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Inside the Fight to Unionize NYC’s VITAL Climbing Gyms: ‘Gloves Are Off’

As workers organize for better pay and working conditions, VITAL has responded with memes and "what is just cause" Google searches.

11:40 AM EDT on October 28, 2022

(Tod Seelie / Hell Gate)

Indoor climbing can be an expensive sport. For the workers at New York's VITAL gyms, the fact that the monthly membership fee is waived for employees may be the only reason they can boulder themselves. "If we were making as much as we make now and we had to pay for a membership, we probably wouldn't be able to swing it," said Trevor Goodwin, an employee of both VITAL gyms in Manhattan. 

VITAL, which opened its first location in Carlsbad, California, in 2010, has recently spread rapidly throughout New York City. Fans rave about its dynamic facilities; critics bemoan its corporate, Silicon Valley-esque ambiance. Its massive 45,000-square-foot Williamsburg gym, which opened last spring, is open 24 hours a day and features a sauna, a rooftop deck, and a cafe. Just a few months after opening the flagship facility, VITAL acquired two locations in Manhattan previously operated by Steep Rock Bouldering Gym. 

In marketing materials and interviews, the company's founders deploy the language of progressive politics and inclusivity. "Climbing gyms have become community centers and we're there to serve the community," one founder told Climbing Business Journal. And the Brooklyn location's Instagram profile notes that its aerial silk classes and rooftop parties take place "on the homeland of the Lenape."

But when VITAL took over the Manhattan gyms, former Steep Rock employees became concerned that their voices weren't being heard by their new bosses. "People started talking, worried about potential changes at the company. We just wanted to make sure we weren't losing the culture," Goodwin said. "Those conversations turned into organizing."

On September 19, employees at both VITAL Manhattan locations filed a petition to the National Labor Relations Board to form Climbers United, an affiliate labor union of Workers United. It would include 21 workers. Mail-in ballots were sent on October 17 for a certification election with the NLRB and they will be tallied in mid-November.

The gym has chosen not to voluntarily recognize the union. "We don't think a union is good for VITAL, nor separately, the staff. And by opting for an election, the entire staff will have a voice in a decision that affects all of them," VITAL Manhattan manager Shae Lawson told Hell Gate. 

If Climbers United is successful, the workplaces would become the second and third unionized climbing gyms in the country. The first unionized climbing gym, Movement Crystal City in Arlington, Virginia, was certified in April but hasn't come to a collective bargaining agreement yet. Both drives come during an uptick in union organizing activity in the United States over the past year, with workers at companies once thought unorganizable, like Amazon, Apple, and Starbucks, joining the labor movement. And with the highest rate of newly unionized private-sector workers, New York City has been called the "vanguard" of a potentially resurgent movement in the U.S. 

Vital gym worker and union organizer Trevor Goodwin. (Tod Seelie / Hell Hate)

"The broader upsurge in new organizing has just made it not only feel a little easier [to unionize], it also made it feel like a duty basically to join this movement," Goodwin said. 

Goodwin has worked the front desk at both of the company's Manhattan locations since May 2021, back when they were still Steep Rock gyms. That is, until VITAL renovated the Upper East Side gym in February 2022, removing the front desk. Goodwin still works there, but now he and his coworkers have been left without a designated place for staff to sit during their 6- or 7-hour shifts. When management presented the renovation plans to its employees before construction, workers repeatedly pointed out seating would be an issue.

VITAL went ahead with the renovations anyway, and despite numerous complaints by workers and promises by the company, staff still don't have a place to sit. (In an email response, Lawson wrote, "There are several benches, and even a sofa, that staff are allowed to use while working." But workers say there is no seating specifically designated for staff, and that they have been told sitting where members do is unprofessional.) 

Goodwin, who is a lead organizer of the unionization effort, told me that the lack of staff seating is evocative of a broader problem. As VITAL, which owns seven gyms across three states, rapidly expanded into NYC, workers say their gyms have become more corporatized, and their needs and voices have been pushed aside. When workers raise an issue, Goodwin said, "[management] says they'll take it into account and then you never hear about it again. Nothing is forcing them to respond." Naturally, the company contests this: "We've made a ton of changes based on staff feedback, such as increasing community financial support, adding benefits, increasing pay, just to name a few," Lawson said. But Chelsea Evans, another VITAL Manhattan worker and Climbers United organizer, wants workplace input that's guaranteed. "It doesn't matter how nice anyone's manager is," Evans said. "It's a false sense of power, that management sometimes yields to our demands."

According to Evans, starting pay at VITAL Manhattan is $16 per hour—less than their counterparts in Williamsburg are paid. When workers raised this issue with management, they were told it wouldn’t change. Like many workers at VITAL, Evans works part-time. Others are on call. This means a lot of workers, including Evans, have several jobs to make ends meet. "It's nowhere near a living wage," Evans said.

Another sticking point for some was the contrast between VITAL's seemingly progressive public profile and management's actual actions. According to workers, a Pride flag hung in the gym was taken down; in another instance, when a staff member shared a link to an abortion fund's website on the gym's community chalk board following the Supreme Court's decision to gut abortion rights, management asked for it to be erased. "They want as much profit as possible, so turning away potential customers because of a political belief is not something they're interested in," Evans said.

"Every ounce of power we have is something that was given to us," she added. "It's not guaranteed."

A worker at Vital Manhattan scales boulders in a local park. (Tod Seelie / Hell Gate)

Climbers United is part of a rather novel moment in the American labor movement, in which workers in traditionally unorganized service-facing industries are seeking workplace power through unionization, often spurred by younger employees. Starbucks Workers United has led the trend, organizing over 250 locations in less than a year. Encouraged by the first unionized climbing gym in Arlington and by the broader labor movement, Goodwin says that the union effort began last year with conversations among a few coworkers. A friend of Goodwin's eventually recommended that he reach out to the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee (EWOC), a joint project of the Democratic Socialists of America and the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America that is providing training and resources to workers interested in unionization campaigns. He took the program's workplace organizing course, and EWOC helped VITAL workers connect to a number of unions to decide which to affiliate with. 

VITAL staff eventually picked SEIU's Workers United, which is also the affiliate union of Movement Crystal City Workers United. Staff were also inspired by the union's highly successful Starbucks campaign, which has taken a store-by-store organizing approach. "I personally liked how they let people on the shop floor across the country in small locations take action on their own," Goodwin said. Like the employees at many Starbucks locations, VITAL staff are young—mostly in their 20s—and didn't need much convincing that a union was a good idea.

EWOC also taught the worker-organizers how to "inoculate" their coworkers against the tactics their boss may use to bust the union—for example, by preemptively explaining to coworkers how their employer may respond to a union drive, which might include lies and intimidation.

That inoculation came in handy: On October 3, VITAL management sent an email to staff, a version of which was printed out and posted on the wall of staff-only areas, outlining why unionizing at the company was an "odd" idea. Management began the email with a facetious meme that implored VITAL employees to unionize—if their boss dressed in baggy khakis and brown dress shoes. VITAL continued: "If, however, you find yourself part of a small team of nice people working hard to do something kinda fun, then perhaps consider that it may not be the right time to join a union :)." Management described unions as "slow" and "bureaucratic" and wrote that a union "would make VITAL very corporate-y," warning on the printout, "We don't love the idea of going corporate, but bringing in a union sure seems like a good way to pull us all down that path." They also provided what a Workers United attorney confirmed was false information about how much union dues would cost. 

Evans and others were pulled aside for one-on-one meetings with management. Evidently unaware that Evans was an organizer herself, a manager told her that the union organizers and union lawyers had been lying to the staff, and that regardless of a union negotiation, VITAL would not be raising staff pay.

And on October 13, some workers attended a "captive audience" meeting, a mandatory meeting where management tries to dissuade workers from forming a union. Evans said that VITAL's owners led the meeting, arguing again that the union would make the workplace more bureaucratic, and that workers were already paid above industry standards. 

(Tod Seelie / Hell Gate )

I think they sort of dropped the ball with the whole thing," one worker said. "All of us were prepared for stronger arguments than they actually had."

According to a staff member, during a Q&A , owners had to Google what "just cause" protections are. (VITAL declined to comment on whether its owners knew what just cause protections were.)

Climbers United may consider themselves lucky that VITAL management seems to be fumbling efforts to intimidate staff. While union popularity is at a nearly six-decade high, and union election petitions are up 53 percent from this time last year, the labor movement still faces major obstacles. Union density remains in decline and significant defeats, such as at the Amazon warehouse at Albany this month, suggest that many workers and organizers have their work cut out for them—especially as companies spend millions on union-busting consultants.

But Goodwin and Evans are confident that the unionization effort will prevail. The union busting won't stick if it's without merit, they said.

As Goodwin put it, "Gloves are off on [management's] end. Same on ours."

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