REI employees in Boston filed for a union election Wednesday morning, joining the growing ranks of retail workers organizing at major brands around the country. The Boston store is the sixth in the outdoor equipment chain to push for union recognition in the past year: Workers in New York; Berkeley, Calif.; and Cleveland have held successful votes, and employees in Chicago and Eugene, Ore., recently filed for elections.
As the pandemic recedes and labor shortages continue, emboldened employees are banding together across the country to push for better working conditions, higher pay, and a greater voice in how their workplaces operate. Along with union drives at colleges, museums, and newsrooms, campaigns at well-known companies such as Starbucks, Amazon, Trader Joe’s, Apple, and Chipotle are generating renewed attention to a labor movement some had left for dead. At Starbucks, nearly 300 of the coffee giant’s stores, including about a dozen in Massachusetts, have unionized since late 2021.
The number of petitions for union representation increased 53 percent in fiscal year 2022 from the year before, according to the National Labor Relations Board, and election petitions in the first six months of the current fiscal year have outpaced those filed in the same period last year. Public support for unions, meanwhile, is at the highest level its been since 1965.
Like Starbucks, REI, which has 168 stores nationwide, including five in Massachusetts, bills itself as a progressive company. And, as at Starbucks, REI’s workforce is pushing the company to uphold those values for its workforce, according to organizers at the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which is working with Boston REI employees. UFCW and its affiliate, the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union, represent the roughly 480 REI workers who have organized so far, and are working with other stores but would not identify them.
REI said in a statement that it will “fully support the petition process and vote in Boston—including the right of every employee to vote for or against union representation.”
In Boston, where REI has more than 80 employees, many of them with college degrees, workers are demanding higher pay, better health and safety measures, increased staffing levels, and more consistent hours for part-timers. The outdoors industry thrived during the pandemic, as more people headed out to explore the wilderness, but REI has lost experienced employees who can help properly outfit novice hikers and bikers because the company hasn’t invested in its staff, said Owen Schmidt, who works part time stocking inventory and selling shoes at the Fenway store. Starting pay recently went up to $20 an hour, but it’s still not enough to live on in Boston, said Schmidt, 24, who has a political science degree from Bates College in Maine. Schmidt said he has been given fewer shifts recently, despite the store being chronically understaffed.
REI, a consumer cooperative in which customers who become members can get a share of some profits and vote in board elections, calls itself a “different kind of company,” Schmidt pointed out, and plays up its contributions to nonprofits and its commitment to sustainability and racial equity. In a podcast last year, REI chief executive Eric Artz made a case against unions, according to news reports, in part by touting the company’s employee inclusion networks — “led by employees who share historically excluded dimensions of diversity,” according to the company’s website — as a way for workers to make their voices heard.
“They say they really value our differences, our diversity,” Schmidt said. “It’s all well and good for the company to support these things, but you know, if you’re supporting your trans employees, but your trans employees can’t afford to live in the city anymore, I think that’s hollow. I think that’s hollow as hell.”
Kirsten Randle, who leads the sales team in Boston, is pushing for a union as a way of “democratizing decision-making” at the store. Randle, 30, who has a master’s degree in physics from Northeastern University, started at the company a year and a half ago. “Honestly, we have some pretty good benefits,” she said, noting the 401(k) match and the fact that part-timers are eligible for health insurance after three months. “I would just love the security of having it in a contract.”
A member of REI’s corporate labor relations team came to Boston on Monday and held a so-called “captive audience” meeting with employees to try and dispel their union efforts, Randle said.
The flurry of union activity in the last few years is being driven by a new generation of workers who have distinctly anti-capitalist views and see unions as a way to counteract corporate greed, said Ruth Milkman, chair of the labor studies department at the City University of New York. Many of them went to college, came out saddled with student debt, and haven’t found the kinds of jobs they were hoping for.
“They’re young, they’re savvy, they’re educated, and they’re deeply disappointed in what’s available to them,” she said. “They come with high expectations of what they’re going to be able to do for work, and those expectations are not met, and instead they end up working at the Apple store or REI or Starbucks.”
And with a low unemployment rate and job openings plentiful, workers are less afraid to confront employers who may take action against them if they unionize, Milkman noted: “Even if disaster does befall them, this isn’t the job they wanted anyway, and in this labor market they can easily get another crummy job.”