© 2024 WSKG

601 Gates Road
Vestal, NY 13850

217 N Aurora St
Ithaca, NY 14850

FCC Public Files:
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Ithaca REI opens amid protest from community advocates and lawmakers

Two protesters at the Ithaca rally.
Aurora Berry
Two protesters at the rally outside the new Ithaca REI store.

The outdoor retailer REI Co-op opened a store in Ithaca last week. On Saturday, a crowd gathered in its parking lot to protest what they described as union-busting tactics from the company.

The national retailer has over 180 stores, 10 of which are unionized. The REI Union has accused the company of trying to smother unionization efforts through targeted firings and discipline, among other tactics.

The union is currently negotiating with REI. Members are calling for guaranteed minimum hours and stable schedules for workers. The union has called on the company to settle a contract with all of its unionized stores before the year ends.

In a statement to WSKG, REI said the company does not union bust and is engaged in “good faith” negotiations with organizers.

Protesters in front of REI
Aurora Berry
Advocates and lawmakers gathered outside of REI to call for free and open union votes.

The protest was meant to show support for free and open union elections, regardless of the final outcome, said Steve Buckley, an employee at REI’s Soho store and union member.

“We want to use this opportunity to make sure their customers, and also the workers, know that there's a movement out there that's supporting them, even if they're not necessarily a part of it,” Buckley said. “And also that the community here will stand by them in the event that they choose to unionize.”

Employees at the Ithaca store have yet to announce any plans for unionization.

'Progressive Image'

REI’s image as a sustainable, progressive company seemingly aligns with Ithaca’s own reputation as a politically-minded, left-leaning community. But the allegations of anti-union activity drew the ire of local lawmakers and Ithaca advocacy groups.

State Assemblymember Anna Kelles was one of the officials in attendance. She urged REI to accept employees’ decisions if they choose to unionize.

“If that's the direction employees choose to go, support your employees, if you say that you're a progressive organization or progressive corporation.” she told the crowd. “If not, then you're not.”

Kelles said the retailer had moved into an area with a history of strong union support.

“Hopefully here in Ithaca, New York, given that we're a strong union town, they will not get in the way of making sure that this store is a union store and that it supports its employees 100% without pause and without hesitation.”

Ithaca Alderperson Phoebe Brown said the store’s co-op label paints a misleading picture of its labor practices.

“We must tell the truth and shame whoever is not doing right, right? So we need to make sure and keep our eye on REI.”

Brown also said the store had not hired a racially diverse group of employees, specifically citing a lack of Black employees at the store.

“We're here today for union busting, but we'll be back to make sure you hire people that represent this community,” Brown said.

REI has yet to respond to WSKG’s request for comment on this topic.

Remembering Starbucks

For some attendees, this conflict is all too familiar.

Ithaca Democratic Socialists of America Chair and former alderperson Jorge DeFendini recalled the unionization of all three of Ithaca’s Starbucks locations in 2022.

“We became the first city to have a union in every Starbucks throughout our city,” DeFendini said. “It was a moment of pride for everyone as it represented our city living up to its values as a progressive union town.”

Jorge DeFendini spoke on previous union conflicts in Ithaca with Starbucks.
Aurora Berry
Jorge DeFendini spoke on previous union conflicts in Ithaca with Starbucks.

The celebration was short-lived. The company closed all three Ithaca locations following unionization.

On Saturday, DeFendini told protesters they were there to make sure history does not repeat itself.

“We will not let outside corporations come into our town, claim to represent our values and then abuse our workers and leave,” he said.

Ithaca was the first city in the country where all Starbucks locations were unionized.