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REI store in Manhattan may be the first to unionize

On Behalf of | Feb 4, 2022 | Firm News |

Employees at the outdoor apparel and equipment retailer REI filed for a union election on January 21. Involving a store located in SoHo, this move is part of a more significant trend where service industry workers at large companies have wanted to unionize.

The attempt at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, is another high-profile example of this trend. That vote was initially rejected unionization, but the National Labor Board invalidated the results because the employer acted inappropriately during its anti-union campaign. Another mail-in election is now underway, set to end on March 25. The ballot count will be March 28.

Two Starbucks in Buffalo voted to unionize in December. This makes them the only two company-owned locations to unionize, but about 20 more have since filed for union elections.

A union in a co-op

The REI store vote will include an estimated 115 employees. They seek to be represented by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. This union is the same one that is overseeing the campaign in Alabama.

The interesting wrinkle here with REI and Starbucks is that both are consumer cooperatives rather than corporations. The cooperative tag generally projects an image of people before profits. REI also trades on the fact that it gives 70% of its profits “back to the outdoor community” who patronizes the stores. This includes initiatives to give dividends to members and profit-sharing for its 15,000-plus employees. REI furthers its employee-friendly stance by remaining closed on Black Friday so that staff can spend more time with family and friends.

According to a statement from one of the store’s organizers, the move to unionize is in response to the REI’s shift from the values that initially brought employees to the store. The statement also cited unsafe work conditions during the global pandemic as another issue – the store shut for a period during the pandemic but then reopened, which led to criticism from some employees about safety protocols. One of the biggest concerns involved relaxing the masking mandate.

Employees have also requested that REI recognize the union voluntarily, thus making the vote unnecessary, but the retailer took the stance that a union in a co-op is unnecessary and not beneficial.

Is retail the next growth area for unions?

Union rolls have declined to just 10.3% of the workforce, which ties for the lowest numbers since 1983. However, if REI and Amazon employees unionize and follow the lead blazed by the Starbucks stores, those numbers will go in the other direction.