‘Homeless and starving’ Seattle employees demand REI union

Jul 12, 2016, 6:24 AM | Updated: Jul 14, 2016, 1:42 pm

REI union, seattle...

Sporting an REI tshirt, William Bass talks about his struggles while working at REI in Seattle. (Seattle Channel)

(Seattle Channel)

Tia Kennedy is proud to work in the offices at Seattle’s REI as she has done for nearly 10 years. And while she loves her job, those 10 years have not been easy.

“When you think of the REI co-op, you think this is a place where the staff are taken care of, like Costco,” Kennedy told a crowd gathered at City Hall Monday night. “You think, ‘I want to shop there because the co-op aligns with my values.'”

Related: Seattle moves to allow Uber, Lyft drivers to unionize

“Due to local rents doubling in only five years time I suffered extreme hardship while working my job at REI,” she said. “In January, my family was homeless with a baby. Being unexpectedly displaced has been difficult for my family.”

Kennedy wasn’t alone Monday night, talking about difficult conditions while working at REI.

“I was oftentimes going to bed hungry, and even though I was breast feeding my baby, I was not able to feed myself well,” she said. “Sometimes a coworker would buy me a pastry and this was the only food I had all day. In January, I canceled my expensive health benefits through work because I could no longer afford the expense when food and shelter were a bigger concern for my family at the moment.”

“We have homeless and starving staff at the REI store in Seattle,” Kennedy said. “I’ve witnessed staff eating expired foods, I’ve witnessed people distressed over their food situation — many using credit cards to buy food. It’s time to do the right thing by these dedicated employees.”

She was accompanied by fellow coworkers who shared similar stories of food insecurity, homelessness and alleged push back from the co-op’s management as the word “union” has spread among employees.

Seattle hosts REI union forum

REI is a hometown hero when it comes to Seattle-based businesses. The popular co-op and outdoor store is known for a certain ethic as much as it’s known for its hiking, climbing, camping and other products. The co-op even promotes its positive workplace, and asked customers not to partake in Black Friday shopping to give employees time off. It’s that ethic, for things like sustainability and environment, that draws people to work and shop at REI, Kennedy noted. But there is a divide when it comes to its employees, as many argued Monday night.

Seattle Councilmember Kshama Sawant hosted the forum with employees to discuss the potential of forming an REI union.

“REI was founded in Seattle in 1938, and in the years that have followed it has become an icon, not only in the Pacific Northwest but nationally,” Sawant said. “Those years have been good to REI.”

Sawant continued to note that REI made $2.38 billion in revenue during 2015 while membership in the co-op grew by about 1 million. The company is currently planning to develop a campus in Bellevue over the coming years.

“CEO Jerry Stritzke made a comfortable $3.57 million in 2015 and is on track to making more this year,” Sawant said.

The forum was attended by Joe Earleywine who is the organizing director with UFCW Local 21 — one of the state’s largest unions. The Martin Luther King Jr. County Labor Council was also present. And REI employees from as far as North Carolina came to speak. Sawant said that her office was contacted by REI employees about their concerns and hopes of forming an REI union.

Employees want a better, more stable, scheduling system, more hours and better pay. They also want REI to allow them to form a union without retaliation. And REI employees allege that the issues they relate are not isolated, but experienced at stores across the country.

“After hearing their stories and seeing proof of their conditions I have no doubt in my mind that we should stand with them and I believe it is the responsibility of elected officials to stand with workers in their constituency,” Sawant said. “Many people ask if this is Seattle business for a city council member to deal with. We say, of course. Absolutely. The workplace conditions faced by workers in Seattle is absolutely central to the business of a city council office. What is unseemly is not that we are having this town hall on behalf of my office, what is unseemly is that most elected officials don’t do this.”

REI sent MyNorthwest a statement on Tuesday:

We are aware of the conversation that Councilmember Sawant is attempting to create. As a co-op, we welcome open, constructive dialogue with our employees. In this instance, however, the full picture is not being properly represented. Today REI offers both part-time and full-time retail staff one of the best combinations of pay and benefits in the industry. We look hard at what we can do within our financial realities of retail business. We give back 72% of our profits to our employees, members and nonprofits. Last year, we gave $70 million to employees in retirement and incentive pay. Last month, our CEO shared with employees that we plan to make select, targeted investments in pay this year and our employees will learn more this summer. He also shared that we are working to advance our scheduling practices to allow for increased predictability and maintain the flexibility our employees value. We hosted a dialogue with our team in Seattle recently on the topic to gather their input. We believe that it’s best to focus on successfully rolling out this work.

A portion of the town hall was dedicated to a recent letter REI sent to employees. That letter discouraged employees from starting an REI union. Sawant’s staff felt it was similar to a letter sent by another organization to its employees — Target — so the crowd played a game to guess which statements were made by which company.

• “You may be subjecting yourself to the union’s disciplinary rules and regulations.”
• “If you break any rule, you could be put on trial before the union bosses.”
– Target
• “Think about how much worse things might be if the union gains control over you.”
• “By signing, you are authorizing the union to act as your representative for collective bargaining, this means you are giving up your right to speak for yourself.”
• “Employees do not need to pay union dues each month in order to get fair treatment, competitive pay, and excellent benefit packages.”

REI’s letter to employees also stated that management is not anti-union, rather, that REI simply does not need a union.

The movement for an REI Union

According to Alpine Anderson, who spoke at the Seattle forum, employees at her Portland store had been meeting and discussing issues for nearly a year before management found out.

“My last day at the Portland store was Dec. 12 last year – I was fired,” Anderson said. “Only days before my termination from the Portland store, a secret group of approximately 55 employees was discovered by management. I was an active member in this group, and I was not a quiet voice.”

Soon an online petition garnered attention of other employees and the co-op. A Facebook group has also been started.

Other employees such as William Bass who, as a long-time member and employee, describes working at REI as an honor. Despite a hearing impediment that makes his job difficult, he said he loves the work. But he struggles to make ends meet.

“I lost everything in the recession and many of us still haven’t recovered,” Bass said. “I am half a paycheck away from being homeless.”

“I used to be debt free once upon a time,” he said. “Now I buy groceries with a credit card. I was homeless and semi-homeless off and on for almost two years … I can’t stand watching my coworkers at REI struggling to make ends meet … every time I go to work and I see all those tents underneath I-5, I cringe. I don’t want to be there.”

Someone who has experienced such hardship is Ash Crew, an employee of REI since 2012, and a college student.

“Despite my dedication, my loyalty and my optimism for the co-op, I’ve been forced into chronic homelessness and living out of my car for over a year while I was juggling school and a second job,” Crew said.

“Something almost everyone in Seattle is aware of is that rent has doubled since 2013,” she said. “While living out of my car, I experienced traumatizing events due the vulnerable position of being homeless. These events catalyzed me into quitting school and getting a second job. In January 2016, I finally got back into school. But I could only get seven to 14 hours a week at REI with 30 per week availability. I was then forced to cash out my vacation time to get by.”

Crew argued that management is unavailable, or unwilling, to maintain contact with employees like her who express concerns. Email has been the best way for her to get a hold of managers who work opposite schedules she does. She has attempted to get more hours and has applied for public assistance to get food — she did not qualify.

“What REI does is keep many of us teetering on the line of poverty, with social benefits like food stamps just out of reach,” Crew said. “Why does the company that we all love so much, that makes billions of dollars in revenues, not give us enough hours so that we can afford food and rent with our wages, let alone health care and other benefits?”

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