REI Fired A Popular Manager For Not Immediately Reporting Union Chatter

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When William Littig showed up for work at his REI store on Feb. 21, it didn’t take long for him to realize it would be his last day.

Two managers who were visiting from other stores called him into a closed-door meeting, Littig recalled. One of them read from a paper that turned out to be his termination notice.

The manager said Littig had been “made aware” that REI employees “were unhappy with store leadership and were discussing ways to effectuate change.” Littig, the manager read on, had failed to “escalate the situation to the appropriate leaders in a timely manner.”

Littig insisted he’d alerted the company within days, and refused to sign the letter. He handed in his store keys and green vest and quietly left out a side door, leaving behind four and a half years at a company he’d loved, with no severance pay and a little more than a week on his health insurance.

The firing of a popular department manager shocked the store’s workers, according HuffPost interviews with several employees. It revealed the aggressive response of REI ― a customer-owned cooperative known for its progressive image ― to a union effort that’s organized nine stores so far. And it underscored the difficult, sometimes impossible position that companies put low-level managers in when their underlings start to discuss unions.

Workers get fired all the time for trying to organize, and many managers likely meet the same fate for failing to prevent it. What’s unusual in Littig’s case is that the company was so frank about its reasoning when it fired him.

“It sucks. It hurts,” said Littig, 33, who served as the hiring manager at the Northbrook store outside Chicago. “I was really, personally invested in the company and the staff.”

Littig did inform the company that workers might be attending union meetings, but apparently not as quickly as his superiors expected.

In the letter explaining his termination, REI accused Littig of waiting "three months" to tell the company he'd heard workers might be attending union meetings. The company later confirmed he waited just one week, but stood by the firing.
In the letter explaining his termination, REI accused Littig of waiting “three months” to tell the company he’d heard workers might be attending union meetings. The company later confirmed he waited just one week, but stood by the firing.

Many workers, most of whom spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, viewed the firing as part of a broader, ham-fisted response to union organizing that has shaken their relationship with the company.

REI recently topped Forbes’ list of “the best brands for social impact.” It has taken public stances in support of racial equity and LGBTQ+ rights. And its inclusive reputation has drawn the talent of workers like Littig, who identifies as queer and nonbinary and signs off his emails with “I accept all pronouns.” But like Trader Joe’s and Starbucks, two other progressive brands facing organizing campaigns, REI has chosen to resist collective bargaining among its workforce.

Whether they support or oppose unionizing, workers said in interviews that REI was damaging its reputation and its bonds with employees who thought “the co-op,” as many refer to it, was special.

“They don’t actually believe in their morals,” one declared.

“No one thinks REI is going in a good direction,” another said. “They do not care about the employees. They care about making more money.”

The retailer, which has 181 stores around the country, declined to address details about Littig’s firing, saying it does not discuss disciplinary matters.

“But we can assure you that terminations only take place after comprehensive investigations, considering factors such as job performance and adherence to existing company policy,” a spokesperson said in an email.

Low-level managers are put in a difficult spot during union campaigns. The company expects them to help combat union organizing, but supervisors are naturally close with the employees they work alongside.
Low-level managers are put in a difficult spot during union campaigns. The company expects them to help combat union organizing, but supervisors are naturally close with the employees they work alongside.
Kathleen Hinkel for HuffPost

‘Egregiously Wrong’

Littig’s troubles began with a January visit from what the company calls its “Employee Engagement Partners.” REI workers HuffPost interviewed had never heard of this human resources department until the partners were scheduled to talk with them in small group meetings.

Many workers were unhappy with how the store and the company were being run. Union organizers had passed out leaflets inside the store a few weeks earlier, in plain view of management. Any union talk was in its early stages, but Littig said the company was trying to be proactive. He and other managers had been told to more closely scrutinize job applicants’ résumés, looking for any potential ties to a labor union.

“They had a game plan to basically get ahead of it before it grows,” he said.

In a meeting of department managers, Littig told an employee engagement partner, identified in his termination letter as Julia Guest, that he thought they needed better top leadership at his store. He says it was in this context that he said an employee told him union meetings might already be happening. He says Guest thanked him for sharing what he knew.

Guest directed questions about Littig’s firing to REI’s public relations team. According to her LinkedIn page, she came to REI that same month from General Motors, where she had handled human resources in unionized auto plants.

Littig later met virtually with another human resources official. The discussion turned back to when he first learned about the possible union meetings. “She kept pressing for me to give more detail,” Littig recalled. He sensed he was in trouble.

REI alleged in his termination letter that Littig sat on the information for “three months.” Littig said he’d learned about the possible union meetings only a week before he informed Guest. In response to his wrongful termination claim, human resources reopened its investigation and found that Littig was correct.

An REI official wrote to him in late March to say they were “noting that correction” but standing by his firing.

“REI expects its managers to take a proactive approach to problem-solving,” the official wrote.

REI said its Employee Engagement Partners are a “recent addition” to the company. It called them “key members of our HR team, who foster direct connections with our store employees to better understand and address their needs and concerns.”

Recent job postings for the position pegged the salary between $96,000 and $154,000, far above what the company’s retail workers earn on the floor. Among the qualifications listed were “hands on experience supporting business leaders [and] responding to labor/union matters.”

Around the same time that REI fired Littig, it also ousted the Northbrook store’s top manager and put another department manager on administrative leave, according to workers. The company said it wouldn’t comment on personnel matters.

Littig says he didn’t immediately report the potential union activity partly because he worried for the employee who shared the information.

“I did have concerns that if I were to let the store manager know, that there would be more of a push for me to give additional information” that could imperil the worker’s job, he said.

The REI store in Northbrook, Illinois, where Littig worked. The store is not among the nine REI locations that have unionized so far.
The REI store in Northbrook, Illinois, where Littig worked. The store is not among the nine REI locations that have unionized so far.
Kathleen Hinkel for HuffPost

J.P. Pyke, who has worked at the REI store in Northbrook since it opened 17 years ago, said he was “floored” by Littig’s firing. He noted that the news of the union effort has made it a natural topic of watercooler talk at stores everywhere. He wondered how a manager is supposed to “distinguish gossip from fact, true desire from idle talk.”

“I think it’s egregiously wrong,” Pyke said of Littig’s termination. “If there was anybody I thought was doing their job to the utmost, it was him.”

Managers like Littig are generally not covered by the National Labor Relations Act, the law that protects workers’ right to bargain collectively. Supervisors were excluded under the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, the sprawling, landmark reform that curbed the power of organized labor.

Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said that carving managers out of the protections has had an enduring impact, helping turn low-level supervisors into the company’s “shock troops” in anti-union campaigns. Many feel torn between their loyalty to headquarters and their natural fellowship with the employees they work alongside every day on the floor.

“It’s a very difficult situation for many of these managers,” Lichtenstein said.

Despite the lack of legal protections, REI may still have violated the law by firing Littig in the manner it did, said Wilma Liebman, a lecturer at the George Washington University Law School and former chair of the National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency that enforces collective-bargaining law.

Liebman said it can be illegal for an employer to terminate a manager for failing to prevent unionization or refusing to interfere with workers’ rights, so long as the manager himself isn’t part of the union campaign. She cited a 1995 memo from the labor board’s general counsel laying out these special circumstances.

HuffPost readers: Do you work at REI? Our reporter would like to hear from you. Email him here.

The current labor board, shaped by President Joe Biden’s progressive appointees, tends to take a broad reading of workers’ rights. Board officials are currently investigating other claims against REI alleging illegal retaliation and firings.

“I think the guy’s got a good case [against] his own discharge,” Liebman said, though she added this could change with a Republican-led board under another Trump presidency.

Littig says when he discussed the union issue with employees, he always stuck to the company’s official line: Whether to unionize is up to them, but REI is not a company that needs a union.

“I’m not going to tell somebody what to do. Everybody needs to make the decision of what’s right for them,” he said. “It’s not my place to steer them one way or another. I did have to consistently make the statement that REI does not believe that union representation is necessary.”

Even when employers are firing someone for union-related matters, they typically cite a pretextual reason, like punctuality. In Littig’s case, the company listed previous verbal and written warnings for tardiness. Littig did not dispute that he’d been late to work.

But the reason given for his firing was that he waited to report that workers wanted to “effectuate change.” The company said it could no longer keep him in a leadership role.

“It’s weird that they would make it quite so blatant,” Liebman said.

REI is one of a handful of progressive-branded companies that have chosen to resist collective bargaining, risking damage to their relationships with employees.
REI is one of a handful of progressive-branded companies that have chosen to resist collective bargaining, risking damage to their relationships with employees.
Kathleen Hinkel for HuffPost

The ‘Knee-Jerk Anti-Labor Stance’

So far, only one out of every 20 REI stores has unionized, joining either the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union or its parent group, the United Food and Commercial Workers. But as with Starbucks, the union campaign may continue to spread to more locations. Last month, REI’s store in Santa Cruz, California, petitioned to hold an election.

REI has encouraged workers to take a training course called “Inform Your Decision,” in which much of the information seems to be slanted against unions, workers said. An REI spokesperson said the union course is voluntary, and noted that the company “provides employees with trainings on any number of subjects, from data privacy to best practices for project management.”

Employees said the training implies that signing union cards could leave them unionized against their wishes thanks to a recent landmark labor board decision. Under that ruling, known as Cemex, the board could force a company to bargain with a union that lost an election, but only if a majority of workers had demonstrated their wishes to unionize and then the company went on to break the law.

The question remains whether REI’s efforts to prevent unionization will hurt its image and ultimately its sales. The company’s young, liberal customer base is likely to see the right to collective bargaining as part of the same value system that includes conserving wild lands, stopping climate change and protecting the dignity of trans people. Meanwhile, unions are more popular among the broader public than they’ve been in decades.

Alison Taylor, who teaches corporate responsibility at New York University’s Stern School of Business, said companies like REI are learning that corporate America’s “knee-jerk anti-labor stance” now comes with greater perils. She recently witnessed a protest outside the REI store in New York City where the union campaign began two years ago.

“What this says to me is that you can have the best sustainability program out there and tick all the boxes, but if you don’t treat workers with dignity and respect, it will undermine all your other efforts,” Taylor told HuffPost.

The day after he was fired, Littig had to return to his REI store. He had done the store’s laundry at home ― a chore for which employees receive two hours’ pay ― and needed to bring back the green vests he’d washed. He says he asked a manager to make sure the last bit of work was included on his time card, but it didn’t end up in his final paycheck. Neither, he says, did the time he spent getting fired. Apparently no one had punched him out.

Those omissions led to another lengthy back-and-forth with human resources. After several days, the same man who’d told him his firing was upheld after another investigation came back with some good news. Littig would be paid for the laundry work, as well as the half hour of his last day.

“Thank you for the patience,” the man wrote.

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