A business that brands itself as “progressive” is still just a business, primarily concerned with profit-making, no matter how much play the commentariat gets out of arguing over “woke capital” or whatever the terminology of the moment may be. If you don’t believe it, just look at how such companies respond when their workers unionize.
The latest case is REI, an outdoor equipment and apparel retailer with 168 stores employing fifteen thousand people across the United States. On January 21, workers at one of those stores, in Manhattan, filed for a union election with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The bargaining unit comprises 116 employees, and is organizing with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, known of late for its campaign at the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama.
As Graham Gale, a worker involved in the union effort, said in a statement on the effort, unionization is a response to “a tangible shift in the culture at work that doesn’t seem to align with the values that brought most of us here.”
REI prides itself on its progressive image. “Being a member-owned co-operative allows us to focus on shared values, not share value,” reads the copy on the company’s website, which boasts that “more than 70 percent of our annual profits are invested back into the outdoor community through dividends to REI members, employee profit-sharing and retirement, and investments in nonprofits dedicated to the outdoors.”
REI is a consumer cooperative, to be clear, not a worker-owned one: customers can buy lifetime memberships for $20 to become consumer-owners. Workers are not automatically enrolled in the co-op but rather, can buy in. Responding to the union drive in an email apparently sent to all REI employees — a surprising unforced error, given that many of those workers would not have otherwise been aware of the union drive in Manhattan — REI leaned heavily on its co-op model to oppose the union.
“At REI, we anchor everything we do in the Co-Op Way,” reads the email from CEO Eric Artz. Given that Artz received just under $2 million in compensation in 2020, he certainly does not mean everything; starting pay for entry-level jobs at REI seems to hover at around $15 an hour.
“We always start from a place of respect, which is why I want to be clear with you about the co-op’s position: we do not believe placing a union between the co-op and its employees is needed or beneficial,” the email continues. As readers of Jacobin are no doubt aware by now, conjuring “the union” as a third-party intruding upon an otherwise happy family is part of the standard union-busting script, no matter how many times Artz mentions the buyers’ co-op.
The saga at REI is just the latest entry in a colorful history of progressive-branded companies opposing union efforts among their employees. One of the most egregious such cases, pushing the hypocrisy into the realm of absurdity, was No Evil Foods, a socialist-branded vegan company that hawks products with names like “Comrade Cluck” (a vegan chicken product) and “El Zapatista” (a vegan chorizo product). When workers at No Evil’s Asheville, North Carolina facility unionized, the company manically cracked down on them, ultimately laying off all of the location’s workers, though not before firing several of the organizers.
While the distance between No Evil’s branding and its practices is comically large, it is merely an extreme case of the norm. Starbucks has since its founding presented itself as socially progressive, and that did not stop it from waging a (still ongoing) war on its workers who are in the midst of a spirited union drive that is spreading from store to store at a breakneck speed. Chipotle, too, which I admit to having once called a “criminal enterprise” for its systematic mistreatment of the low-paid workers on which it relies, includes in its stated values “cultivating a better world” and “treating our people right.”
In addition to filing for an NLRB election, REI workers have requested voluntary recognition. Judging by Artz’s email, that is not forthcoming. However, many consumer-owners of REI are adding to the pressure by emailing the company to express their opposition to REI’s union-busting. If you are one such “owner,” you can contact the REI Board here.