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” »

Grexit Crisis: Update and Reevaluation

Part 2 and follow-up to “Grexit Crisis: EU Disunion or Greater Unification?”

Sometimes the fate of the world hinges on how a seemingly local crisis is resolved or escalates. Nothing happens, however, life goes on regardless of changing circumstances, and the existence of fate itself is dismissed. So it is with Greece.

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The underlying and all consuming economic and political system itself must be not changed but transformed. Today that system is Finance Capitalism triumphant. It devours all political systems from liberal democracies to despotic tyrannies, in turn leaving Corporatocratic Fascism triumphant in politics and governments. People from before Aristotle to beyond Wallace Stevens have observed everything changes yet somehow remains the same anyway. The nature of slavery has changed, and yet, we still have slavery. And so it is with Greece.

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Continue reading “Grexit Crisis: Update and Reevaluation” »

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?”

Continue reading “Response to a Concerned Small Business Owner over 15 NOW” »

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.

Continue reading “Raise the Minimum Wage” »