by Marcus Harrison Green
Local REI Employees joined dozens of supporters at a press conference outside the company’s flagship store in downtown Seattle this afternoon to celebrate what they called a “resounding victory” after the recreational co-op announced it would be raising wages for Seattle employees to $15 an hour beginning August 21.
The announcement came just two weeks after Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant hosted a forum where REI Employees for Real Change, a group of current and former workers of the chain loved by outdoor enthusiasts, spoke about the hardships many of them endure, including poor working conditions, lower wages and inconsistent scheduling.
“This is a huge victory and a step forward, but there’s still work that needs to be done,” said Collin Pointon during the press conference. Pointon is a lead organizer with REI Employees for Real Change, the group has been organizing the last few months for the management of REI to address what they say has been persistently poor treatment of employees by the outdoor retailing co-op.
Pointon and others in the group met with REI executives last Sunday morning to hear what improvements REI would be making to employee compensation.
Management announced an increase to $15 an hour for all workers currently below that mark beginning in late August, which advances the forced $15-an-hour wage the store would pay beginning January 1 under the City of Seattle’s minimum wage law. In addition to Seattle, 36 other stores located primarily in cosmopolitan areas, including Portland, San Francisco, Chicago and Denver, will receive a cost of living increase of between 5 and 15 percent.
For many employees, the concessions were welcome but long overdue.
“We’ve spent several months organizing, and that was after years of privately bringing our concerns to management,” said Pointon, who has been an REI employee for more than two years and currently makes an hourly wage of $13.20.
Pointon and others in REI Employees for Real Change also pointed to the fact that there is still much to be done, as only about a quarter of REI’s 145 locations across the country will see immediate benefit of the wage hike. A spokesperson for REI said that all stores will receive some level of pay increase by the middle point of 2017.
Inconsistent work hours were also at the heart of things left unaddressed by the announcement, as Pointon shared that some employees may work 20 hours one week, only to work zero the next. The variance makes it difficult to budget, especially in a city where rent continues to climb steadily.
REI has said that it will review its scheduling policies and have scheduled an announcement for sometime in October.
The road left to travel did not damper the progress many in attendance at the press conference said was made due to the actions of galvanized workers.
“This victory is what happens when you organize,” said Sawant during the press conference. The councilwoman has been working closely with the members of REI Employees for Real Change during the past two months, including hosting the forum of aggrieved REI employees in City Hall a couple weeks ago.
REI, however, has a different interpretation of the events that led up to the announced changes in worker pay.
“The changes we shared on Sunday were for our employees, not in response to Councilwoman Sawant. [Her] claiming victory for work that REI has been doing for many months is an interesting choice given that she has singled out one of the leading employers in the country and one that already gives back 70% of its profits annually,” said Michael Ferris, a representative for REI, in a statement.
In an email response, Ferris went on to say that the timing of REI’s announcement was purely coincidental and that neither the organizing of the REI Employees for Real Change nor Sawant’s town hall had any impact on the wage increases.
“This work stream has been underway since 2015 and we’ve been communicating about it with employees for months,” said Ferris.
Councilmember Sawant does not buy those claims, however. When told of Ferris’ assertion, the eye-rolling councilmember countered that the changes would never have taken place if not for workers bringing their conditions to light during public forums, as well as circulating a petition that received more than 2000 signatures, many of them are employees, but not all. Others signatures are by REI members or public supporters.
The councilmember cited the fact that REI Jerry Strikze, as recently as May, during REI’s annual membership meeting, described the move as risky, stating that it would cost the company $30 million to get the company close to a $15 wage for all of its 12,000 employees.
Strikze did tell attendants at the meeting that the company had been “exploring” what a living wage meant.
That exploration has taken too long for some employees, who have described experiencing homelessness and malnourishment due to unsteady work hours and poor pay. Others say it behooves REI to provide a living wage for employees as a good business practice.
“I feared [if not for the wage increase] we wouldn’t be able to keep those who are skilled and experts at their job. I was fighting to stop from losing those people here because they couldn’t afford to work here. It means something to REI to have people who know everything about a department and can help any customer who walks through the door,” says Andy Pelz, a ten-year employee.
Pelz already makes more than $15 an hour but joined REI Employees for Real Change after he says he wasn’t certain management was actually listening to the concerns of its workers.
Pelz joined Sawant, Pointon and members of union UFCW 21 to walk the floors of the flagship store, passing aisles of first aid kits, bear-resistant food containers, and propane grills, to congratulate REI workers on their upcoming wage increase.
“We’ve got to keep consistency with it, the cost of living in Seattle is continuing to rise, and if we’re making strides now that doesn’t mean we can just sit back for the next four years and wait for the next time that everyone reaches their limit,” said Pelz, as Sawant and Pointon stopped to converse with employees on duty.
Immediate next steps for workers include potentially attempting to unionize, and carrying the momentum of their recently-won concessions forward nationally, as they work toward a $15-an-hour wage for every REI employee.
This is something Katie Garrow, the Deputy Executive Director of M.L. King County Labor Council, which has supported REI Employees for Real Change, sees as a continued struggle.
“Power concedes nothing without a demand,” Garrow said. “This fight isn’t over.”