The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion REI touts its liberal ‘values.’ Now it’s being put to the test.

REI's flagship store in New York on Jan. 25. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
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Say it ain’t so, REI.

The company that as much as almost any embodies the sensibilities of cosmopolitan liberals (at least the outdoorsy ones) is seeing its first unionization drive. Employees of its retail store in the SoHo neighborhood of New York City have filed for an election to be represented by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.

The company’s first reaction used language similar to that of just about every anti-union campaign that’s about to come down like a ton of bricks on a small number of relatively powerless workers looking for a little more pay and better working conditions.

“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,” REI said in a statement. “However, we do not believe placing a union between the co-op and its employees is needed or beneficial.”

That could have come from any anti-union news release you’ve ever read. Given the company we’re talking about here, it was a shock.

REI is a co-op, which means that it doesn’t have shareholders but is, in name anyway, owned by its members. But unlike the organic co-op market in your neighborhood, this one is a company with billions of dollars in sales and more than 15,000 employees. The company says that “we put purpose before profits” and encourages people to “buy from brands that align with your values.”

I should disclose my own interest here: I’ve been an REI member for a couple of decades, ever since the day I went into one of its stores to buy a backpack for what would be the first of many hiking trips. If you ran into me on the street, there’s a good chance I’d be wearing something from REI.

So it’s painful to see it come out as anti-union.

At least that’s how it appeared at first. If you contact the company about the unionization question, you’ll get an email reply that, at least as of Tuesday, adopts a different tone than its initial statement. Much of the language is similar, but the line saying that “we do not believe placing a union between the co-op and its employees is needed or beneficial” is not in the email.

So the company might know it made a terrible mistake, and is trying tamp down a PR problem and figure out what it ought to do. At least that’s what we should hope.

Any company is free to stay as far away from politics as it can, even if doing so can sometimes be difficult. I suspect most of us have some companies we patronize or avoid because of their politics, while for most things we buy this never enters our calculation.

But if a company makes its “values” part of its sales pitch, then it has to live up to them. And if it’s specifically touting its liberal values — such as fighting climate change and promoting racial equity — it can’t simultaneously oppose collective bargaining and expect that its consumer base won’t shop elsewhere.

REI’s CEO, Eric Artz, received a total pay package of just under $2 million in 2020, down from the $3.3 million he made in 2019. That may be less than he’d make as CEO of a bank or pharmaceutical firm, but it’s still a sweet chunk of change. Meanwhile, according to surveys from various job sites (see here or here), retail sales employees at REI make around $13 to $15 an hour.

At least some of the workers seem to have other concerns beyond pay. Employees have been critical of the company’s handling of the pandemic, and one told the New York Times that there has been “a tangible shift in the culture at work that doesn’t seem to align with the values that brought most of us here.”

There’s an inescapable question here: What is REI afraid of?

Some corporations depend on brutal exploitation of workers as core to their business model, but REI has never appeared to be one of them. So what would happen if employees at the SoHo store, or any other REI, unionized? Collective bargaining would mean some changes in hiring and firing procedures, some new ways of management relating to employees, and in all likelihood, some higher costs in pay and benefits that would likely be offset by better worker retention.

The net effect on the bottom line would probably be negligible, and might be positive. But if REI fights any attempt by its workers to unionize, there’s a good chance it will start bleeding customers who learned that the company’s “values” were not what they thought.

REI might want to consider that as it decides where to go from here.

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