MAJORITY

News for the East Bay's diverse, working-class majority.

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East Bay DSA

August 06, 2022

“We’re going to be the spokespeople for the Berkeley movement”

Two Workers Talk About Organizing at REI

Organizing Committee members and supporters (photo courtesy of UFCW Local 5)

By Eva Schultz and Richard Marcantonio

After workers at REI’s SoHo store in New York City filed a petition for an NLRB election, the company published an “Our.REI.com” webpage. Later taken down by the company, it included an interview by CEO Eric Artz (preserved in this archived transcript) in which he laid out “why I do not believe a union will serve our REI employees’ best interests.” On March 2, the SoHo workers became the first REI store in the U.S. to join a union, by a vote of 88-14. 

The CEO responded to the SoHo union vote with an internal March 3 email to workers outlining “the way forward.” The email didn’t propose any changes. Instead, it argued that a union couldn’t guarantee improvements, and touted management’s partnering with nonprofits for justice and equity.

Inspired by the SoHo victory, the 120 workers at the Berkeley store, backed by United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 5, filed for an NLRB election on June 21. The community demonstrated support for the workers at a June 30 rally and via an online petition

Berkeley REI workers are voting between now and August 27. While they await the results of their election, Majority’s Eva Schultz and Richard Marcantonio spoke with two workers on the Organizing Committee, Julian (Jules) Geritz and Marcos Santos.

Majority: What’s your position at REI?

Jules:  I’ve worked for REI for just over nine years, and have the position of sales lead at Berkeley. It sounds [like] a lot more than it is, people look to me as if I am a manager when I have none of the managerial power. I can’t hire or fire; I can’t write evaluations; I have no say in scheduling. The most I can do is, if you come to me and say, “hey, I’m not feeling well,” I can say, “Good. Go home.” I’m effectively the same as a sales specialist with just an expectation of being able to train people and being a resource for people.

Marcos: I started last year in March. I’m a little bit over a year now. I’m a sales specialist.

Majority: What issues have motivated you to organize a union at your store?

Marcos: A lot of black and brown individuals with the store, we were hired around the same time. And ever since those first few weeks everybody kind of jumbled our names. At first, we called each other different names, as a joke. But then we started realizing that people really didn’t care to know our names. They would just like, ascribe a single brown name for all of us. And then we saw that management wasn’t stepping in when we talked to them, [they would] just tell us “people are working on it, trying get to know you a little bit better.” After about a year plus of working [we’re] still having [the] same issues over and over and over again. It’s quite frustrating. And I think a lot of people feel that frustration and want accountability. They want change.

Jules: I’ve always been a justice-oriented person. But I know the benefit unions bring to workplace equity. The disrespect Marcos mentioned is part of it. Another part is that I think we all deserve more. We work really hard. The amount of multi-tasking I do in a day is staggering.

I had a great conversation with a co-worker, and we both agreed that the larger problems with the world would not be solved by REI organizing; we have systemic problems we need to address. I know I can’t do everything. But we can’t do nothing. One of the reasons I wanted to organize REI is what unions have done to pursue justice across gender lines, racial lines. There’s quite a difference between the compensation granted to unionized workers over non unionized workers, but when you factor in race, sex, and gender, the disparity increases; which makes it clear to me that, if you want an equitable workforce, you want a union. 

We’ve noticed in the course of organizing that there are inequities across race at REI. Management says we have the “freedom” to “present a case” for a pay raise, but if nothing gets done, it doesn’t matter that I spoke up as an individual, or even for another individual. The one time I stepped up and advocated for a coworker of mine, after finding there was a discrepancy in our compensation, I was very quickly shot down by management – this was a few years ago. 

Individually pursuing resolution for these issues hasn’t worked for a majority of us – only when we started coming together did we get management’s attention. 

Majority: How did you get involved in the unionization effort?

Jules: Right around the time that our Soho store unionized, I was being approached by more than a few people asking, “what are your thoughts on it?” I’ve always been very pro union. So I was like, “This is great. It’s the right move. I’m glad that it’s happening.” Freddi [another REI worker on the organizing committee] and I went out for a beer at one point and he started asking all these questions like he basically vetted me. Shortly after our talk, he and [co-worker] Hannah introduced me to Claire with UFCW Local 5; that’s how I joined the organizing committee.

Majority: How have you gone about organizing yourselves? 

Jules:  I think I was the fourth member [of the Organizing Committee], it’s a very organic thing. People have come on, people have [left], it’s just dependent on whether or not you feel like you’re up to to the task of actively having conversations with co-workers, you know, go out for a beer, go out for a coffee. 

The first assignment was to figure out what the assets are, what’s the lack at your store, talk with people and just have conversations. And so Marcos was one of the first people I approached because I was like “they’re definitely pro union.”

Marcos: I [became] part of the Organizing Committee one or two months after the committee was already formed. And yeah, it’s a very organic thing. And a lot of people have left, just people leaving the store, but other people have been joining on after me. And yeah, it’s quite a bit of responsibility, but quite rewarding. And at times, you just think “if not me, then who else is gonna take on this role?”

Majority: What impact has organizing at Starbucks and other retail companies had on you?

Jules: I’m glad you mentioned Starbucks, because we found out only a few days after we filed for an election that the workers at one of the Berkeley Starbucks also filed. And I’m thrilled. It’s a powerful reminder here that we are not alone, and that when we collectively raise our voices, we can make amazing things happen. In a world, and more specifically, in a country rife with inequity across racial, gendered, and economic lines, I am given a renewed sense of hope whenever I hear about another group of workers joining this larger movement. It’s truly what gets me through the day: knowing that we all, us workers, have each others’ backs.

Majority: How have you countered REI’s union busting tactics?

Jules: Management talks about the union as a third party. That’s been the most general piece of misinformation that we’ve had to clarify for people, is that we are the union. If we decide to unionize, the workers of the union will have reps who can aid us in terms of making sure that managers are held to account for policy, procedure, etc. But we are the union.

Management’s response has centered on sowing doubts about unionization. They are bombarding people with lots of questions, which has the effect of making people think it’s too much work to get the answers; but I can answer all those questions in the span of 10 minutes.  We’ve also caught them in some hypocrisy. For instance, REI takes the stance that their workers’ voices matter, but they insisted on an in-person election limited to four hours outside the store. We were pushing for a mail-in ballot to make voting accessible even if people are on vacation or leave (and management knew exactly which workers will be out when). If their workers’ voices matter, then they should want all of the workers to be heard, regardless of how they’re going to be voting. 

Fortunately, the afternoon before the election was to take place, the NLRB decided to change the election to a mail-in ballot, after REI both “failed to submit a timely accurate form,” by failing to let them know that at least ten employees were in contact with another two employees who tested positive for COVID-19; and “told four employees not to come to vote, based on CDC guidelines.” Those are direct quotes from the e-mail the NLRB sent REI and UFCW. 

REI every step of the way has attempted to suppress the voice of their workers, from accusing committee members, including myself, of essentially harassing employees on the job; to first pushing for a mail-in ballot, and then trying to limit the number of staff that had access to the vote.

Majority: Talk about the organizing that led you to file for an NLRB election.

Jules: The NLRB only requires 30 percent of a workforce to show interest before holding an election. We waited until we had more than that – not even just a simple majority, because this is something that impacts the entire store. And further, despite my idealistic belief that maybe, just maybe, REI was truly “a different sort of company,” we knew there was going to be push back and it’s very hard to rally support once they start with those sort of techniques. We started organizing when the SoHo election went through, and we basically filed for an election at the end of June. 

March 2 is when the SoHo store went through. The reason I know that is because March 3 is when [REI CEO] Eric Artz sent out the email I mentioned talking about “The Way Forward,” that was not at all in response to the SoHo workers’ victory. (laughs)

Majority: How did UFCW get involved? What kind of support have you gotten from the union?

Jules: I reached out to UFCW, and got in contact with [union staffer] Michael Ferrer, who we are now working with on this campaign. He is based out of LA but he actually drove up and has been working with us. I just basically asked questions and was just like, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. I don’t know what the process looks like.” And he walked me through it. Before that, my co-workers, Hannah and Freddi had vetted a few unions, and connected with Claire, another UFCW staffer. By the time I became involved in the process, Hannah, Freddi, and Lisa had been working with Claire for months.

Majority: Who is doing the organizing, you or staff at the union?

Jules: We have an organizing committee and the majority of the work is done by us workers. UFCW is giving us advice, but it was up to us to map out how we think people will vote based on conversations we’ve had with them, and create resources, working with our co-workers in the SoHo store. UFCW generated the flyers that we’ve used, but the contents have primarily been direct testimonials from us workers. UFCW also provided FAQs to respond to misinformation, and to clarify questions people have. 

Majority: What’s next after the election?

Jules: I was having a conversation with my mother the other day. She’s an educator who’s been in a union and is very pro-union. I mentioned that I was looking forward to the election just because it would give me a moment to breathe. And then I reflected, “Yeah, but I’m gonna have to be rallying other people. Like SoHo showed up for us.” We’re going to be the spokespeople for the Berkeley movement and reaching out to other people because there are a number of stores that have reached out. Win or lose, we’re going to have to show up for others like SoHo did for us. 

Marcos: Echoing Jules, this is so much bigger than me or our store. This is just the beginning of our fight to make REI a true “co-op” in the way it has portrayed itself for so long. And it’s extremely rewarding that even if I weren’t to stay at REI in the long-run I would know that I have left it a place that would be fair and equitable for all.

Eva Schultz is the chair of the Labor Committee at Cal YDSA. Richard Marcantonio is part of the East Bay Labor Solidarity subcommittee of East Bay DSA.