REI is revolutionizing the union-busting space.
There’s nothing special about a company launching an anti-union website to combat an organizing drive among its workers — bosses do it all the time. But there is something unique on the site REI launched in response to a unionization effort at its SoHo location in Manhattan, where on January 21, workers organizing with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) filed for an election with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). At the bottom of the page, there is a podcast.
“Podcast with Eric & Wilma” is a twenty-five-minute conversation between Eric Artz, the outdoor equipment and apparel retailer’s CEO, and Wilma Wallace, its chief diversity and social impact officer. In keeping with the company’s progressive image, the recording opens as follows:
Hi, REI. My name is Wilma Wallace, and I serve as your chief diversity and social impact officer. I use she/her pronouns and am speaking to you today from the traditional lands of the Ohlone people.
Given that the intra-management conversation is an effort to dissuade workers from unionizing, the use of social justice language is absurd. These are two executives fighting their workers, so perhaps they could leave out the privilege-checking about which peoples’ stolen land they are on.
But there’s a logic behind the approach, laughable though it may seem. A key argument bosses make against unionization is that the bosses themselves, rather than workers’ self-organization, are workers’ best shot at addressing workplace problems.
Many workers drawn to REI, a buyers’ co-op, are on the left end of the political spectrum. So, from the jump, Wallace and Artz are making the case to employees that they take social injustice seriously and are committed to rectifying those issues should they appear at any of the company’s 168 stores nationwide: We care about social justice, and unions don’t.
Such an approach places the onus on pro-union workers to show why unionization is the better avenue for redressing injustice and discrimination. Fortunately, the facts are on the side of unions on such questions. Be it unequal pay, workplace harassment, or a host of other issues that arise on the job, collective organization helps an individual employee overcome the obstacles of speaking up, much less resolving the problem. And rather than relying on the boss’s word, unions get it in writing and serve as the vehicle through which workers can act when violations occur.
But a union at REI, Artz is quick to insist, will actually limit the company’s ability to resolve problems — which, Artz is at pains to emphasize, the company wants to do, even if it hasn’t always done so in the past.
“I believe the presence of union representation will impact our ability to communicate and work directly with our employees and resolve concerns at the speed the world is moving,” he says.
This is an example of what union organizers call “third-partying” the union, as if the union consists of something other than the workers themselves. This is the standard anti-union script, which paints a picture of meddling outsiders interfering in the workplace.
Artz and Wallace stress the supposed limitations that unions create, referencing the legal restrictions that exist on them now that workers have filed for an election: management cannot offer raises that might appear timed to discourage workers from voting for a union in SoHo, nor can it question workers too extensively lest it appear to be spying on employees. Naturally, it goes unsaid that what meager legal safeguards exist for workers who file for a union election — and they are quite meager, given the sorry state of US labor law — do so to maintain worker autonomy against employer bribes and threats.
You see, REI is actually pro-union, says Artz, on a podcast specifically recorded to bust a union. If you need further proof, the CEO mentions that his father was a unionized teacher. But, he goes on, this union is different.
“When people ask why don’t we support unions, my answer is simple: We do not oppose unions. It’s that we don’t believe — I do not believe — that introducing a union is the right thing for REI,” he explains.
This, too, is a tried-and-true anti-union maneuver, one which “progressive” employers have a hard time refraining from trying. At No Evil Foods, perhaps the most hypocritical recent case of a progressively branded company running an anti-union campaign, management used almost identical language. But there are many more examples of employers making the argument that unions are fine for real workers — hard hats and the like — but not for you. Or, as Artz puts it, “A big part of what unions exist to do is to speak for employees where and when they don’t have a voice.”
This makes sense within the CEO’s fever dream of a union as an entity separate from workers. But unions are just another name for what we call it when workers act collectively. In that definition, a union speaking “for” employees makes no sense — the union is employees.
From this standard script, Artz moves on to why REI is so unique. First, there is “the very essence of a co-op,” which is contrary to a union, “because in a co-op we turn towards one another.”
Setting aside the major differences between what REI is — which is a consumer co-op, meaning customers can buy lifetime memberships for $20 to become consumer-owners — and a worker co-op, owned by workers themselves, there is, again, Artz’s inability to see the truth of his position vis-à-vis workers.
Unfortunately for Artz, no matter how good of a guy he is, it is the need to generate profit, not the existence of a union, which leads to management and workers having different interests and priorities. Artz mentions the company’s open-door policy and his willingness — nay, desire! — to hear from workers as reasons a union isn’t necessary to win the changes that they’re seeking, such as full-time status and benefits, COVID-19 protections, and guaranteed hours. But his words show the very reasons a union would be an improvement.
“Every employee has the right to expect me to listen, to hear, to understand concerns and ideas and suggestions,” he says. But management hearing one’s concerns and suggestions in no way guarantees that issues will be addressed. Only unionization gives workers the power to guarantee management not only listens but acts on those concerns and suggestions.
Given REI’s image, Artz probably doesn’t think he has much in common with one of America’s great reactionary Republicans. But Artz’s emphasis on “employee inclusion networks” and ensuring that every worker is “seen and heard” evokes another item in the news: Senator Marco Rubio’s company-unionism bill, which would permit the creation of “employee involvement organizations”: voluntary, toothless labor-management cooperation schemes that “cannot enter into collective bargaining agreements” and are “dissolvable by the employer.”
In keeping with the desire to equate workers being “seen and heard” with having power, which Artz is so desperate to pull off, Rubio’s bill also allows some employee organizations to elect one nonvoting member to attend board meetings — as if observing a meeting, as part of a body that the boss could scrap at any time, is in itself meaningful.
As the union drive moves forward, REI workers can expect to hear more of the same from their employer. The company is well aware of the possibility that organization can spread, as it has at Starbucks, to their other locations, which employ some 15,000 people. But after stripping away the progressive adornments, Artz’s script is no different than that of Amazon or any other viciously anti-union employer. As the boss’s pitch always does, his pitch to REI workers comes down to: trust me, not yourselves.