REI Workers Take Their Union Drive to the Stage

At REI’s flagship Manhattan store, management has fought workers’ attempts to win a first union contract. In the meantime, workers have channeled their anger into working-class art: a play about work and organizing based on their experiences at the company.

The cast of Foot Wears House, along with the play's writer and director. (Courtesy of RWDSU)

On the afternoon of February 24, in the basement of the Hudson Park Library in lower Manhattan, a crowd of workers gathered to see a play. Laura Neill, the playwright, greeted attendees, and friends excitedly exchanged hellos as they waited for the performance to begin. There was something unusual about this read-through. Flyers were piled on a table at the entrance to the room; one asked attendees to donate to the REI Union Hardship fund to “support the workers whose pay was cut in retaliation for their organizing efforts.” A second requested donations for a particular member of that union, who needs help paying for major spinal surgery.

“At REI, most workers are unable to pay for basic medical needs, but when it comes to major procedures, it’s even harder,” read the second piece of paper. “When facing retaliation via hour and pay cuts, it’s nearly impossible.” Neill is a member of the REI Union SoHo, organized in March 2022 with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) in an eighty-eight-to-fourteen vote; a handful of the company’s 180 stores across the country have since followed suit. All the actors in Foot Wears House are REI Union SoHo members, too. The play is being directed by Colm Summers, the artistic director of Working Theater, which focuses on theater by and about working people.

Neill, a seasoned playwright, started working at REI’s flagship SoHo store in January 2023, in need of a day job in a city where few artists can live solely on their creative work. She started writing the play that spring, but the story changed as managerial scheming and incompetence brought workplace problems to the forefront of her mind. The problems mounted: underscheduling, gas leaks, flooding.

Shortly after the SoHo location unionized, REI had announced a nationwide raise for every store except SoHo: a strategy to deny benefits to unionized stores in hopes of dissuading further organizing (Starbucks did the same thing). The SoHo workers walked out, prompting REI to offer a side-letter agreement, granting them the raise for six months in exchange for a no-strike pledge.

The workers hoped they’d get a contract by the end of that period, so they agreed. But they allege that the company stalled at the bargaining table, dragging its feet and failing to offer counterproposals. Then, it hired infamous union-busting law firm Morgan Lewis and asked them to extend the agreement for another six months.

“That’s another six months of us not being able to strike, of us not being able to use the biggest tool we had to fight for a contract,” REI Union SoHo member Carlos Angel-Barajas told Fast Company.

They decided not to sign, so the company rescinded the pay raise on June 1, 2023. Workers allege that the pay cut amounted to a 20 percent loss of income for some employees; in September, they once again walked out.

“When I took a job at REI, I knew I was going to write a play about it, but I thought the play might be a light farce about actors who all get the same day job,” Neill told me. “I thought that because REI SoHo was unionized, we’d get a contract soon and have a positive relationship with the employer. But then I realized how badly REI was union busting.”

Her coworkers’ organizing caught her attention, and her concerns about staffing levels and working conditions led her to get more involved in the union. She said she was welcomed with open arms, with her coworkers explaining Weingarten rights, unfair labor practice (ULP) charges, bargaining, and what constitutes protected concerted action. They also embraced her work in progress, a fact evidenced by how many members of the audience last Saturday were fellow union members, the crowd dotted with REI Union SoHo shirts.

Based on a True Story

Foot Wears House takes place in the footwear department of a popular outdoor goods store in SoHo that has recently unionized. Neill said while introducing the show, “This is a fictional play based on our very real union at REI SoHo.” As in real life, much of the chatting and gossiping and organizing conversations happen off the front-of-house floor, away from customers. Neill makes clever use of this as a device to structure conversations, with characters entering and leaving the scene in a rush as they dart into the stockroom to find shoes requested by unseen customers (“Fucking Blundstones!” is a laugh line, with frustrated employees forever out of luck when searching for the popular boots in a size eight.)

REI Union SoHo members perform in Foot Wears House. (Courtesy of RWDSU)

The story starts in May, and we don’t immediately learn what led to the organizing drive. Yet when Ellie, played by Laura Jedynasty, mentions being afflicted with dizziness “ever since the gas leak” and other workers reference a flood, we gather that they had plenty of reasons.

In June, management rescinds a pay raise, inflaming discontent. Underscheduling raises the temperature in July and August, with workers alleging that this is a nefarious strategy by management to keep them so busy that they don’t have time to organize, or their hours so paltry that they’re forced to quit. There are no guaranteed hours, one worker explains to a new hire.

Marty, a worker with a long tenure at the store, spouts the procompany line, but even he is forced to admit that the company’s retaliation isn’t fair. As events build toward a strike on Labor Day, new managers flood the store, at one point hiding in the stockroom in hopes of overhearing workers talk about organizing.

Executives go on a hiring spree in hopes of diluting union support. When a worker explains this to one of the newbies, he laughs, eager to walk off the job: “They clearly don’t know Gen Z: I can’t wait for Labor Day.” There is all manner of managerial conniving, played to great effect by Zoe Dunmire, who channeled the pathetic cloying of a manager on the defensive, at times erupting in a squeal when confronted by her employees. The workers push past their fears and dire financial needs. Come Labor Day, they strike.

The timeline mirrors the events at REI SoHo. Despite the company’s progressive reputation, it has had no qualms in trying to crush its own workforce. It’s not the only hypocrite of this variety — just look at Trader Joe’s — but it has taken the contradiction to absurd extremes: in 2022, REI executives released a podcast episode in which they made an indigenous land acknowledgement before spewing anti-union propaganda. Workers at REI stores across the country have now filed a total of eighty ULP charges against the company. Two years after voting to unionize, the workers at REI SoHo still haven’t won a first contract; nor has any other unionized REI store.

In a statement to Fast Company, an REI spokesperson said the company is “committed to continuing to bargain in good faith with our locations that have chosen union representation.”

Theater for Labor

“This play, written by REI workers, presents the daunting challenges workers face from their employer’s resistance as they try to achieve a first contract,” RWDSU president Stuart Appelbaum said of the project. “The play may be fiction, but the reality is much worse as workers struggle for their rights. It’s long past time that REI gets serious about negotiating and getting to a first contract.”

Neill hopes the play can bring more attention to REI’s union busting. The store has been bargaining since June 2022, yet workers say that company misconduct has not let up.

“I hope that the play is one tool in our union’s toolbox as we raise awareness of REI’s union busting and mobilize our power toward securing a great first contract,” she said. “They’re underscheduling, cutting wages, and maliciously denying us the merit pay that every nonunionized store in the country gets. But our union continues to ramp up our resistance: walking out on ULP strikes, hosting union office hours in the break room, speaking out about unsafe working conditions in stores, and radically supporting each other.”

One cannot imagine so many workers committing to star in Neill’s play without such a culture of radical mutual support. The labor movement (and the left-wing movement connected to it) was once a venue in which working-class art flourished, a space for not only economic and political gains but creative ones too, with organized labor providing the community and material support such work requires. Theater was a central part of that culture: Waiting for Lefty, a 1935 play about a taxi strike, became one of the most performed (and most banned) plays in the country. As unions have bled members and power, those strong ties — and the whole culture they were connected to — have largely disappeared. We are much the poorer for it.

“I believe fiercely in the power of the arts — and I know that without basic human needs met, the arts cannot thrive,” Neill said. “Because I was a member of a union community who had my back when I stood up to management, I kept my job long enough to be able to write this play. Labor and the arts are symbiotic. When artists have labor protections, they can create pieces that raise awareness and inspire audience members to take action.”

The play’s other key backer is Working Theater. Artistic director Summers told me that when Neill brought the play to the company, it scrambled to shift resources to support it. American theater is in a state of financial crisis, and Working Theater is no exception. (The company accepts donations.) Working Theater normally programs a season in advance, but for Foot Wears House, Summers and Neill decided to do a “guerilla reading,” a rapid-response collaboration, and the Hudson Library agreed to host. (In addition to the February reading, the company plans to continue developing the play over the coming year.) Summers said that he is determined to make the company more involved in grassroots organizing efforts.

“I see our company in part as a third space, where theater can function as cultural organizing,” Summers told me. “This reading of Laura’s play represented, to me, an opportunity to put that idea into practice. A play is nothing if not an opportunity to engender conversation and get organized.”

After the performance concluded, Neill and Summers solicited feedback from the audience on the work in progress. The liveliest debate among audience members concerned whether two characters were romantically interested in each other, or just platonically close in the way a hectic workplace and pressure-cooker organizing campaign engenders.

Angel-Barajas, now sitting in the audience rather than onstage, diagnosed the ambiguity: “The people who know me the most, through and through, are the people I organize with at REI. The bonds we’ve created are deep and strong. I love these people. When you’re fighting for someone else and they’re fighting for you, you can’t help but fall in love with them a little bit.” His fellow audience members enthusiastically agreed. That feeling was precisely what had carried them through a yearslong organizing campaign, and now, into the theater.