The company’s first reaction used language similar to that used in every anti-union campaign about to fall like so many bricks on a small number of relatively weak workers looking for a bit more pay and better working conditions.
“We respect our employees’ rights to speak and act for what they believe in — and this includes the rights of employees to choose or decline union representation,” REI said in a statement. “However, we do not believe that establishing a union between the cooperative and its employees is necessary or beneficial.”
That could come from any anti-union press release you’ve ever read. Looking at the company we’re talking about here, it was a shock.
REI is a co-op, which means it has no shareholders but is owned, in name anyway, by its members. But unlike the organic co-op market in your area, this company has billions of dollars in sales and more than 15,000 employees. The company says “we put purpose before profits” and encourages people to “buy from brands that align with your values”.
I must state my special interests here: I’ve been a member of REI for two decades, ever since the day I went to one of their stores to buy a backpack for what would be the first of many hiking trips. If you happen to come across me on the street, there’s a good chance I’ll be wearing something from REI.
So it hurts to see it anti-union.
At least that’s how it looked at first. If you contact the company regarding the union’s question, you will receive an email response that, at least as of Tuesday, adopts a different tone than the initial statement. Much of the language is the same, but the statement “We do not believe that a union between the cooperative and its employees is necessary or beneficial” is not in the email.
So the company might learn that it made a huge mistake, and try to catch up on the PR problem and figure out what to do. At least that’s what we should hope for.
Any company is free to stay out of politics as much as possible, even if doing so can sometimes be difficult. I suspect most of us have some companies that we sponsor or avoid due to their policies, while most of the things we buy never get into our accounts.
But if a company makes its “values” a part of its sales presentation, it has to stick to them. And if you specifically promote it liberal Values - such as combating climate change and promoting racial equality – cannot simultaneously oppose collective bargaining and expect the consumer base to not shop elsewhere.
REI CEO Eric Artz received a total salary package of just under $2 million in 2020, down from the $3.3 million he made in 2019. That may be less than he would have appointed as CEO of a bank or pharmaceutical company, but he’s still Sweet piece of change. Meanwhile, according to surveys from various job sites (see here or here), REI retail sales employees earn about $13 to $15 an hour.
At least some workers seem to have concerns other than wages. Employees have criticized the company’s handling of the pandemic, with one telling the New York Times that there has been a “tangible shift in culture at work that doesn’t seem to be in line with the values that brought most of us here.”
There is an inescapable question here: What is REI afraid of?
Some companies rely on the brutal exploitation of workers as the basis of their business model, but REI has never seemed to be one of them. So what would happen if employees in a SoHo store, or any other REI, were union affiliated? Collective bargaining may mean some changes in hiring and firing procedures, some new ways of managing employees and, in all likelihood, some higher costs in wages and benefits likely to be offset by improved employee retention.
The net effect on the bottom line is likely to be small, and may be positive. But if REI combats any attempt by its workers to join unions, there’s a good chance it will start to bleed out clients who have learned the company’s “values” weren’t what they thought.
REI may want to look into that as they decide where to head from here.