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.

One must first consider the global Capitalist economic-political system REI and its workers functions within as a part of. Capitalism generated massive wealth and has corrupted, distorted, and crushed real democracy in America and around Planet Earth. The competitive drive for short-term profits leveraged to created capital led to environmental destruction, social turmoil, new forms of slavery, and incessant warfare. We became normalized to neofeudal corporate domination of everyday life. Capitalist pundits claim the Great Global Recession ended years ago, yet this Recession still burns on for large numbers of people around the world.

This Capitalist economic and political system, the same system we all live and participate in, must be replaced with one of Democratic Socialism. Our struggle at REI is a microcosm of the greater struggles of the working classes for the true freedom of a Socialist world where individual liberties are integrated with social responsibilities. If we do not rise up to take care of our planet, then who will? So we must stand up and get to it, people. We must create a new mass movement of the Left for working and middle class human beings.

First, however, we REI workers had to organize. This resulted in what eventually came to be known as REI Employees for Real Change, or RE4RC. The early founders of this group created a public petition at coworker.org to generate support to “End Hardship at the REI Co-Op!” The founder was Alpine Anderson, a pseudonym for an employee fired in a ruthless purge of Portland, Oregon REI store employees in late 2015. She was determined to seek justice. There were many other events and brave people in this newly burgeoning yet eccentric movement, and their stories yet remain to be told. What follows below is fraction of what transpired.

Here is the link to this Petition. Please sign it and pass it forward. Thank you.

“End Hardship at the REI Co-Op!” @ https://www.coworker.org/petitions/rei-end-the-hardship-for-your-working-class-heroes.

Rumblings have been going on for some time within the Co-op. The turning point for many that led directly to the 11 July 2016 Town Hall Public Meeting occurred during the 2016 Annual Members’ Meeting. That occurred at the Downtown Seattle Flagship Store, aka The Mothership, on Monday 2 May 2016. A Question and Answer session followed. One REI Co-op Member and one current Employee, Andy Pelz, stood up and challenged the Board of Directors and the President and CEO, Jerry Strizke, on how workers were mistreated, underpaid, and neglected despite their hard work, commitment to the Co-op, and sterling levels of service to customers and the outdoors.

Strizke politely blew them off in a manner many regarded as disrespectful. The members of the Board who spoke up against the stands Pelz and the unnamed Member took came across to many as arrogant and ignorant of reality. As the Board represented a privileged bourgeoisie, they had no idea what it was like for retail workers to make a living in a city undergoing overdevelopment with rapidly escalating costs of living, low wages, and sporadic hours. The conversation was a stark reflection of the historic divide within REI between the pro-Cooperative model championed by the early socialist founders of the late 1930s and the pro-business/pro-growth capitalists who’ve dominated the company since the 1970s. 

Below is the second of six videos here. This is from the “2016 Annual Members’ Meeting, Q&A Session” from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MqiXJwjnf18. The section of the woman who got up to speak as a Co-op Member and addressed wage disparity begins at the 7:20 minute mark. The section during which Andy Pelz, long-time sales staff held in high regards by his fellow employees, begins at about the 11:30 minute mark.

Another key moment in this crucial Annual Members Meeting arrived about the 20:10 to 20:17 minute mark to about the 21:55 minute mark. Dennis Madsen arose to spoke. He began working as a teenager back in the mid-1960s and was the CEO from 2000 until he retired in 2005. As CEO he experienced REI’s first loss his first year, and then drove REI further away from the old socialist co-op model to a strong, pro-business of vigorous capitalism. As such he led REI to then-record making profits while shuttering some aspects of the business and expanding others. His comments disparaging the Co-op model while praising the capitalist point of view where business profits come first reflect the increasingly corporatocratic direction of REI are striking. They reflect the mindset REI employees had to stand up to as they advocated for themselves, their fellow workers, and the Co-op Membership.

As noted earlier, the above video captures the defining moment when many REI workers decided that if the upper management leadership of the Co-op was determined to ignore the workers who produced the profits while the company continues to build a multimillion-dollar new store and a new corporate headquarters across Lake Washington in Bellevue then they the workers of REI must take direct action. The Petition, slow to gain signatures at first, began to take off. The workers began to organize and seek help from both inside and outside the Co-op. These actions by determined workers led to the 11 July Public Meeting in Downtown Seattle.

The third video here, “Stories From The Inside” is a summary of the Public Meeting. This 5:47 minute video of “Town Hall Highlights” was compiled from public archives, edited, and then published to Facebook for REI Employees for Real Change on Thursday 14 July 2016 by Daniel Robinson of RE4RC:

https://www.facebook.com/REI.employees/videos/1614311425548134/.

The following is the short video of my turn addressing the public during this Town Hall Meeting on Workplace Rights at REI. It was prepared from the public record and published to YouTube by an REI Co-op Member under the name, “Joanne JoMa” on Wednesday 13 July 2016. To be clear, I didn’t ask anyone to do this, but JoMa, a Member I met only once the previous November, felt so inspired and proud when she heard about this event she did this as a gift of service to me. I received, a practice I’d learned to take on as I found it much easier to give and harder to receive. JoMa’s excerpt presents my story. Here it is:

“William Dudley Bass: Town Hall Meeting on Workplace Rights at REI.”

See YouTube page at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M5CIu33qunU.

For the full-length video of the entire event, see the following from the City of Seattle. It is slightly over one and a half hours in length, yet provides an emotional and insightful view into many aspects of these workers’ struggles for socialism, i.e. greater democracy in the workplace. Alpine Anderson is the first of the RE4RC participants to speak. Tia Kennedy, William Bass (me), Ingrid Johnson, Edward Peters, Ash Crew, Daniel Robinson, Collin Pointon, and Martha Reilly follow her.

A number of REI Members including labor union members with fellow and former REI coworkers follow in turn. One gets to see everyone who had the courage and who showed up to take a stand for each other and their loved ones. They all made heartfelt and down to earth speeches as they shared from the reality of their life experiences.

“Town Hall Meeting on Workplace Rights at REI,” Seattle Channel, City of Seattle, http://www.seattlechannel.org/videos?videoid=x66302:

 

What follows are stories from those primary speakers who shared at the Town Hall Public Forum held in the Chambers of the Seattle City Council:

“Stories from the Inside: Town Hall Forum,” on Facebook by REI Employees for Real Change: https://www.facebook.com/notes/rei-employees-for-real-change/stories-from-the-inside-town-hall-public-forum/1626891754290101.

REI upper management at Corporate Headquarters moved swiftly. They had no wish to offend the general public, their Co-op Membership, and sought to preserve the branding image of their cooperative business model. Many would say the upper management were generous and shared the Co-op spirit. Others, however, pointed out these gains were hard fought, were left undefended by the lack of organized labor among the employees, and still not enough as homelessness increases throughout the region.

The Co-op was founded by socialist outdoor adventurers in a Seattle home towards the end of the Great Depression. Now REI stores are located across the nation. The Downtown Seattle store, one of the company flagship stores, is referred to as The Mothership for a reason. Successes were celebrated outside The Mothership on the 26th of July 2016.

Here’s the sixth video below of the results with REI Coworker Collin Pointon leading off before the world:

“REI workers, Councilmember Sawant celebrate victory outside flagship,” Seattle Channel, Seattle City Council Videos, City of Seattle, http://video.seattle.gov:8080/media/news/CPC_072616REIV.mp4

 

This is by no means the full story. This is if anything a Part 1 with both prequels and sequels. A number of other coworkers and allies across the United States have stories of living with and attempting to overcoming astonishing difficulties and whose efforts inspired others to stand forward in solidarity. 

Thank you all who stood up and worked to help make our Co-op a better place for everyone. Thank you, Alpine Anderson and my fellow REI Employees for Real Change, for Seattle City Councilor Kshama Sawant and Staff, for Joe Earleywine and UFCW Local 21, for Nicole Grant and Katie Garrow with the Martin Luther King Jr. King County Labor Council, the Members and Coworkers of REI Co-op who stood with us, those in the Media who acknowledged the reality of our situation and got the word out, for my comrades in Socialist Alternative, and many, many others. Thank you.

Remember, however, much work remains unfinished. We still do not have organized, socialist cooperation amongst ourselves with democratic representation to upper-level management and the Board of Directors. While most of our demands as a group were met, some individuals have experienced loss of benefits and hours and thus struggle anew. Sometimes our greatest work is helping each other to rise up together. It’s time to do so again.

In Solidarity,

William Dudley Bass
Sunday 1 January 2017
Seattle, Washington 
Cascadia
Earth

*UPDATE, Wednesday 11 January 2017:
A small number of current and former coworkers from other REI stores reached out to me after they read this to let me know the promises and actions promised by Corporate HQ have not been implemented in many other stores including those anchored in the larger metropolitan areas.

The fact the Downtown Seattle REI Store hasn’t had another storewide meeting where workers are “presented” with an opportunity to challenge the management without any supporting body such as a union to address these issues since last Summer was also pointed out to me as a reminder of what has not yet been resolved. Furthermore, the continuing lack of an internal democratic labor body within the Co-op instead of a union resulted from HQ’s big, freakout push to “keep it all internal in the Co-Op” combined with current levels of fear, lack of knowledge, and disinterest continues to present problems.

Yes, much work remains for our Co-op to address. Thanks, everyone, who pointed out these matters. Remember, too, this article is not intended to reveal the entire series of events but snapshots from one worker’s point of view of a particular workers’ struggle across a period of less than three months during the Spring and Summer of 2016.*

 

Note Reminders for the following two Requests:

1) Sign the Petition to End Hardship at the REI Co-Op here if you have not done so, and then pass it forward, thank you: https://www.coworker.org/petitions/rei-end-the-hardship-for-your-working-class-heroes.

2) Sign the Petition to end slave labor here, pass it forward, and, again, thank you: http://petitions.moveon.org/sign/rei-drop-north-face-sweatsho-1?source=c.em&r_by=6189219.

Learn more about Socialist Alternative (SA), the small but dynamic organization at the forefront of many struggles to transform our planet and make a better world, and the larger Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) that SA’s a member of at: 

https://www.socialistalternative.org
&
http://www.socialistworld.net.

 

 

 

Copyright © 2017 by William Dudley Bass EXCEPT for the videos and writings compiled by United Students Against Sweatshops and then Daniel Robinson, Joanne JoMa, & others including those within RE4RC from the public media records of Seattle City Hall. All Rights otherwise Reserved until we Humans establish Wise Stewardship of and for our Earth and Solarian Commons. Note this article is not marketed or sold for profit or is intended for such but is generated for the public interest. Copyright is to protect validity of the sources. Thank you.

 

 

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