REI Simply Did One thing ‘Egregiously Mistaken’

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By Calvin S. Nelson

When William Littig confirmed up for work at his REI retailer on Feb. 21, it didn’t take lengthy for him to understand it will be his final day.

Two managers who have been visiting from different shops referred to as him right into a closed-door assembly, Littig recalled. Considered one of them learn from a paper that turned out to be his termination discover.

The supervisor stated Littig had been “made conscious” that REI workers “have been sad with retailer management and have been discussing methods to effectuate change.” Littig, the supervisor learn on, had did not “escalate the state of affairs to the suitable leaders in a well timed method.”

Littig insisted he’d alerted the corporate inside days, and refused to signal the letter. He handed in his retailer keys and inexperienced vest and quietly omitted a facet door, abandoning 4 and a half years at an organization he’d liked, with no severance pay and slightly greater than per week on his medical insurance.

The firing of a well-liked division supervisor shocked the shop’s staff, in accordance HuffPost interviews with a number of workers. It revealed the aggressive response of REI ― a customer-owned cooperative identified for its progressive picture ― to a union effort that’s organized 9 shops thus far. And it underscored the tough, typically unattainable place that firms put low-level managers in when their underlings begin to focus on unions.

Employees get fired on a regular basis for making an attempt to prepare, and lots of managers probably meet the identical destiny for failing to forestall it. What’s uncommon in Littig’s case is that the corporate was so frank about its reasoning when it fired him.

“It sucks. It hurts,” stated Littig, 33, who served because the hiring supervisor on the Northbrook retailer outdoors Chicago. “I used to be actually, personally invested within the firm and the workers.”

Littig did inform the corporate that staff may be attending union conferences, however apparently not as shortly as his superiors anticipated.

Within the letter explaining his termination, REI accused Littig of ready “three months” to inform the corporate he’d heard staff may be attending union conferences. The corporate later confirmed he waited only one week, however stood by the firing.

Many staff, most of whom spoke on situation of anonymity for concern of retaliation, seen the firing as a part of a broader, ham-fisted response to union organizing that has shaken their relationship with the corporate.

REI just lately topped Forbes’ checklist of “the most effective manufacturers for social influence.” It has taken public stances in help of racial fairness and LGBTQ+ rights. And its inclusive status has drawn the expertise of staff like Littig, who identifies as queer and nonbinary and indicators off his emails with “I settle for all pronouns.” However like Dealer Joe’s and Starbucks, two different progressive manufacturers going through organizing campaigns, REI has chosen to withstand collective bargaining amongst its workforce.

Whether or not they help or oppose unionizing, staff stated in interviews that REI was damaging its status and its bonds with workers who thought “the co-op,” as many discuss with it, was particular.

“They don’t truly imagine of their morals,” one declared.

“Nobody thinks REI goes in an excellent route,” one other stated. “They don’t care concerning the workers. They care about making more cash.”

The retailer, which has 181 shops across the nation, declined to handle particulars about Littig’s firing, saying it doesn’t focus on disciplinary issues.

“However we will guarantee you that terminations solely happen after complete investigations, contemplating elements equivalent to job efficiency and adherence to current firm coverage,” a spokesperson stated in an e mail.

Low-level managers are put in a difficult spot during union campaigns. The company expects them to help combat union organizing, but supervisors are naturally close with the employees they work alongside.
Low-level managers are put in a tough spot throughout union campaigns. The corporate expects them to assist fight union organizing, however supervisors are naturally shut with the staff they work alongside.

Kathleen Hinkel for HuffPost

‘Egregiously Mistaken’

Littig’s troubles started with a January go to from what the corporate calls its “Worker Engagement Companions.” REI staff HuffPost interviewed had by no means heard of this human assets division till the companions have been scheduled to speak with them in small group conferences.

Many staff have been sad with how the shop and the corporate have been being run. Union organizers had handed out leaflets inside the shop a number of weeks earlier, in plain view of administration. Any union discuss was in its early levels, however Littig stated the corporate was making an attempt to be proactive. He and different managers had been advised to extra carefully scrutinize job candidates’ résumés, searching for any potential ties to a labor union.

“That they had a sport plan to principally get forward of it earlier than it grows,” he stated.

In a gathering of division managers, Littig advised an worker engagement accomplice, recognized in his termination letter as Julia Visitor, that he thought they wanted higher high management at his retailer. He says it was on this context that he stated an worker advised him union conferences would possibly already be occurring. He says Visitor thanked him for sharing what he knew.

Visitor directed questions on Littig’s firing to REI’s public relations staff. In keeping with her LinkedIn web page, she got here to REI that very same month from Normal Motors, the place she had dealt with human assets in unionized auto crops.

Littig later met nearly with one other human assets official. The dialogue turned again to when he first realized concerning the attainable union conferences. “She saved urgent for me to present extra element,” Littig recalled. He sensed he was in bother.

REI alleged in his termination letter that Littig sat on the data for “three months.” Littig stated he’d realized concerning the attainable union conferences solely per week earlier than he knowledgeable Visitor. In response to his wrongful termination declare, human assets reopened its investigation and located that Littig was appropriate.

An REI official wrote to him in late March to say they have been “noting that correction” however standing by his firing.

“REI expects its managers to take a proactive strategy to problem-solving,” the official wrote.

REI stated its Worker Engagement Companions are a “current addition” to the corporate. It referred to as them “key members of our HR staff, who foster direct connections with our retailer workers to raised perceive and deal with their wants and issues.”

Latest job postings for the place pegged the wage between $96,000 and $154,000, far above what the corporate’s retail staff earn on the ground. Among the many {qualifications} listed have been “arms on expertise supporting enterprise leaders [and] responding to labor/union issues.”

Across the similar time that REI fired Littig, it additionally ousted the Northbrook retailer’s high supervisor and put one other division supervisor on administrative go away, in keeping with staff. The corporate stated it wouldn’t touch upon personnel issues.

Littig says he didn’t instantly report the potential union exercise partly as a result of he apprehensive for the worker who shared the data.

“I did have issues that if I have been to let the shop supervisor know, that there could be extra of a push for me to present further info” that might imperil the employee’s job, he stated.

The REI store in Northbrook, Illinois, where Littig worked. The store is not among the nine REI locations that have unionized so far.
The REI retailer in Northbrook, Illinois, the place Littig labored. The shop will not be among the many 9 REI places which have unionized thus far.

Kathleen Hinkel for HuffPost

J.P. Pyke, who has labored on the REI retailer in Northbrook because it opened 17 years in the past, stated he was “floored” by Littig’s firing. He famous that the information of the union effort has made it a pure matter of watercooler discuss at shops all over the place. He questioned how a supervisor is meant to “distinguish gossip from reality, true want from idle discuss.”

“I feel it’s egregiously mistaken,” Pyke stated of Littig’s termination. “If there was anyone I believed was doing their job to the utmost, it was him.”

Managers like Littig are typically not coated by the Nationwide Labor Relations Act, the regulation that protects staff’ proper to cut price collectively. Supervisors have been excluded underneath the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, the sprawling, landmark reform that curbed the facility of organized labor.

Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian on the College of California, Santa Barbara, stated that carving managers out of the protections has had an everlasting influence, serving to flip low-level supervisors into the corporate’s “shock troops” in anti-union campaigns. Many really feel torn between their loyalty to headquarters and their pure fellowship with the staff they work alongside daily on the ground.

“It’s a really tough state of affairs for a lot of of those managers,” Lichtenstein stated.

Regardless of the shortage of authorized protections, REI should still have violated the regulation by firing Littig within the method it did, stated Wilma Liebman, a former chair of the Nationwide Labor Relations Board, the federal company that enforces collective-bargaining regulation.

Liebman stated it may be unlawful for an employer to terminate a supervisor for failing to forestall unionization or refusing to intrude with staff’ rights, as long as the supervisor himself isn’t a part of the union marketing campaign. She cited a 1995 memo from the labor board’s common counsel laying out these particular circumstances.

HuffPost readers: Do you’re employed at REI? Our reporter want to hear from you. E mail him right here.

The present labor board, formed by President Joe Biden’s progressive appointees, tends to take a broad studying of staff’ rights. Board officers are at the moment investigating different claims in opposition to REI alleging unlawful retaliation and firings.

“I feel the man’s received an excellent case [against] his personal discharge,” Liebman stated, although she added this might change with a Republican-led board underneath one other Trump presidency.

Littig says when he mentioned the union concern with workers, he at all times caught to the corporate’s official line: Whether or not to unionize is as much as them, however REI will not be an organization that wants a union.

“I’m not going to inform anyone what to do. All people must make the choice of what’s proper for them,” he stated. “It’s not my place to steer them a technique or one other. I did need to persistently make the assertion that REI doesn’t imagine that union illustration is critical.”

Even when employers are firing somebody for union-related issues, they usually cite a pretextual cause, like punctuality. In Littig’s case, the corporate listed earlier verbal and written warnings for tardiness. Littig didn’t dispute that he’d been late to work.

However the cause given for his firing was that he waited to report that staff needed to “effectuate change.” The corporate stated it might now not hold him in a management position.

“It’s bizarre that they’d make it fairly so blatant,” Liebman stated.

REI is one of a handful of progressive-branded companies that have chosen to resist collective bargaining, risking damage to their relationships with employees.
REI is considered one of a handful of progressive-branded firms which have chosen to withstand collective bargaining, risking injury to their relationships with workers.

Kathleen Hinkel for HuffPost

The ‘Knee-Jerk Anti-Labor Stance’

To this point, just one out of each 20 REI shops has unionized, becoming a member of both the Retail, Wholesale and Division Retailer Union or its guardian group, the United Meals and Industrial Employees. However as with Starbucks, the union marketing campaign could proceed to unfold to extra places. Final month, REI’s retailer in Santa Cruz, California, petitioned to carry an election.

REI has inspired staff to take a coaching course referred to as “Inform Your Determination,” by which a lot of the data appears to be slanted in opposition to unions, staff stated. An REI spokesperson stated the union course is voluntary, and famous that the corporate “supplies workers with trainings on any variety of topics, from knowledge privateness to finest practices for undertaking administration.”

Staff stated the coaching implies that signing union playing cards might go away them unionized in opposition to their needs because of a current landmark labor board determination. Below that ruling, referred to as Cemex, the board might pressure an organization to cut price with a union that misplaced an election, however provided that a majority of staff had demonstrated their needs to unionize after which the corporate went on to interrupt the regulation.

The query stays whether or not REI’s efforts to forestall unionization will damage its picture and finally its gross sales. The corporate’s younger, liberal buyer base is prone to see the precise to collective bargaining as a part of the identical worth system that features conserving wild lands, stopping local weather change and defending the dignity of trans individuals. In the meantime, unions are extra well-liked among the many broader public than they’ve been in many years.

Alison Taylor, who teaches company duty at New York College’s Stern Faculty of Enterprise, stated firms like REI are studying that company America’s “knee-jerk anti-labor stance” now comes with larger perils. She just lately witnessed a protest outdoors the REI retailer in New York Metropolis the place the union marketing campaign started two years in the past.

“What this says to me is that you could have the most effective sustainability program on the market and tick all of the packing containers, however for those who don’t deal with staff with dignity and respect, it’ll undermine all of your different efforts,” Taylor advised HuffPost.

The day after he was fired, Littig needed to return to his REI retailer. He had executed the shop’s laundry at house ― a chore for which workers obtain two hours’ pay ― and wanted to convey again the inexperienced vests he’d washed. He says he requested a regional director to verify the final bit of labor was included on his time card, however it didn’t find yourself in his remaining paycheck. Neither, he says, did the time he spent getting fired. Apparently nobody had punched him out.

These omissions led to a different prolonged back-and-forth with human assets. After a number of days, the identical man who’d advised him his firing was upheld after one other investigation got here again with some excellent news. Littig could be paid for the laundry work, in addition to the half hour of his final day.

“Thanks for the endurance,” the person wrote.

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