In April Movement Climbing Gym in Arlington, Virginia became the first ever climbing gym in the United States to become unionized. The following is an interview with union members Wendy and Slyvain on what led workers to unionize and the current situation in their campaign for collective bargaining
The Virginia Worker: Could you provide some background information on Movement Climbing and Yoga Fitness?
Wendy: Yeah, absolutely. In 1997 there was a company created by Chris Warner called Earth Tracks. And in 2017 they got private equity funding and merged with a company called Planet Granite and the two companies remained distinct as two different brands that operated under one corporate entity.
And in December of 2021 they decided to merge their brand identities as well. They rebranded under the name Movement and there are now 20 gyms throughout the country under Movement branding and Movement owernship.
VW: What’s it like working at Movement Climbing, Yoga, and Fitness?
Sylvain: It’s changed the whole time I’ve been there. Basically, we are asked to do day-to-day tasks– greeting people, checking them in, selling memberships, selling guest passes. And a lot of us do other things, a lot of us wear more than one hat. So we’ll be teaching people, doing weekend birthday parties, we are taking new people or children out to climb, and taking care of all the safety aspects.
It’s a customer service oriented job but some of us do teaching and programming and things like that. I personally did some teaching too before they split up. I came in through the summer camp program where we’d have three people in charge of twelve kids for a week at a time. Daycare and climbing.
VW: Is there any certification required for you to work there?
Sylvain: Not really, no. There’s some roles where you need first aid.
Wendy: First aid, CPR and occasionally child protection. There’s some child protection training that we go through.
Sylvain: We don’t anymore. The after school programs have it. That’s in the negotiations. We should have that– that’s a thing that important! We used to have that, we don’t have that. When we’re doing outdoor stuff there’s a certification to basically be qualified to do summer camps because you’re a rock guide basically. But we don’t have that anymore.
VW: Not like Gold’s Gym. They have their trainers that have to go through this– at least on paper– their trainers are Gold’s Gym certified
Sylvain: I think our personal trainers are certified, and we’ve got yoga instructors that have their own certification system. I’m not sure how familiar you are with rock climbing, but they’ve got routes to set up, and they work 40 hours a week doing that. They have their own certification system.
VW: Do you all get paid the same? Is there a differential between management and workers or between workers themselves?
Wendy: I’ve worked at what was Earth Tracks since 2016 and started as an open climb instructor and birthday party instructor, helping first time climbers get on the wall and helping birthday party kids have a great time. I’ve been with the company since then in many roles. I was promoted to front desk, and that was all part time work, then I started working full time as a shift supervisor, which is the folks that manage the front desk of the gym.
Then I became a climbing team coach, I became a rec club instructor. We have climbing clubs for young kids. I’ve been a coach for the youth climbing team, which is competitive, and now I work part-time as a private coach instructing one-on-one. I know it sounds silly but we have a really strong community at the gym. A lot of us have worked there a really long time. We’re not just co-workers.
A lot of us– we will not say we are a family, we avoid that language– but a lot of us are close friends. And when you climb with someone– Sylvain and I have been on climbing trips together– you’re trusting your life in someone else’s hands, and you’re working long hours together, so there is a really strong community bond, and climbing is a mentorship sport. So if you want to learn all the things you need to do to go outdoors, we mentor one another.
Just in terms of what it’s like to work there, it’s changed a lot. It started as a company that had five gyms, now there’s private equity funding and 20 gyms so the company has shifted a lot, what it’s like to work there has shifted a lot.
The benefits have shifted a lot. As Sylvain started to say, we have desk workers and instructors, and route setters whose work is to set the routes in the gym. We have a very big part time staff. We have shift supervisors who are full-time designated and assistant directors and directors. That company structure has changed through the years. There used to be three assistant directors and one head director.
Even before I was there the organization of how it works at the gym has changed. Right now we have one assistant director and one head director and those are both salaried positions. And we have an operations lead who’s hourly, and a program manager that’s hourly and shift supervisors.
And we have openers and closers, some are full time and some are not, and we have a huge part time staff. So do people make different amounts? Absolutely. There’s salary folks, hourly designated folks, part time folks, people who just work two hours a week and people who are there forty hours a week. And all of our fitness instructors are certified fitness instructors who do fitness coaching.
All of the routesetters have to go through certifications. It’s more of an apprenticeship, I don’t know if it’s a “certification” exactly. But anyone who wants to work at the gym and belay, they just have to pass a belay check. There’s no specific thing you have to do to work at the climbing gym, just the belay check if you’re going to belay.
VW: Did COVID have a role in you all wanting to unionize, did that make it difficult. Was there a lack of accommodations?
Wendy: We had some concerns about how corporate would make decisions and make those happen at the gyms, and prior to COVID it seemed like there was some concern but it seemed like things were on the right track in terms of listening to employee feedback.
I think after COVID it just really became clear that the decisions would be made was very much so top-down. Really a lack of willingness to listen to employees on the ground. Having a larger voice at the table was really significant in wanting to unionize.
Sylvain: I’d agree with what Wendy is saying. There were a lot of changes from the top that didn’t make a lot of sense on the ground. They didn’t talk to people who were working front desk, working on the ground. One thing they did is they did ask us our opinions once and then just completely did the opposite of it.
And it wasn’t something that we hadn’t brought up before. We talked about how difficult some of these things were. More and more it felt like, especially over the pandemic, our suggestions were neglected or turned away, even when it wasn’t a good business decision to do so.
VW: So your lack of voice and say in the workplace, was that your primary issue that made you want to unionize in the first place, or were there other issues?
Sylvain: That was one of the common issues. But there were a number of issues. One of the things that stood out to us was the mask mandate lifting. I forget when it was– maybe June of 2021?
Wendy: I think there were a number of times. I think it wasn’t just one thing, but there were a number of things that were showing us the way in which decisions were going to be made. So I think one example is they said they were only going to reopen after the pandemic when they were sure it was the right and safe decision to do, and they’d make sure to give us a month before we reopen.
And then all of a sudden they were asking us, can you do this in ten days? Can you do this in seven days? How quickly can you make this happen? Our staff were distributed all over the country. We didn’t have the people to make it open. We were told to make it happen now.
When masks were suddenly not required by the CDC, we were told– it was a rumor, it wasn’t official– we want to give folks time after they get vaccinated, then we were told, can you do it in ten days? Pre-pandemic we were seeing 1600 a night sometimes, which is huge. We haven’t quite gone back to that, but I think we are one of the top 3 busiest gyms for Movement, and we are one of the busiest physical locations in the country.
I don’t want to say an exact number but we see a really high volume of traffic. Even putting COVID safety aside, we just didn’t have the staff to handle the volume of customers we were seeing. And we could have brought those staff back if we had three weeks or a month to do that. But they said, can you do it in ten days? Our bosses fought back and said, give us more time. And they said, okay we’ll give you two weeks or so.
Sylvain: It was very short. It was a week for other gyms and they pushed it to around two weeks for our gym. But we’ve been overworked for the entire pandemic the whole time. Pushing long hours, no overlapped, understaffed at the desk. A lot of safety things we didn’t have the staff for.
Wendy: And certainly not 60, 80. We’re hourly and they didn’t want to pay us overtime so when we say long hours, we mean 44, 45
Sylvain: We’re just “on” the entire time. When you have 2 to 3 people on desk, you don’t have time for breaks. You’re doing things the entire time, customer service, interacting with people. For a long time none of us were vaccinated. When we first reopened, in fact a bunch of us lost our health insurance. “Go back to work, but by the way we’re cutting your position down, too.”
They took other people who worked enough hours to qualify for benefits, and they cut those hours. Some people had to fight to get them back. For me, they just cut my hours. They didn’t cut my hours per se, they just said we’re cutting your benefits. It counts as a new position, you have to requalify a year later.
VW: So is part-time status a big issue for your co-workers there? We know that’s a common practice across industries, the casualization of work. They want to keep everybody below full time so they don’t have to pay benefits. Is that an issue?
Wendy: I would say for many staff, yes, but for many staff, no, Because there are many people who work at the gym because it’s their second job, it’s a “fun” job, they want a membership. You get a free membership, you get industry discounts for working at the gym.
I think there was a fear about unionization that they would lose the ability to work at the gym casually, and that’s why they work at the gym. However, for the opener-closers who were working full time at the gym but weren’t in a designated position, that was certainly an issue. They were being denied benefits, they were being denied full time status even though the climbing gym was their only job. There’s different concerns for different people, but that’s certainly a concern for at least 6 or 7 if not more employees.
Sylvain: To continue to build on that question you had earlier, that was also part of the union busting effort. They cut people’s hours, they cut flexibility. Both of those are issues for different people. People relied on having more time, and having more pay from that. Especially people like long time coaches had their hours cut.
And I believe that’s because of the union busting efforts. And we filed a complaint with the board about that. And on the other end of the spectrum, because this is a “fun job” and they need a lot of part-time people to work weekends and things like that, there’s some flexibility there. Some people want to work ten hours a week or less. The minimum used to be five, now it’s ten. And they’ve been a lot stricter about availability. “You’ve got to have this much availability. You must be available to close at 11:30 on the weekends, or on all five weekdays.” They’re creating these issues that haven’t been issues before, but also they’re only enforcing it for certain people. There are certain people who have worked less than once a week or given away all their shifts and that’s another thing that we definitely want to be in the contract.
There’s some things that happened over the union drive that have become issues that weren’t issues before because of the way they’ve abused these abilities, because these things are not in the contract. They just claim that they need all this availability from this person even though they have a full-time job. It becomes a problem when they cut someone’s hours down to 17 hours a week when that’s supposed to be their livelihood.
VW: That’s one of the tactics of union busting. Were there other tactics they employed?
Sylvain: Oh yeah, for sure. There were multiple times when they stated we couldn’t talk about the union on desk, we couldn’t talk about the union in the break room, et cetera. Things that we brought up and we said, “yes we can.
There is literally NLRB literature that says you can do that.” And it’s not like there are restrictions as to what you can talk about on the front desk normally. It’s not like you can’t talk about baseball or something like that. Over and over they would make these claims that we weren’t allowed to discuss union things.
It created a hostile work environment for people who wanted to talk about the union or were in favor of it. We said, “if you have any questions, ask us!” And at an all-staff meeting they tried to shut it down and said, “no, you can’t do that.” We filed complaints about all of that.
I was on the receiving end of some of this. When I was in the break room they said– for short breaks we don’t clock in and out in part because as soon as it gets busy on the front desk, we’ll have to cut our breaks short; this allows them to schedule only two people on desk and still be able to handle customers– but the directors came in and saw us talking to someone about the union and said, “hey! Are you on break?!” And I said , “Yeah, I’m on break.” “Are you clocked in? You’re not on break.” That became a whole issue where I said, “I have these rights” and the regional VP tried to send me– you can do this now or you can go home.
They sent out lots of emails saying they’re against unions. Early on they flew out their VP of operations all the way from Colorado. They had captive audience meetings with us while the organizers had three-on-ones– the director would have been there, so it was four-on-one, but he was on vacation.
VW: Was anybody terminated or anything, disciplined, written up?
Sylvain: There have been several people disciplined, one was terminated. I think we have filed charges on some of those. There have been people who have left because of these issues, and scheduling issues, or who can’t pay rent on 17 hours a week. And so that sort of thing. There’s been one direct termination, but I do believe more people have left because of their actions.
VW: What made you go with Workers United? We think Starbucks Workers United got started at the beginning of this year. Did that play any role?
Sylvain: We started our union push before we heard anything about the Starbucks union pushes. That’s not something I can comment on a lot. We’ve been well supported by them. We’ve gotten a lot of information, a lot of experience from them. I think everybody comes in without knowing their rights.
I think I know a few more of them than average, but there’s still a lot of them that I don’t know. It’s very patchwork, so it’s useful to have somebody who knows your rights, you can ask them questions, and who has the representation for you when you want to file for a vote.
VW: Once this is formalized, do you think this will spread to the other gyms owned by this company or within the industry.
Sylvain: I’m not sure, but it is interesting that we have a lot of support from members. So when our article came out announcing [our union], we posted it on Reddit, and a lot of Redditors who are climbers came out in support. So it seems like the community in general is very much in favor of this sort of action, which makes sense because this isn’t in general a cheap sport.
So people can afford to pay their workers and that sort of thing. And I think people tend to be pretty supportive of union rights. I’d say somewhat educated about the history of the labor movement. Especially in DC where a lot of people are coming here because they’re about activism and politics in some form.
VW: Do you think the issues that you’re dealing with at your work site are standard across the industry?
Sylvain: I think it’s going to be different by gym. I’ve only worked at Movement gyms, but having talked to people at other gyms I think there are probably similar issues. I think a lot of business decisions come from people who don’t know or understand a lot about what it’s like to work the front desk. Or they don’t care, I don’t know.
But with how much more popular the sport has become, it’s important to recognize that these aren’t the sort of small family businesses that it used to be. This is a corporation making lots of money, opening three new gyms and not really the supporting the people in the way that they should be.
VW: What are the specific demands that you’re trying to win in your contract?
Sylvain: We’re still too early in that phase to be very specific about that. But in general, having more of a voice, more of a seat at the table, more transparency are a big deal. We’ve talked about things like cost of living increases at staff meetings, and that for me seems like a natural thing that should be included, since we’ve had crazy amounts of inflation in the last year, and our wages really didn’t go up until we made a big stink about it. That sort of thing.
You’ve heard us talk about the other certifications that we mentioned earlier. Those are the sort of things we care about that I believe we’ll try to bring up. Like having youth protection training before you have people assigned to take care of children for many hours a day. That’s very important. We would like to just see a lot of things standardized, published, and written down in a contract, and available for everyone to see. But we are still trying to get this to what everyone else wants and get this together. So we don’t have anything more specific than that. These are just general concerns we have.
VW: You said you’ve been getting support from the community and members in Arlington?
Sylvain: Yeah. We’ve heard from community members and people who are not staff who have spoken up and have been very supportive of our efforts. There are a lot of people who are working in labor. We’ve gotten awesome letters written from our Representatives in the House. That happened early on. We’ve gotten letters from the Virginia state delegate for our district– I’ll have to look that up again. We’ve received a lot of vocal support. We’re very happy to hear that it’s less of a contentious issue than we thought it might have been.
VW: How much do you think that this negative stereotype about unions that corporations use in captive audience meetings have sway among your workforce? Do some of the workers think that the union is just some third party that is going to take their wages and not do anything and just make your jobs harder?
Sylvain: I don’t think that’s a very common belief. We won the vote by quite a bit and a lot of our organizers include most of the full time workers at the gym. So I don’t think people who are part time workers rely on that for their income, so the perks of free membership [motivate them], so I don’t think they’re concerned with a little of their paycheck [for dues]. And we’ve talked to them about what sort of percentages we’re looking at, and it’s capped so it’s not very high.
VW: Do you think all the climbing gyms should have a union?
Sylvain: I think it depends on the individual climbing gym– what [the workers] like and what they want. Even in our gyms, I have been to seven of them and worked at three of them, so it’s a little harder to say. But I know that co-op gyms exist but I don’t know that I’ve been to any. But that’s a maybe, it’d be cool.
VW: What can the community do to support you all in your campaign?
Sylvain: The sort of thing that’s been happening now that really great has been spreading the word and talking about it. That’s been really helpful. Because we’re not looking to do any strikes right now, we’re not looking for additional funding or anything like that or a GoFundMe or anything like that. If it does come down to that, I hope the community will be just as supportive, and not cross picket lines. But I hope it doesn’t come down to that.