WAVE OF ORGANIZATION
Two instantly recognizable companies, both founded in Washington State, are causing buzz because of their workers’ recent efforts to unionize — and the companies’ efforts to discourage them.
As brands, Starbucks and REI (Recreational Equipment, Inc.) are so deeply linked to the PNW that they represent a very particular citizen cliche: a left-leaning city-dweller who drives a Prius or Subaru and has a thirst for North Face jackets and Frapps.
As places to work, the companies have enjoyed rather favorable reputations: Starbucks offers health benefits to staff working more than 20 hours a week (in theory) as well as higher starting wages than many fast food joints. The company was also a big supporter of marriage equality. REI closes its doors on Black Friday and donates profits to hundreds of outdoor causes.
Despite such cultural associations, staff at select REI stores may join Starbucks, riding the pandemic-related wave of organization.
What started with a staff vote to unionize one Starbucks store in Buffalo, NY, back in December 2021 has now reached a second location in Buffalo and over 54 Starbucks stores in total across 19 states and counting. Workers of the coffee chain are aiming for better store staffing, higher wages (especially for staff with years’ experience), and more Covid protections.
While REI is a fraction of the size of Starbucks — employing just 15,000 compared with Starbucks’ quarter-million workers — it’s still a multi-billion-dollar company by sales. Workers at one store want a bigger cut of the wealth their labor makes possible.
In late January, 116 employees at REI’s SoHo store in Manhattan, NY, filed to unionize, seeking representation by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) as well as the United Food and Commercial Workers coalition (UFCW).
REI responded to the SoHo store’s unionization efforts in a mass email to all REI employees, emphasizing “[W]e do not believe placing a union between the co-op and its employees is needed or beneficial.”
Despite the fact that REI has “co-op” in its name, the company is a consumer cooperative — not a worker-owned co-op like Bob’s Red Mill or Winco. So REI’s status as a consumer co-op doesn’t reflect much about how it treats workers.
Starbucks has taken a similar approach, first unsuccessfully attempting to stop union votes in New York, then meeting with individual stores to hear demands and offering small per-hour increases, presumably to prevent further calls to unionize. In December, Starbucks’ North America president said the company would bargain “in good faith” yet also stressed “we do not want a union between us as partners.”
A kinder, gentler union
Media coverage on these brands highlights the way both employers lean hard on their forward-thinking reputations to calm the churning waters. Alina Selyukh, correspondent for NPR, reports: “Starbucks has promoted its reputation as a progressive employer with generous benefits, arguing that a union is not necessary.”
Manhattan REI employee Kate Denend told Lauren Kaori Gurley of VICE:
“Why do you have to work 40 hours a week for 12 months to get health benefits? Why is there no guarantee of hours after the holiday season? These are very basic things that REI has gotten away with not doing, despite this facade of being a progressive, liberal company.”
It’s not unlike the way too many non-profits and grocery co-ops undervalue their own employees, make unreasonable demands, and dismiss staff complaints by emphasizing the organization’s do-good purpose.
A company can use buzzwords (“Inclusive!” “Living wage!”) yet still undermine labor by weaseling benefits away from workers, understaffing stores, or scheduling employees just under full-time hours.
Calls for improved working conditions reflect a national trend — especially among food industry and service workers — dubbed The Great Resignation. Not only are employees from REI and Starbucks calling for better Covid safety measures like mask enforcement and staff testing, but their demands for increased wages also respond to another Covid-era crisis: Inflation — the worst jump in prices since the 1980s. A $15/hour starting wage won’t buy what it used to.
Covering the REI story, Laura Clawson at Daily Kos encouraged current REI co-op members (who number 20 million!) to “reach out to the company” and express support of REI workers’ desire — and right — to organize. I’ll go a step further and provide contact info:
ACTION ITEM: Email [email protected] and [email protected] to voice your opinion. Physical letters may be addressed to: REI Board of Directors / P.O. Box 1938 / Sumner, WA 98390.
WHAT A HASKELL
After a week of intense pressure, Spokane County Prosecutor finally apologized for his wife’s
controversial eye-wateringly racist comments yesterday. Here’s the key bit of the statement, as reported by Colin Tiernan in The Spokesman-Review:
“I want to strongly reassure everyone that what was expressed in the Inlander, as my wife’s comments, are not my views nor the views of the prosecutor’s office – nor should they ever be. No amount of republishing of her social media posts will make that so. I have never and will never use such language. I apologize for the language and content as contained in the article.”
So yes: an apology. It has the word and everything.
But the way Haskell (or someone in his office) wrote it was pretty weaselly, kinda blaming the Inlander for bringing it up. “Expressed in the Inlander, as my wife’s comments” is not a denial that they are his wife’s comments, but he also sort of blames the paper for bringing it up. He also stresses that her views are not his and “No amount of republishing of her social media posts will make that so.”
So yes, he’s sorry for the language … and also sorry that Daniel Walters brought it to everyone’s attention.
There was no apology — or even any formal comment — on our analysis of the immense (and in some cases, worsening) racial disparities coming out of Haskell’s office. Not that we would have expected one.
Not only is there no good news on the criminal legal reform front, we actually got some bad news: The person responsible for much of the data RANGE used in its report, Maggie Yates, announced she was leaving her job as regional law and justice administrator after 3 ½ years.
In that role, she was tasked with reducing racial disparities within the criminal legal system and reducing the county jail population. In her resignation email, Yates was clear-eyed about the change she was able to help make, and the significant barriers that remain.
She noted that 60% of people who enter the jail have behavioral health disorders and 20% of people are homeless when they get out. She wrote:
“We lament these figures, along with repeated arrests and persistent racial disparities, yet we fail to adequately invest in alternative infrastructure that can better treat, house, and heal people.”
Colin Tiernan quoted County Commissioner Al French in The Spokesman-Review praising Yates’ work amid difficult circumstances. There was no word from French about who might be replacing Yates in the role or whether she even would be replaced.
We took a little poll around the office and our hunch is either:
a) the seat remains vacant or
b) they appoint a random naturopathic doctor
Lastly, while the Haskells have had a tough week, they can at least take solace knowing that another extremely famous conservative couple is going through similar scrutiny.
Activists have been pointing out that Ginni Thomas’ (the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas) hyper conservative activism is a conflict of interest for the Supreme Court, but the only person whose opinion matters is her husband’s.
SAYS IT ALL
“[T]he average rent for an apartment in Spokane: $1,247. That’s an increase of 46% over the past five years…”
— Shawn Vestal, “We can’t patch the cracks in the housing system with short-term fixes,” Spokesman-Review, 28 Jan. 2022
MORE ACTION ITEM(S)
What to do about a powerful County Prosecutor who upholds systemic racism and happens to have a spouse who says racist things all over the internet like Larry Haskell? Until he’s voted out of office (as long as someone runs against him), SCAR Spokane encourages everyone to send a letter to elected officials telling them to hold Haskell accountable.
“Anything less than a full throated denouncement and concrete actions to remove him from office from any persons in power will be taken as complicit acceptance and perpetuation of systemic racism,” the letter template says. Sign here.
- We’re in a pandemic and there’s a nationwide blood shortage. North Idaho is being hit particularly hard. If you are able to, go donate blood. Schedule a time here.
GOOD NEWS, AS A TREAT
Happy Lunar New Year!
It’s been 89 years since Spokane had an official Lunar New Year celebration, but this Saturday, it’s finally happening at the Riverfront Park Central Plaza.
The event is hosted by Spokane’s United We Stand, which was founded in March 2020 in response to anti-Asian violence in the U.S.
Saturday’s celebration of The Year of the Tiger will start at 1 p.m. with artists, food trucks, live cultural performances from Asian, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander organizations and end in a fireworks show at 8 p.m.
The last time Spokane had a Lunar New Year celebration was in the midst of The Great Depression in 1933, when times were particularly hard and traditional fireworks weren’t even an option. This was also around the time when the Asian population in Spokane, booming as it once was, began waning as a result of immigration bans.
Read more about the organizers from Amber D. Dodd in The Spokesman-Review here.
Read more about the history of Spokane’s Chinatown here and here.
Page Against the Machine
“Naughty-ish” is how second-grader Dillon Helbig of Idaho described his actions at the Lake Hazel Branch library in Boise last December. After hand-writing and illustrating an 81-page book titled “The Adventures of Dillon Helbig’s Crismis,” the young author skipped certain publication steps and opted for a DIY distribution method.
To put the book directly into readers’ hands, Dillon snuck his one-and-only copy into the stacks of the children’s book section during a library visit with his grandma. (Zinester preteen me says “Go Dillon!”)
Once librarians discovered the deed, they asked Dillon’s parents if they could add the title to their collection. Word about the unique acquisition has spread, and there’s now a years-long waitlist to borrow it. Of course Dillon is working on more books.