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REI's union-busting podcast shows how diversity programs can be abused

REI is trying to quash a union by weaponizing its diversity, equity and inclusion resources.
Image: A signage that reads,\"REI Loading dock\".
The REI flagship store loading dock is seen in Seattle, on May 14, 2020.Chona Kasinger / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

In recent years, many American companies have devoted increasing resources to diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives — programs that seek to make workplaces more attentive to discrimination and welcoming to people of different identities. But as the outdoor gear giant REI has demonstrated, these largely well-intentioned programs can also be exploited and weaponized against employees who want a real voice in their workplace through a union.

The trend of increased attention to diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives is a good thing — companies should be proactive about dealing with bigotry and making the workplace welcoming for people from all walks of life. But what we can see in the case of REI is that employers have the capacity to use these programs as a smokescreen to divert workers from realizing their collective power and rallying together to assert themselves.

Companies are slyly able to use the performance of social justice to undermine it within their workplace.

In January, employees at one of REI’s nearly 170 stores filed for a union election, which would make them the first of the company’s 15,000 employees to form a union. Among other things, those employees, who work at a store in New York, have expressed concern with insufficient wages, limited access to benefits like health care, exploitative part-time status practices, inadequate Covid-19 safety protocols and the perception that the company allegedly let go employees who had voiced concerns about workplace safety early in the pandemic. The workers have asked for voluntary recognition for their union, but REI released a statement saying a union is not “needed or beneficial” and pinned up anti-union fliers designed to intimidate people from joining and implying that the unionization effort could backfire. (REI told me in a statement that “it would be unfair to those employees to recognize the union immediately, and take away their right to a secret vote to express their true wishes on something that will impact their jobs and lives.”)

REI’s behavior has been a source of disappointment to some of its loyal customers. REI might be a multibillion-dollar, profit-seeking operation, but it has long presented itself as a progressive company that claims to “put purpose before profits” in its sales of equipment and apparel. The company is a consumer cooperative: Customers can buy lifetime memberships for $20 to become consumer-owners, and some profits are shared with members and employees (who can buy into the cooperative program).

But REI is not a worker cooperative, a company where employees own and manage the organization. Efforts by some of its employees in New York to form a union represent their bid to have meaningful, nonsymbolic input into their pay, work conditions and how they’re managed. But the company has deployed a rather cunning tactic to suppress that effort: using outwardly progressive diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) infrastructure and language to disarm and distract employees from joining that agenda.

In an unusual move, REI chose to address the unionization effort by publishing what it calls a podcast. That audio recording, casually titled Podcast With Eric & Wilma, is a conversation between the company’s CEO, Eric Artz, and REI’s chief diversity and social impact officer, Wilma Wallace. The implicit framing is that Wallace, as a guardian of inclusivity, is interrogating Artz on behalf of the employees. In reality, the entire conversation is a heavily scripted setup where she lobs Artz softballs and allows him to cloak himself in the rhetoric of social justice.

Right off the bat, Wallace set the tone with equity language that includes an acknowledgement of the history of Native Americans in the U.S., saying, “I use she/her pronouns and am speaking to you today from the traditional lands of the Ohlone people.”

Artz responded in kind: “For those of you who I have not had the chance to meet, I use he/him pronouns and I'm speaking to you today from the traditional lands of the Coast Salish peoples.”

While the matter at hand is employees trying to form a union due to a long list of concrete grievances around how they're treated in the workplace, Wallace used the modish vocabulary of identity-based activism to prompt Artz to talk about acknowledgement of feelings.

“I do know one of the themes that we've heard as we've been out talking to employees is that not everyone feels seen or heard,” she said at one point. “How would you respond to that, Eric?”

Artz replied that “it is absolutely true” and a sign that “something didn't work.” He reciprocated Wallace’s DEI-inflected language emphasizing recognition of experience without offering any substantive policy changes: “I know that, I see that, I take responsibility for that, and I own that,” he said.

At other points, Artz mentioned, for no particularly relevant reason, how the company has “big aspirations” on societal issues like “racial equity.”

The problem is that DEI initiatives are not meant to do what unions do, nor can they.

But the bulk of the conversation was, in fact, Artz making an argument against his staffers unionizing. In a classic bit of anti-union rhetoric, the CEO said he appreciates unions and believes that they’re important in other workplaces, but they’re not a fit for REI because they could “impact our ability to communicate and work directly with our employees.” As part of his case against unions at REI, Artz suggested that other tools exist within the company “like employee inclusion networks — to hear voices, to build community.” As REI’s website explains, these networks “provide an opportunity for connection” for people who “share a common characteristic of historically underrepresented diversity” while “aligning to the co-op's values of workplace diversity, equity and inclusion.”

In other words, Artz is leaning on the DEI infrastructure of the company as a substitute for a union. How fuzzy promises of opportunities for "connection" could possibly substitute for the power of a union contract or a well-organized strike is left undiscussed. Moreover, it's misdirection: the issues that workers have complained about are not necessarily contingent upon or any less necessary for people who aren't from historically underrepresented backgrounds — it's not as if white men don't need or deserve proper health insurance.

The problem is that DEI initiatives are not meant to do what unions do, nor can they. DEI initiatives are, at their core, about reducing identity-based discrimination and creating a more culturally sensitive work environment; unions are about combating structural economic exploitation and providing a bulwark against the tyranny of executives. Unions are premised on the notion that workers have economic interests that are at odds with the owners and high-level managers of a company, while DEI initiatives assume no such conflict.

In fact, as we see in the example of REI, they can obscure conflict: Wallace’s participation creates the illusion of harmonious dialogue between the executive and his workers. Notably, the conversation did not address many of the reported grievances from the New York union effort, and to the extent that they were discussed, like pay, they were discussed in extremely vague terms, without any specificity. All the while, the company demonstrated fluency in the parlance of modern inclusivity culture, signaling that it's on the right side of things and should be trusted while offering zero concessions.

If this gambit succeeds, it will be a shame. Unions are a critical tool for protecting workers from exploitation and allowing them some substantive say in the conditions of a workplace beyond symbolic listening gestures that companies are free to — and often do — ignore.

Again, none of this is to say DEI initiatives are not worthwhile. They’re necessary and deeply healthy for a multicultural society. But what we’re seeing through this whole strange exercise is how companies are slyly able to use the performance of social justice to undermine it.