REI's Cleveland Workers File to Unionize, Following California and New York Colleagues

Will Cincinnati's REI location be next?

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click to enlarge REI's Co-op Store in Dublin, Ohio. - Photo: REI
Photo: REI
REI's Co-op Store in Dublin, Ohio.

Trailing decisions to unionize in Berkeley, California, and New York City's SoHo, workers at Cleveland's REI location made the decision Wednesday to file for union election.

The move, which follows roughly one year of deliberation, comes among complaints of "irregular scheduling" and unfair wages during what workers say is REI's largest profit margin in its 84-year history. According to a press release from the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, a "majority" of REI Cleveland's 55 workers leaned towards filing with RWDSU, which represents 100,000 workers across the U.S.

Dave Hein, a bike services and ski mechanic at Cleveland's REI, said the move trails the trend of retail workers — in tech, coffee or outdoor goods — uniting in a push to combat the pandemic's stamp on the economy.

"One hundred years ago, it was coal miners; 70 years ago, it was auto workers; today, it's retail," Hein said, via RWDSU's release.

"We weathered the pandemic, and kept the company afloat," he added. "We stretched ourselves thin helping the company achieve its highest profit margin ever. And now we're being told that there aren't enough hours to go around due to corporate overbuying."

Hein's language mimics similar pushes, like the union drive last March when REI's SoHo store voted 88 to 14 to join RWDSU (Berkeley's location followed soon after). The unionization, REI's first, followed a steady stream of mostly younger, liberal and college-educated retail workers who decided to take matters into their own hands.

In June, a Trader Joe's in western Massachusetts became the first of the grocery chain's 500 locations to file to create a Trader Joe's United. And in May, 26-year-old Sydney Rhodes convinced roughly 75 percent of Atlanta's Apple Store workers to inch towards union representation.

REI touts its values on its website and throughout its social media brand. Along its holistic, eco-friendly mantra — "We believe a life outdoors is a life well-lived!" its website reads — REI is known to invest 70 percent of its annual profits into REI members, profit-sharing and outdoorsy nonprofits. (It also, like 700 other companies, shuts its doors on Black Friday.)

The unionizing workers suggest it's a different story.

"It's time that REI practices its values," Cloud Schneider, a sales lead at REI, said in the union's press release. Schneider said that "unfair wages" and shifty hours ironically "prevent[s] us from enjoying the great outdoors."

REI previously refused to formally acknowledge the New York and California stores' unions, and is most likely to deploy the same tactics as Cleveland's store inches towards formalizing its own.

CityBeat reached out to the Cincinnati REI located in Rookwood Commons to ask if its employees were actively unionizing locally. Management referred CityBeat to REI's corporate office, which did not respond by press time.

This story was originally published by Cleveland Scene, CityBeat's sister publication.

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