Councilmember Kshama Sawant hosted a public forum on July 11 with the group REI Employees for Real Change, in the City Council Chambers. REI employees told stories of personal hardship and corporate mismanagement. We are transcribing and publishing some of their statements.
Good evening, everyone. Thank you for coming out to support REI employees.
For those of you who are not familiar with our movement, I’m known as Alpine Anderson. I am the founder and creator of REI Employees for Real Change. I am a Sales Specialist who has been cross-trained in footwear, clothing, and front-line, where I’ve worked most recently.
It is there where I learned that our hardships as REI employees are nationwide. Whenever an unsuspecting “visiting” employee crossed my register, I discreetly interviewed them to see what their store experience was like. When my suspicions were confirmed that Portland was not an isolated case, the birth of this movement was conceived.
That was nearly a year ago. It wasn’t until recently that this movement began to take off. Quite literally! Before May 2nd, when I posted a petition online at CoWorker.org, this movement was entirely off the grid and had virtually gone unnoticed. After the petition went live, the response and support for the movement has been beyond my wildest dreams imaginable.
My last day at the Portland store was December 12th of last year. I was fired. Only days before my termination from the Portland store, a secret group of approximately 55 employees was discovered by management. I was an active member in this group, and I was not a quiet voice. The purpose of our group was much the same as REI Employees for Real Change, but it specifically addressed the hardship of retail employees at the Portland store.
I also ran into trouble with the Portland management team. When I began being an advocate for my colleagues, who were really struggling with hardship, I was told that their hardships were not my business and I was strongly discouraged from advocating on their behalf any further. But I could not ethically do this.
Two days before I was fired, I was called into a “closed-door” meeting with two managers. This meeting took place within days of the secret group being exposed. I was placed on a two-month technical probation, and a one-year verbal probation period (yes, one year!) where I could not be late to work or sick. In addition, if I did call in sick and had a doctor’s note, I was told that management did not have to accept it.
I was also told that after the holidays my hours would be cut back, and I would not be promised even four hours a week, because that is an REI store policy for part-time workers. And most of the workforce at REI is part-time!
I had been late to work a few times in the three months leading up to my termination, and it was lumped together with excessive sick days that I had taken, largely over the course of the previous winter and early spring months. I was really unwell. What I didn’t know was that you’re not supposed to take all the sick days that you’re given, or you can get fired. In addition – which was also news to me – sick days are lumped together with tardiness, which never had been an issue for me until my own personal hardship forced me into near homelessness.
The reduced hours I received took their toll on me. I got eviction notices for the first time in my life. I qualified for food stamps. My phone was turned off. And then I began selling my belongings to try to make ends meet. I wasn’t able to donate my plasma to blood banks, though I tried.
Despite everything, I still love the coop fiercely. What makes REI so special are all the incredible people who are drawn to the coop because of its reputation, and they become like family to you. They have super-high ethics, as you would expect, because they believe REI shares these ethics, and that is what attracts them to working at REI.
It’s REI’s leadership and corporate practices that I find abominable. Sorry, Jerry [i.e. Jerry Stritzke, CEO of REI], but that is the truth!
Today this movement has a heartbeat all of its own, and some of REI’s finest employees are leading this movement. I don’t think I have a title in this movement – I’m simply known as Alpine. (My real name is “Aisling,” but I prefer to be called Alpine, because my first name is difficult for many people to pronounce correctly.)
REI gave you “#OptOutside” [a corporate decision to give employees the day off on “Black Friday”], which was indeed a remarkable campaign. REI employees counter this campaign with one that they think is more meaningful. It’s called “#OptInChange.” We ask you to support this campaign, not only for REI employees, but for all working-class heroes across the nation who are struggling with the same hardships as REI employees.
Please sign our demand letter, because REI employees are that awesome! And they are worth it! Thank you for being here tonight. We really appreciate your support. And we are more than a wee bit humbled by the turnout!
> In this video, at time index 4:50.