REI, a co-op famous for its recreation gear, is beloved by many. It has a storied history, promotes healthy outdoor activity, and is staffed by workers who genuinely want to help people get outside and seize the day. Last year, REI reported a record $2.4 billion in revenue. For those who believe in “capitalism with a human face,” REI should be the perfect model.
Unfortunately, what happens behind the scenes at REI reaffirms the cold-hearted nature of capitalism. Wages are shockingly low. Highly erratic scheduling is the norm, with workers often placed in a position where they can’t afford housing or benefits, but also have trouble acquiring public assistance. Cost of living adjustments have been ignored. Employees suffer through extreme hunger, sometimes years of homelessness, and even worse traumas as a result of the extreme precarity of these conditions.
Recently, a small group of REI workers began organizing REI Employees for Real Change, independently of any union. Lacking options, workers launched a public petition, and began to solicit support. In Seattle, workers reached out to the office of Socialist City Councilmember Kshama Sawant and Socialist Alternative. Kshama and her staff immediately met with workers to discuss their situation.
In this discussion, the demands were clarified. The key demands — access to full-time hours, living wages, and cost of living adjustments — stood side-by-side a broader call for REI to reaffirm the right of workers to unionize with a card-check neutrality agreement. Workers launched a second petition, and began planning a Workers’ Rights Town Hall, to bring their plight and struggle to the broader public.
At the July 11 Town Hall, workers courageously told their stories of hardship. One organizer, Ash, explained how reduced hours on tight wages can drive working students into homelessness. Another organizer, Tia, noted that she was forced to go to bed hungry, even when breastfeeding. Tia was forced to cancel expensive health benefits to ensure that she could still eat and remain indoors. She fought through severe postpartum depression, anemia, and malnourishment, without support.
Unsurprisingly, the Town Hall took the city and the local media by storm. It was a powerful example of how workers’ representatives like Kshama can work with movements to find new and powerful ways to amplify voices, educate workers, and arm people for political struggle and self-defense. Less than two weeks later, REI representatives announced a series of promises, including pay raises up to $15 an hour in at least 37 of its 143 stores, along with yet to be seen “worker-friendly” scheduling plans.
In public statements, REI executives claimed that raises had been in the works for months. Glossing over the very existence of REI Workers for Real Change, REI spokespeople chastised Kshama for “claiming victory.” To that, workers just laughed. This was a major victory for all involved. Two months ago, REI’s CEO said $15 an hour was “too risky.” The executives can spin, but they can’t hide their record.
More struggles lie ahead. Higher wages and better hours from management are not rooted in newfound generosity. They are wrested away by a workers’ movement that caught the bosses unaware. To retain these victories, workers will have to continue to organize. The creation of a fighting union should remain a central long-term goal of discussion, although much work needs to be done to win over the bulk of the co-op members.
The courage and ingenuity of the REI workers is a prime example of how we can smash through the suffocating corporate stranglehold, and win real gains, if we organize and fight around concrete working class demands.