day with family and friends.

The retailer has more than 15,000 employees in the United States, compared with more than 230,000 at roughly 9,000 U.S. Starbucks locations that are owned by the company.

In a statement, Graham Gale, an employee involved in union organizing at the SoHo REI store, said the campaign was partly a response to “a tangible shift in the culture at work that doesn’t seem to align with the values that brought most of us here.”

The statement also pointed to “the new struggle of facing unsafe working conditions during a global pandemic.”

In a follow-up text, Mx. Gale, who prefers gender-neutral courtesy titles and pronouns, said REI declined to bring back some long-tenured employees who had been outspoken about workplace concerns after the retailer temporarily closed its stores in 2020.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, some REI employees have criticized the retailer over what they say are insufficient safety protocols, including a lack of transparency over which employees have tested positive for Covid and a decision to relax its masking policy. The retailer has said that it follows relevant guidance from state and federal health authorities, but it has adjusted some policies as it faced criticism.

Responding to the union campaign in Manhattan, REI said in a statement: “We respect the rights of our employees to speak and act for what they believe — and that includes the rights of employees to choose or refuse union representation. However, we do not believe placing a union between the co-op and its employees is needed or beneficial.”

The statement went on to say that the co-op was committed to working with employees at the SoHo store to resolve their concerns.

Despite the organizing efforts at companies like Amazon and Starbucks last year, membership in unions declined to 10.3 percent of the work force, matching its lowest figure in Labor Department records that date back to 1983.

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