New Economic Realities   //   March 5, 2024

‘Living paycheck to paycheck’: Confessions of an REI associate considering unionization

Workers at nine REI stores across the country have voted to unionize in the past two years, part of a broader movement in retail where associates organize in hopes of having a bigger say on their working conditions, pay and benefits.

But the decision to organize isn’t something that workers take lightly. And their ultimate decisions aren’t necessarily uniform — the most recent REI union to form outside of Indianapolis passed with 27-17 votes, or 61%. At other locations, REI workers who have faced pay cuts and alleged issues with health insurance eligibilityare wondering whether unionization might make sense amid the UFCW and Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union inviting workers to reach out if they’re interested.

While REI stores continue to form unions, no contracts have been reached. The first REI store that voted to unionize did so on March 2, 2022, and has gone without a contract for nearly two years.

REI currently has about 180 stores nationwide. However, the company announced two rounds of layoffs over the last year. The first came in October with the elimination of 275 jobs and new scheduling tiers for associates. Then in January, the company cut another 350 jobs, including 200 corporate positions. Despite this, the company intends to expand with 10 new stores planned to open this year.

One worker at a Midwest location that has not yet unionized spoke with Modern Retail on the condition of anonymity to share why they are mulling whether they want to see their store unionize. Their most pressing concern is that their hours have recently been cut from about 32 hours a week to 25, costing them roughly $500 a month — despite being promoted to full-time after the companywide restructuring in October.

“I’d like to [unionize] and I do think it would help with the hours,” they said. “But I’m not sure any of these companies — Amazon, Starbucks, REI — are going to sign these contracts, ever. I’m not sure, barring a federal judge telling them they have to. I don’t know how in the interim bargaining in good faith is going to go.”

An REI spokesperson told Modern Retail that the company “stands firm that all our employees have the right to choose whether to have union representation or not. Our commitment to transparency means that we believe employees should have all the facts, on both sides, to make a well-informed decision. Our employees have the choice to listen or not to the information presented to them on either side.”

REI has also said that the reason it cut employees’ hours was to create a more consistent experience across its fleet, and have more transparency in how schedules are made.

A companywide message about the October layoffs, which Modern Retail obtained, addressed the elimination of 275 roles and creating new job categories of full-time, part-time and “part-time plus,” or 16-24 hours a week. “Our current scheduling approach is outdated and offers neither the flexibility we need to drive the business nor the support and predictability you’ve told us you need,” wrote vp of stores Mary-Farrell Tarbox. “Starting now and throughout the next year, we will be updating this model to ensure the majority of store employees have transparent and consistent hour predictions with committed weekly ranges.”

In our latest Confessions series, in which we offer anonymity in exchange for candor, Modern Retail spoke to a Midwest associate at REI who walked us through the concerns they have about the scheduling changes, operations and the union effort.

The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

When did you start working for REI?
I started at REI in [the spring of] 2022. I worked in retail previously, but not in the past 10 years or so. Like so many others during the pandemic, my mom was diagnosed [with Covid] and I quit my job to take care of her. And then it snowballed so fast. I was out of work for almost three years. I had to sell my car, and getting a retail job was one of the jobs I could get close by. I’m still trying to get back on my feet.

How many hours do you work, and how has that changed?
They did finally give me what they call ‘full-time status’ [last fall]. You’re guaranteed roughly 32 rolling hours a week. Though it’s not exactly clear how many hours you’re intended or [what] you can expect to get. Then a few weeks ago, they told me I was being bumped back to “part-time plus” which is maybe like 25 to 30 hours a week. But I know it’s not going to be 30, it’s going to be more like 25.

REI makes a large show of their values — being a very liberal company and championing causes and things — much more than any place I’ve ever worked. To hear this constantly reiterated from management day after day… when you go through base camp training and hear about how great of a company REI is — that’s not my experience, [especially] when I’m being told I’m going to lose 15 hours and being told that’s happening in two weeks when I’m living paycheck to paycheck. I see a big discrepancy.

Meanwhile, they’re going out there and opening 10 stores nationwide … [yet] they say they don’t have the money for us. And we’re short a department manager and sales lead, but they’re not going to let us fill them for the same austerity reason they’re cutting hours.

What other concerns do you have about the store’s operations other than hours?
Since I’ve been there, the operations and everything have just been bad. At the register, you can’t run the point-of-sale system at the same time you’re running the customer database or order database. You can’t run two apps at the same time and it’s frustrating when people are waiting in line, especially in December.

We didn’t have a regional director for a while. And then one started, they were supposed to come every quarter. But it was already very up in the air… he didn’t show up two or three times, which they blamed on the unionization because he covered the Soho store. [They said:] ‘He can’t come here because he’s too busy with the Soho store.’

(Note: REI told Modern Retail that “We regularly provide stores with extra support when needed, whether to backfill a manager’s vacation or high-traffic event. This support is provided according to a regular co-op practice and is not atypical or unique to either our certified or non-certified stores across the fleet.”)

What are some of the considerations you have about whether to unionize?
I am not crazy about the dues. I’m not sure what the other drawbacks would be. But I’d like some surety, or someone to go up to and say, ‘Hey, they say they’re going to fire me, is that true? Can you help?’

I’m not sure what the other people in the store feel. There’s a lot of unhappiness and it’s getting worse, especially when they announced people are out of full-time jobs.

I would just like to know I’m getting 32 to 40 hours a week and not have to worry about going one day and maybe I’m going to be fired, or maybe I’m going to be told we’re all going down to 15 hours a week.