Workers at the REI Co-op in Berkeley, California, are voting on union recognition on Aug. 3. They may soon become the second unionized REI after the SoHo, New York City location won their union election in March. The vote comes after many months of organizing with workers asking REI on June 24 to voluntarily recognize their intent to organize with United Food and Commercial Workers Local 5.
Worker organizers told Liberation News that a major motivation behind the union drive is to hold the company to the values it publicly states. REI Co-op is a consumer co-op with the customers becoming members and owning the company. REI publicly treats its members warmly, but this is not extended to its workers. Some workers have precarious housing, and all are experiencing the impacts of inflation and the potential of another recession.
For the worker organizers, providing a living wage, pay transparency and better benefits for full- and part- time employees all align with REI’s public facing values.
“I’m not pro-union because I’m anti-REI,” Jules Geritz told Liberation News. ”If I was anti-REI, I would leave. We are here because we believe we can effect change and make this company better. That has been what this campaign is all about.” Forming a union would become the most co-op thing about REI. “As you pool the voice of workers together, you’re able to collaborate and make great things happen,” Geritz said. “The very essence of a union is cooperative collaboration.”
Unresolved incidences of racism, continuous misgendering and workplace sexual harassment has also contributed to the drive for a union. Racist comments and continuous mixing of names of workers of color are just some of the experiences workers deal with. When workers brought up these issues, they were not addressed.
One REI worker, Victor Delgado, said, “During the morning huddle, before we open at the store, they discuss the union. We thought we were going to come and discuss the issues the workers were facing at the store. We were led to believe that they were going to discuss the racism and sexual harassment at the store, but instead it was used as a captive audience meeting.” This is time on the clock where workers are told the typical anti-union talking points filled with lies to try to sway the workers against supporting their own interests.
REI reacted to the SoHo union drive with a revised pay and benefits plan, announced on March 3, the day after the union election on March 2. REI workers are saying it is not enough. Geritz said, “According to MIT, the bare bones living [wage] for Berkeley is $24.26. Even with this most recent pay increase, people will still earn less than that.”
Since the pandemic, workers are not letting these token gains fool them. “We’ve been in the pandemic for two years, it shouldn’t take too long for them to develop a conscience and give us benefits. This is clearly a response to the union drive at SoHo. It feels like it should’ve happened way before we started to organize. If they still want to brand themselves as a first-class experience for employees, they shouldn’t just improve things as a response to our organizing, and shouldn’t fight against us having a collective voice,” said Victor Delgado.
Workers point out that while REI has just now offered a raise, they’ve already raised their CEO’s salary by 30% from its previous high in 2019. This has equaled an enormous compensation package of $4.2 million. In contrast, the top raise workers in Berkeley are receiving is 10%. The workers are quick to point out the contradiction. Delgado said, “The executives get multi-million dollar bonuses, while they’re telling us not to organize and collectively use our voice to bargain for better conditions.”
While workers are busy organizing for the election, REI has hired the notorious union-busting law firm Perkins Coie. Since then, workers have reported an increase in being taken on long one-on-one walks, used as captive audience meetings, with rehearsed messages from managers. Outspoken pro-union workers have also been shifted to the front cash register, where there is less interaction with other workers.
This all culminated in REI demanding an in-person union election, refusing to allow workers to vote by mail until they were forced to by the NLRB the day before the originally scheduled election on July 27. The NLRB cited REI telling four employees not to come to work due to CDC guidelines, effectively barring them from participating in the election, as justification for the change to mail ballots.
Despite the efforts by REI, the worker organizers feel they are going into the election with a strong majority of support. Citing the success of the recent SoHo union drive, workers at REI see themselves as part of the wave of union organizing sweeping the country.
Victor said that “besides the direct benefits we would gain, we want to be the first link in the chain with SoHo so other stores see that it is a possibility, and the responses of REI when workers try to organize. We want to continue to light this flame, and look at this from a macro level. Look at all the other stores trying to organize at Starbucks and Amazon. We want to inspire other workers to organize and fight for real change.”
You can sign this petition to support the REI Berkeley workers’ campaign as they fight against union-busting and for a free and fair union election.
Photo: An REI Berkeley worker organizer speaks at Berkeley Community Event on July 30. Credit: Jules Geritz.