CLEVELAND — During the pandemic, some workers said they felt stretched thin by employers, worried about getting sick, and either worked extra hours or could not work enough. Many worried about losing or did lose their jobs.

What You Need To Know

  • A 2022 Gallup poll shows support for labor unions is at a 57-year high

  • Workers at the Cleveland REI store are voting on whether to unionize

  • REI said the co-op is focused on ensuring employees have the information they need to make an informed decision about unionization

Labor experts said those factors could have sparked new support for the labor movement. 

A 2022 Gallup poll showed support for labor unions is at a 57-year high. 

Workers at a Cleveland-area Recreational Equipment, Inc. store are hoping to ride that wave by voting on whether to unionize. 

Dave Hein started working at the REI in Beachwood five years ago, when the store opened.

“To this day, it’s still the best job I’ve ever had,” Hein said.

He said frustrations grew when protections for workers were dropped within a day of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ending mask mandates.

“There was all that extra pressure to be that essential employee with very minimal protections from the company for the increased risk that we were taking on,” he said.

In the summer of 2021, he said conversations about forming a union started so those workers could help protect themselves.

Another worker at the store, Jennifer Gill, said it wasn’t just about health risks.

“We really want a seat at the table where decisions are being made,” Gill said. “We want access to better health benefits. We want a living wage. We want stable working hours. We want diversity that actually represents the community in which we live.”

The workers formally filed for a union election with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on Jan. 11 with representation from the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU).

“We immediately saw managers parachuting in from all over the country,” Hein said.

Stuart Appelbaum, President of RWDSU, said he expected this type of response because the same thing happened when two other stores in SoHo and Berkley filed for a union last year.

“I believe that the REI workers in Cleveland, and also in SoHo and in Berkeley, are sending a message to workers everywhere that you can come together, you can stand up in your workplace, you can have a collective voice, and you can make changes that improve your life and the life of your family,” Appelbaum said.

REI said in a statement, “REI Cleveland has been part of the community since 2018 and we look forward to continuing to serve our members and customers in their active lifestyles.”

The statement also says, “The co-op is focused on ensuring our employees have the information, time and space necessary to make an informed decision regarding unionization. We have informed employees during normal shift meetings about the election process and union supporters have actively and without restriction stated their own views during these meetings. REI has repeatedly said that it will respect any decision employees make.”

Hein and Gill said they’re feeling confident as they vote to unionize, but no matter what comes of it, they’re still proud to have come this far.

“These people will be my friends and my coworkers, win lose or draw,” Hein said. “These relationships are not for the short term.”

The vote was at the Beachwood REI until Friday at 6 p.m.

REI can challenge certain ballots. The final tally will likely not be reported until the NLRB can hold a hearing to determine which votes should be counted.