Berkeley REI workers seek union representation

Their effort follows a successful drive to unionize workers at a New York REI, and a national organizing push among service workers.

Workers at the Berkeley REI store are asking the outdoor retailer to recognize their effort to form a union. Credit: Google

Berkeley’s REI store could become the second unionized location of the outdoor retailer.

Workers at the San Pablo Avenue store sent a letter to management Tuesday asking the company to voluntarily recognize their effort to seek representation through Hayward’s United Food and Commercial Workers Local 5. They also filed this week with the National Labor Relations Board to hold a union election.

Members of the store’s organizing committee wrote in their letter that the effort has the support of a “strong majority” of the location’s roughly 120 employees. The campaign follows a successful drive to unionize workers at a Manhattan REI store earlier this year.

“We want to be a part of developing the agreements that impact every aspect of our working lives,” the committee wrote to management in the letter, which was signed by 12 employees. “We don’t just want to be heard — we want to be active stewards of our store alongside you.”

The NLRB is expected to hold a hearing in July on the store’s union election.

Reached by phone Wednesday, Manager Dave Manchester declined to comment on the organizing effort and referred a reporter to REI’s corporate offices, which did not respond to questions about the campaign.

The company opposed the organizing effort in New York, where 86% of workers ultimately voted to form a union at an election in March.

“We do not oppose unions,” CEO Eric Artz said in a podcast posted to a website the company created as part of its effort to encourage workers to vote no in the election. “It’s that we don’t believe, I do not believe, that introducing a union is the right thing for REI. And more specifically, 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.”

An employee at the Berkeley REI store shared photos with Berkeleyside of flyers he said were left on employees’ cars last week as workers moved to form a union. Submitted photo

The company’s opposition could continue in Berkeley — an REI worker shared photos with Berkeleyside of flyers he said were left on several employees’ cars last week that claimed a union could “pit workers against companies” and “hurt the culture of a workplace.”

The worker, who is not a member of the organizing committee and requested anonymity because he was concerned about retaliation from REI, said he and other employees want to unionize for a variety of reasons, including desires for better pay, more predictable work schedules and a more timely and transparent human resources system.

“We don’t feel like we have a voice, and that we’re being listened to,” the worker said. “If they won’t give that to us, then we have ways of making them.”

The unionization campaign at REI has unfolded amid broader efforts to organize lower-wage workers at companies such as Starbucks and Amazon.

The Berkeley store, which opened in 1975, was REI’s first outside the Seattle area, where the company is based; it now has 168 locations nationwide and almost 15,000 employees. The company is structured as a cooperative owned by customers who purchase lifetime memberships.

In their letter, the store’s organizing committee argued that recognizing the union would be in line with REI’s progressive reputation and description of itself as “a different kind of company.” The retailer contributed $7.1 million in 2021 to nonprofit groups working on a long list of environmental causes, and the letter noted REI’s work to offset carbon emissions from its distribution centers and set animal welfare standards for its products.

“We want to work with you, as full parties in negotiating, to create our contract, and to build an REI that more deeply lives its stated values,” they wrote. “We believe that REI is the kind of company that would lead the way on honoring their faithful workers’ intent.”

Nico Savidge is Berkeleyside's senior reporter covering city hall. Email: nico@berkeleyside.org. Twitter: NSavidge.