REI Workers Say Union Effort Has Prompted A Disciplinary Crackdown

Sean Barnes has often shown up a little late to work at their REI store in Austin, Texas, over the last four and a half years. The 31-year-old says managers never hassled them about the tardiness ― until workers started chattering about forming a union last year.

All of the sudden, clocking in late a few times seemed like a sure way to end up on the dreaded “performance improvement plan,” according to Barnes. PIPs, as they’re called, are formal reprimands: If workers who get them don’t change their behavior in the coming weeks, employers proceed with termination.

“Most people at our store who came from other [REI] stores over the last nine months had never heard of a PIP before,” said Barnes, a union supporter. “They didn’t know they existed.”

Employers are free to punish workers for violating company policy, but not with the intention of ousting organizers or chilling a union drive. Whether such discipline is legal often boils down to whether or not it was meted out consistently to other workers in the past.

REI denies it’s trying to snuff out a labor campaign that has organized 10 of its 181 stores over the past two years. But the Washington-based retailer declined to share any data that would show whether or not PIPs have increased amid the union campaign, or at stores where union organizing has taken hold.

 “Our approach to performance management ― including potential disciplinary action ― is consistent across all our stores and is not influenced by union activities,” the company, which is known for its progressive image, said in a statement. It called PIPs “a standard management tool utilized to support employees in achieving their performance goals.”

Barnes has been on an improvement plan since February after clocking in anywhere from 7 to 16 minutes late. Their PIP shows they were hired in November of 2019, and that their first documented reprimand for punctuality didn’t come until four years later, amid the union effort.

Most people at our store who came from other [REI] stores over the last nine months had never heard of a PIP before.REI employee Sean Barnes

Other REI workers share Barnes’ conviction that the retailer is trying to push out union backers, by either firing them or making their jobs unpleasant with more managerial scrutiny. They no longer expect any grace for minor slip-ups.  

“The increase in discipline has been exponential in the past two years,” said Zoe Dunmire, an employee at the company’s SoHo store in New York City, which in 2022 became the first to unionize. “Any little minute misunderstanding or mess-up or accident goes on your record. It’s a big deal [now]. You get a coaching. You get a PIP.” 

At least eight employees at the Austin store have been placed on improvement plans in recent months, with three being terminated and two resigning, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers, one of two unions organizing the chain. 

The UFCW says it filed unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board on Tuesday alleging the PIPs at the Austin store have been aimed at union sympathizers. The charges accuse REI of “changing its enforcement of its lateness policy in response to workers’ protected concerted activity.” (The Austin workers have not yet filed for a union election.)

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The union alleges several Austin workers were targeted after raising alarms about a “permissive culture” of sexual harassment at the store. The employees delivered a letter to management detailing “requests for sexual favors,” “undesired nude photos,” “inappropriate physical contact” and “sex toys placed in coworkers’ lockers,” according to a copy obtained by HuffPost. They accused supervisors of failing to act on earlier complaints. 

“Management’s pattern of complacency regarding sexual harassment sharply contrasts with the recent disciplinary actions taken against workers who voiced concerns,” the letter stated.

The union is demanding that any worker who has been fired as a result of increased enforcement of the late policy be reinstated with back pay. 

REI says it isn't singling out union supporters, but workers believe the company is targeting them with
REI says it isn't singling out union supporters, but workers believe the company is targeting them with "performance improvement plans." Bruce Bennett via Getty Images

REI declined to comment directly on the sexual harassment allegations at the Austin store, citing privacy concerns. “We have robust policies and procedures in place to safeguard our employees, and any allegations of such misconduct are taken seriously,” the company said. “The co-op is dedicated to creating a safe and inclusive environment for everyone in our stores.”

The NLRB, which enforces private-sector union rights, must investigate the UFCW’s claims before deciding whether to pursue a case against REI. If rules on punctuality were not consistently enforced until there was union talk, labor board officials may find the punishments violated the law.

An REI employee in Austin named Josh, who asked to withhold his last name for privacy reasons, said the petition regarding sexual harassment made clear to management there was organizing afoot. Employees joined together to form a  delegation to hand it to management.

“It felt like they’re panicking and they’re going to start bringing down the PIPs and discipline to frighten people,” he said. “They’re trying to avoid unionization at our store, so they’re trying to push people out and get new people in.”

It’s common for employees to feel singled out for punishment during union campaigns. Nearly 30% of all union elections held by the NLRB involve charges that workers were wrongfully fired, disciplined, or had their work terms changed unilaterally, according to an analysis from the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank.

The increase in discipline has been exponential in the past two years.Zoe Dunmire, REI employee

Dunmire, from the SoHo store, said she noticed more discipline from managers after REI hired the law firm Morgan Lewis to negotiate with the UFCW and its affiliate, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. Morgan Lewis is well known for helping employers avoid unionization. (The SoHo store is still without a contract, more than two years after the RWDSU won a union election by an overwhelming margin.)

HuffPost recently reported the story of an REI manager in suburban Chicago who was fired for not immediately raising alarms about union chatter at his store. The manager received a “verbal” PIP for attendance issues last summer, followed by a formal written PIP in December, which culminated in a termination notice in February. The manager recently filed a charge with the labor board, arguing that the firing was illegal.

One union supporter said she recently resigned from REI after being put on an improvement plan for tardiness. She acknowledged she had been late but said she received no warning prior to the PIP. She took it as a sign that the store manager wanted her gone and she would eventually be fired anyway.

“The HR policy is flexible; it’s only enforced when convenient,” said the worker, who asked to withhold her name so as not to ruin relationships at REI. “They’re documenting more. They’re absolutely keeping a closer eye on everything.”