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Why even progressive companies like REI are wary of unions

A sign saying an REI store is closed for Black Friday
Reuters/David McNew
A man looks into the window of an REI store that is closed on Black Friday in Arcadia, California, November 27, 2015. Retailer Recreational Equipment…
  • Sarah Todd
By Sarah Todd

Senior reporter, Quartz and Quartz at Work

Published Last updated

REI prides itself on its progressive politics.

The outdoor apparel and gear retailer operates as a consumer cooperative, a structure which, according to its website, allows it to “put purpose before profits.” The Seattle-based company touts the flexible schedules and healthcare benefits available to its hourly retail employees, and every year it shutters its roughly 170 US retail stores on Black Friday to give employees a paid day off.

But when employees at one of REI’s Manhattan stores filed for a union election late last week, the company was quick to make its anti-union stance known.

“We respect the rights of our employees to speak and act for what they believe — and that includes the rights of employees to choose or refuse union representation,” REI said in a statement. “However, we do not believe placing a union between the co-op and its employees is needed or beneficial.”

REI isn’t the only outwardly progressive employer to come out against unions in recent years. Starbucks, known for offering comparatively generous benefits and perks to retail workers, not only discouraged store employees in Buffalo, New York, from voting for a union late last year but mounted what some workers and organizers described as an “imposing” counteroffensive. The crowdfunding site Kickstarter, a certified B corps, opposed the union effort among its employees and eventually settled a complaint alleging that it had retaliated against a worker involved in its organizing efforts.

There seems to be a disconnect between companies’ commitment to do right by their employees and their disapproval when employees decide that unions are what’s right for them. But why?

Employers don’t want to give up control

One explanation could be that many employers—no matter how progressive they are or claim to be—simply don’t want to relinquish control.

“It’s about power,” Ruth Milkman, a professor at the City University of New York’s School of Labor and Urban Studies, told Quartz last year. “It’s one thing to say, ‘We want to do the right thing for our employees… [But] who has the power to determine pay and working conditions? If the employer unilaterally decides to be ‘generous,’ that’s one thing; if they’re sort of forced into it by union negotiations, that’s another.”

Another explanation could be that companies are simply not as invested in employees’ wellbeing as they claim to be. In such cases, the disconnect lies in their declaring themselves to be progressive in the first place, rather than in the gap between their actual workplace practices and their attitudes toward unions.

Is the relationship between companies and unions always adversarial? 

Some companies may also believe that the relationship between unions and management is inherently adversarial, prompting them to try and avoid unions at all costs.

But many employees opt to unionize in order to preserve the things that make their company a good place to work – not just to advocate for better working conditions. As long as an employer treats workers well, unionizing is “not something you should be afraid of,” as Beneficial State Bank CEO Randell Leach told Quartz last year. About 100 workers at Beneficial chose to unionize in 2020, and ratified their contract with management last year. ​

“Enlightened corporations that focus not just on profit maximization but doing the right thing… if you’re doing all that, then the union proposition is a different one,” Leach said. “It isn’t Hey, we’re getting in fights and arbitrating. It’s, okay, make sure there’s a structure for employees to have a voice and make sure we’ve got a process to go through.”

If companies can shift their perspective on unions and learn to see collective bargaining as a structured way to have a dialogue with employees about what they want, Leach says, that’s one way to ensure that the process doesn’t get hostile.

Ultimately, a company that engages with an employee union will likely have to give up some power and control. But at a time when employees increasingly expect to have a say in everything from remote-work policies to their company’s ethical practices, trying to resist employee activism in any form is a losing proposition. Far better to embrace it.

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