Videos and Stories from the Unfinished Struggle for Workers’ Rights at REI

Six Videos, the Petition, and our Stories…and it’s not over

Note this article with its compilation of videos is not marketed or sold for profit nor is anything in this article being marketed and sold for profit. This article and the videos within may be freely shared as long as various sources and authorship are acknowledged.

“There is one word missing. One word that makes all the difference. This word is ‘organized’. That is: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, ORGANIZED citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” It speaks to the power of people mobilization; the power of true change that starts from the bottom wing…there is a growing, if naïve belief that all you need is a lot of passion, a lot of commitment, a lot of good intentions and lots of mavericks, rebels, disruptors, contrarians and challengers and, alas, change will happen. It won’t.” – Activist Leandro Herrero of Spain on the necessity for activists to organize.

A workers’ revolt brewed within REI since at least 2015. Matters came to a head in July 2016 as workers rose up openly in nonviolent direct action. Among their issues at stake were demands for a living wage, for secure scheduling, and for democratic representation via a union. These demands burst open the heart of the matter to reveal whether the REI Co-op would be a truly cooperative business. Or a lie.

This is our story as a brief summary from my perspective. This is a small part of our big story. Indeed, the record of this peaceful uprising may even be your story. Much work remains to be done by we the working people. In the beginning, actions will be led by small numbers of people determined to organize and act in such a way, as the late, great anthropologist Margaret Meade liked to point out, as to change the world. They may be resisted at first by those who insist these leaders not speak for them but say, “some few individuals.” Progress cannot be stayed. Even the most peaceful revolution has setbacks and is set upon by cynics and automatic critics as well as often ignored by the apathetic and the resigned. It is OK to feel afraid, and let us move forward anyway even if scared. Don’t let fear stop us, but do let it keep us alert and on top of our game. Our revolt had repercussions benefiting many workers, although success wasn’t as widespread as initially believed.

One can trace this revolt back to the influences of the 2011 Wisconsin Insurrection followed by the Occupy Uprisings of 2011-2012. These struggles were followed by the successful Fight for $15 an hour minimum wage struggles of 2014-2016, an uprising sparked by Alaska Airline employees in SeaTac, Washington, and which spread across the country in the form of fast food strikes and other direct actions organized with assistance from Socialist Alternative and allies in the labor union movement such as SEIU.

More directly related to REI, however, were the 2014 demonstrations against sweatshop labor in making products for The North Face and against REI’s partnership with The North Face. The anti-sweatshop protests were small but loud, nationwide, and even erupted in other countries. A nationwide student labor union known as the United Students Against Sweatshops or USAS (http://usas.org) organized these demonstrations at REI and TNF stores.

Sweatshop labor is slave labor where capitalists leveraged deeply indebted people into perpetual debt bondage and exploited children with their tiny hands and fingers. Such vulnerable people were beaten, fed little, worked with little rest or sleep, sexually violated, kept terrified, and generally traumatized. People died and were maimed in these slave factories. The problem afflicts many companies as human slavery and trafficking is a worldwide wicked problem.

Patagonia and Apple were among the few to take vigorous action to tackle this problem, but the capitalist imperative to exploit resources and cheap labor for short-term profits, socio-cultural normalization, and political power makes cleaning up this mess self-defeating. The North Face, owned by VF Corporation in Greensboro, North Carolina, was one of the worst offenders. Only in 2015 did VFC and TNF start addressing sustainability and green energy issues, but still has not addressed its use of sweatshop labor.

See: https://rankabrand.org/sportswear-sports-shoes/The+North+Face.

See: http://reisweatshops.usas.org.

More workers in America and more workers in other nation-states such as Bangladesh are beginning to understand this is an international issue, indeed an international working class issue. Thus an issue that demands we workers hold the capitalist class accountable as we further organize a new mass movement of the Left across the working and middle classes to build a planetary Democratic Socialist society.

Below is the first of six videos here and is from United Students Against Sweatshops. It is a part of REI history we must remember and Corporate Headquarters wants us to forget. REI HQ preferred instead to distract people’s attention by ramping up its efforts to market the petty bourgeois abomination known as “glamping.”

Before REI workers launched their own petition for real change after so many were fired in late 2015, there was an earlier petition demanding “REI, Drop North Face Sweatshops!” I signed it on Monday 2 January 2017. I am ashamed to confess I was unaware of this petition until recently and didn’t realize the true nature of the anti-North Face protests back in 2014. In 2014 I was still emerging from almost two years of being homeless or semi-homeless and ill with severe depression and a cluster of autoimmune conditions. That’s no excuse, of course, and I share to give one a sense of what I experienced. As I alluded to earlier, these struggles of solidarity for justice, equality, and liberty for working class people are far from over.

Max Silva, an REI Member, initiated the anti-sweatshop Petition for USAS with Moveon.org back in 2014. It still continues to gather signatures. Move On is financed in large part by billionaire George Soros. While I am no fan of Soros and his capitalist manipulations of geopolitics and unaware activists to fund his faction of squabbling plutocrats, Move On still charges hard as an activist NGO.

Review and sign the Petition to compel REI to drop North Face products here: http://petitions.moveon.org/sign/rei-drop-north-face-sweatsho-1?source=c.em&r_by=6189219.

This accelerated worker and member discontent within the Co-op. The first phase of the 2015-2016 REI workers revolt culminated on the 11th of July 2016. A small group of retail workers from across the United States, although mostly from the West Coast, showed up in Seattle to go public en masse before the media. These workers were desperate, afraid, and courageous. I know as I was one of them. My coworkers and I were scared we would lose everything, and we didn’t have much left to lose as our wages and hours were so low and random. The possibility of getting fired and losing what little we had left terrified us. We stood up anyway. We workers took a stand.

We did so with the support of Councilor Kshama Sawant of the Seattle City Council and the dynamic staff of her office. We did so with the determined support of Socialist Alternative and UFCW 21. We did so with the support of many Members of the REI Co-op, and we did so with the support of larger numbers of our co-workers from all across the company who felt they had to stay discreet or anonymous but who informed us privately they were still with us. 

We REI Coworkers had many, many even conflicting demands. In just a few meetings we distilled them into three primary ones. Most of our demands were met. One primary demand was not. There remains the lack of some form of organized, internal democratic representation of the workers to management. There are several different ways towards building a workers’ democracy. One way is thru a union. Another is thru cooperative ownership of the company as a true cooperative business with democratic deliberation and planning. Or a hybrid of the two. Cooperative worker ownership and/or unionization defends hard-won gains, sustains the network, and advocates for greater democracy. Clearly this struggle isn’t new but is as old as the exploited standing up to those who exploit them. Our struggles are far from over for democratic socialist representation is THE most important battle to win.

Back in the Civil Rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., came to recognize there can’t be any political democracy without having economic democracy and one can’t have capitalism without war. He came to champion democratic socialism. King was assassinated in April 1968 while in Memphis, Tennessee. He’d traveled there to support striking sanitation workers and their new union. The next five videos, however, demonstrate what’s possible when people from across the working classes come together to move what many thought were immovable mountains, especially REI, the mythic icon of the American Pacific Northwest and the Great Outdoors. Continue reading “Videos and Stories from the Unfinished Struggle for Workers’ Rights at REI” »

Response to a Concerned Small Business Owner over 15 NOW

Earlier this month I posted a link on one of my social media sites to an essay I wrote the night before, “Yes, $15 an hour minimum wage, NOW!” Among the people who responded along a spectrum between yes and no were two from my native state of Virginia. Let’s call one of them Brigid, which, of course, is not her real name. Brigid, a progressive liberal more radical than many and as mellow as a Summer pond at twilight, expressed concern about us activists moving too fast to raise the minimum wage. She thought proponents for $15 now would be wise to slow down and take more time. After all, why rush it and mess it up for all of us?

More captivating, however, was a wrenching inquiry from a friend of mine back East. He was a small business owner who ran a small but bustling bakery and café. My friend, let’s call him Isaac, declared raising the minimum wage up to $15 an hour “would put” him “out of business in one month.” Unless, he said, he jacked up his prices. I could hear him as he pounded his fist upon the countertop as he continued. “The socialist-workers rights-stick-it-to-the-man person in me loves it, but I am the man here. This seriously would break me,” he wrote. “Why do this if prices just rise in concert with pay?”

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Blundering into Armageddon

Are our leaders mad? Are they deliberately setting the stage for a series of interlocking wars and economic collapses? All to look like accidents? Our leaders’ heartless mistakes of opportunity may indeed wipe out millions, even billions. For what? Are they are prepared to absorb extreme costs as the price to pay for extreme victory? Or are our leaders clueless? Are they just fucking stupid? Reacting with military precision directed with sloppy, nationalistic stupidity to converging crises overwhelming common sense, good judgment, and cooperative intelligence? And what the hell are We the People gonna do? Are we going to just read about it in a tweet the next day after half the world blows up? “Good morning! 1/2 earth blown up…the end looks better n movies & cool, i can still tweet!”

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Raise the Minimum Wage

It’s not about the Money

Up Close and Uncompromising! The front of one of the famous Red T-Shirts worn by volunteers for Kshama Sawant's Socialist Alternative Campaign for Seattle City Council, Position 2, the 5th of November 2013. Photo by William Dudley Bass.

Up Close and Uncompromising! The front of one of the famous Red T-Shirts worn by volunteers for Kshama Sawant’s Socialist Alternative Campaign for Seattle City Council, Position 2, the 5th of November 2013. Photo by William Dudley Bass.

Those who argue against raising the minimum wage do not get it. The naysayers spin broken webs of economic facts and figures rooted not in the reality of our natural environment but inside the charts and computer algorithms of a virtual world divorced from physical reality. It’s not about the money. I want to stand up and shout, “It’s not about the money; it’s about people! Real live human beings!”

I really want to jump up and yell, “It’s not about money, you insert language most foul!” Such verbal intensity, however deliciously vulgar, would just rile up the troll militias, so I won’t cuss here. It’s challenging enough to feel compassion and empathy for my fellow human beings, including those who exhibit cruelty and heartless stupidity. No matter. We all suffer. Everyone single one of us experiences suffering. Life is Struggle.

The working classes get life is a struggle. So do artists and small business owners. So do the unemployed, the underemployed, the homeless, the foreclosed, the laid off, the poorly paid, the uneducated, the overeducated, students deep in debt, the hungry, the sick, the pissed off. Reformers understand action is better than indulging in cynicism, apathy, and do-nothingism. Revolutionaries understand reform only goes so far before it dead ends in a mirage. Struggle serves to move the working classes from enduring ever more suffering to survive to rising up to stand in their power and thrive.

During these bleak but exciting times I volunteered for Kshama Sawant’s openly Socialist campaign for Seattle City Council. I joined with other veterans of the Occupy Uprisings from the Green Party of Seattle and the Seattle branches of the Socialist Alternatives to serve to get her elected. Other Socialist Alternatives ran strong campaigns elsewhere, especially Ty Moore in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

It proved a tight race. Still counting ballots days after the Election. We rocked the city and made waves across the nation. Ripples were felt around the world. It was an astonishing experience. A small, highly disciplined organization raised well over $110,000 and marshaled over 300 volunteers, many of them part-time volunteers such as myself. What helped us stand out in addition to our red t-shirts was our uncompromising stand for a $15.00 an hour minimum wage.

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Seeing Chris Guillebeau in Seattle for his new $100 Startup Book

Yesterday morning I sat down with a cup of strong Irish tea to catch up on a ton of email. I didn’t get very far before I discovered Chris Guillebeau was scheduled to speak that night at Town Hall Seattle. I’ve never met the guy, and his writings expressing his unique way of thinking about our world provoke and inspire me. I love his blog The Art of Non-Conformity: Unconventional Strategies for Life, Work and Travel. He has a book out with the same title that also stirs the pot, your pot, with relish. It stirred my pot for sure.

Fueled up with a late afternoon cup of coffee, I hustled downtown and promptly got lost. I make the same stupid mistake every time by parking in the wrong underworld garage then meandering around in the labyrinthine maze atop the Convention Center lid over the freeways. I caught myself ranting on the phone to my wife as I tried to get her to come meet me, but she was too far away to arrive anywhere close in time.

She listened with more patience than me as I caught myself getting angry. Feeling silly, I burst out laughing at what a fool I was. I cooled off quick and chilled out. There were more important things to do than get wiggy over buses and cars, and, boom, Town Hall. Wow, I’ve never happened upon it so quickly. I could hear the Universe poking me and saying, “So, there!”

It was only $5.00 to get in to Chris Guillebeau’s presentation Downstairs at Town Hall. Wow. And between the time I paid $5.00 and scurried back from the bathroom the numbers of people in the room had swelled from about a dozen to well over a hundred folks. As more poured in the staff flung open the partition curtains and arranged more rows of chairs. And still more people arrived.

Chris Guillebeau is a tall, lean, young man who lives with his wife Jolie in Portland, Oregon. Apparently she lets him travel as long as he promises to keep coming back home to her. He’s never worked a real job and has been self-employed most of his life. Chris is a world traveler and adventurer who’s been to, as of last count, 183 nations. He’s a salesman, volunteer activist, writer, entrepreneur, networker, published author, and a blogger with a global following.

I think of Chris Guillebeau as a type of guerrilla Seth Godin as he operates on a much smaller budget than that genius on the Hudson. Chris has demonstrated he’s a man of action and vision, probably in that order, and is both proud and humble.

In person he’s courteous, friendly, easy-going, and piercing. Up on stage he is an acute, attentive listener with a quick mind. Chris bows before his mentors and his followers and acknowledges he wouldn’t be anywhere without both. He demonstrates a gift for speaking with a certain cadence right into the ears and minds of another’s listening. And his stories are … amazing. What people do to move forward when they choose to move is awe inspiring. His unique perspective on the Great Global Recession with his mix of gloomy realism and optimistic opportunism inspires. I could feel the whole room bend forward in … wow, in gladness, in hope. But don’t get your hopes up too high. Chris Guillebeau is much too pragmatic and down-to-earth to be anyone’s messiah.

Chris is on a whirlwind tour across North America to market his new book, The $100 Startup: Reinvent The Way You Make A Living, Do What You Love, And Create A New Future. He presents his two primary themes: “freedom” and “value.” He is all about freedom. He is for each person establishing their freedom – if they choose to do so. It is a choice, and he points out too many people give up before they even get going as they believe being free is just too hard, too much work, too expensive, etc. And he is aware to be truly free and independent is only true within the context of our interdependent networks. Chris is also a big stand for value and redefines value as something a person creates to share with others. It doesn’t do any good to invent or create the most astounding thing only to hide it or use it for extorting extreme prices.

There are other themes, too. Our current economic hard times are truly HARD TIMES. Everywhere he goes Chris encounters many, many, way too many highly qualified, educated, and skilled human beings out of work or underemployed. Either they lost their jobs or their businesses failed. When Chris saw over 300 supereducated people apply for a low-level clerical position for $14 an hour with 0 benefits, he knew the system is broken.

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