A Strange Thing Happened When Patagonia Workers Said They Wanted A Union

The union says the outdoor apparel brand stayed neutral in the process, in contrast to companies like Trader Joe’s and REI.

When workers at its outlet store in Reno, Nevada, recently petitioned for a union election, the outdoor apparel and equipment brand Patagonia didn’t react like other big-name American companies often do.

There were no “captive audience” meetings and no pressure from management to reject the union effort, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers. The union says managers didn’t take a position on the vote and remained neutral during the process.

When the ballots were tallied on March 1, the employees had voted 9-5 in favor of joining UFCW Local 711, making it Patagonia’s first organized store in the country.

Nick Helmreich, a worker at the Reno shop, noted in a statement through the union that other progressive-seeming employers have chosen to take different paths when recently confronted with organizing efforts.

“So far, it’s encouraging to see Patagonia stay neutral and not resort to the awful anti-union tactics used by companies like REI and Trader Joe’s,” Helmreich said. “We’re only starting out, but it’s an optimistic sign that they’re letting us, the workers, decide our future.”

Patagonia did not pressure workers in Reno to vote against unionizing, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers.
Patagonia did not pressure workers in Reno to vote against unionizing, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers.
Michael M. Santiago via Getty Images

Patagonia spokesperson Corley Kenna said in an emailed statement that this was “new territory” for the company.

“It was important to us that our approach to this process reflected Patagonia’s values,” Kenna said. “We have long used our brand and business to encourage participation in the democratic process, and in the same spirit, we wanted the Reno team to have a voice in this important decision.”

Union workers at Starbucks, REI and Trader Joe’s have all blasted their respective employers for discouraging them from unionizing, saying their positions clashed with the companies’ stated values. (Starbucks recently reached an agreement with its union to give workers benefits that had been withheld and to settle union contracts by the end of the year.)

Patagonia, founded by the climber and conservationist Yvon Chouinard, has earned a progressive reputation thanks to its positions on climate change, abortion rights and other liberal causes.

The company could still fight the union aggressively at the bargaining table, but its position during the election period suggests it at least won’t tell workers how they should vote.

“They’re not instantly throwing their progressive values out the window, unlike other employers,” Helmreich said.

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