According to the report, Burning Man has been dealing with worker protests in some form for over a decade. One man, Ricardo Romero, began working for Burning Man in 2008, starting as a volunteer at first, but later getting hired as a worker. Many of those who work at Burning Man are volunteers or on seasonal and part-time contracts.
In 2014, after years of “seeing so many of my co-workers getting fired for complaining about worker treatment,” and other issues, he contacted a labor lawyer. He said he contacted the lawyer about forming a union, which the company contests. He was fired in 2017 or “uninvited back,” with the company saying that his “temporary employment expired.”
An initial settlement was reached, which Burning Man says they didn’t want to litigate the case, though they did hire two large firms. He tried to get other works to not sign their contracts to protest their labor conditions before he was let go.
He went to the National Labor Review Board and Burning Man was forced to issue a statement, hire Romero back, pay him back pay and post a notice to employees. A union has not been organized.
The company is also accused of gender discrimination with firing individuals and a pay gap. Ridge Arterburn, a Burning Man volunteer working for the DPW (Department of Public Works) from 2007 to 2014, said women made less than men and were treated worse.
“Yes, women are treated differently there,” Arterburn said. “Many times ... qualified women are overlooked for positions . . . Then have to fight and say, look, in the real world here’s my certifications.”
“Women are paid less than men,” Arterburn continued. “I know this from hearing what people make.”
One of the more troubling findings is that between 2009 and 2015, seven Burning Man employees died by suicide, which among 1,000 workers is much, much higher than the national rate. According to Dr. Sally Spencer-Thomas, a psychologist and the lead of the Workplace Task Force for the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, a benchmark for a sample size that small should be one suicide death per decade. No direct link is created between the management and the deaths, but it is made to seem like the conditions and the isolation help contribute to this and management has not done enough to stop it.
Burning Man maintains an image of being counterculture, openness, cool and outside of traditional society. Though those exact members of the mainstream culture have infiltrated it, the festival ethos remains the same. There appears to be some darkness behind that entire veil, but we will see just how much it impacts the event.
Read the full report here.