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Employees at Movement Climbing, Yoga & Fitness Crystal City, in Arlington, Virginia, have worked to unionize for the past nine months. Now, their union certificate is in the mail, making the facility the first climbing gym in the country to unionize.
Representatives of Workers United, the Service Employees International Union, and the Northern Virginia American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations helped in the unionization process. In the election, held November 14-16, 2021, employees voted 28 to 14 in favor of unionizing. Following the election, lawyers on behalf of El Cap, the corporate entity that owns Movement gyms, filed three objections regarding the election process and results. Those objections were ultimately overruled following a hearing in January.
Prior to December 2021, Movement Crystal City was known as Earth Treks, which opened its first facility in Columbia, Virginia, in 1997, and had an additional four gyms by 2016. A year later, Earth Treks acquired Planet Granite, a gym chain with locations across the U.S., and changed its corporate parent title to El Cap Holdings, LLC. Robert Cohen, former vice president of Patagonia, took over as chief executive officer of El Cap in 2018. The company acquired another gym chain, Movement Climbing, Yoga & Fitness, in 2019, and now operates 20 climbing gyms across the U.S., all rebranded with the Movement name.
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A Seat at the Table
Movement Crystal City employees report many positive changes since El Cap’s formation and rebranding strategies, including more sick leave, paid time off, wage increases, and even pro deals.
“From the beginning, our goal has been to build workplace benefits, and a work environment that reflects the needs of our employees,” says CEO Robert Cohen. “And in building Movement, we have prioritized the employee experience, well beyond just standard benefits, to create an environment where employees can follow a career path doing something they are passionate about.”
Cohen says El Cap partnered with a research firm to ensure competitive and fair pay and benefits. This resulted in, according to Cohen, several company-wide increases, including during the pandemic. El Cap also provided close to 100 percent covered medical benefits for all eligible full-time employees, expanded 401(k) plans with up to four-percent company match, provided 80-hours of additional sick time pay for COVID-related illnesses, and more.
“We’re proud of the changes we’ve enacted, particularly because our employees have helped form them through their direct input and feedback,” says Cohen. “And like any new program, it will continue to evolve and be enhanced.”
However, many employees felt sidelined as the company corporatized.
“The folks who are working on the front desk, the folks who are working with members, and folks who just come into the gym the most—they have the least amount of say in what we like, how our working place looks, and how our job works,” says Gus Mason, a union organizer. Mason has been climbing for the past 10 years and has worked at Movement Crystal City as a full-time shift supervisor for about the last three and half years.
Laura Artesi started at Movement Crystal City as a member in 2017. A few months later, she joined staff, working desk and teaching classes, eventually transitioning to a role as personal trainer and private coach. “We want to have a seat at the table to be privy to the corporate decisions that are getting handed down to the gyms,” she says, “and make sure that they work best for our employees.”
“A big part of it, too, is just securing the things that we already have that we like,” adds Mason.
Says union organizer Wendy Low, “Right now, I would say the company’s goodwill towards us can change in a moment. And so some of the things we want to do are protect the things that we really like about working at the company.” Low’s passion for climbing developed when she was in college, in 2012. She began work at Movement Crystal City in late 2016 as a part-time birthday-party climbing instructor, and was later promoted to front desk and then became a youth recreational climbing club instructor. By October 2018, she was a full-time shift supervisor.
All union organizers who spoke with Climbing voiced their desire to have a say in the decisions that impact their day-to-day. El Cap’s mask mandates flip-flopping, they told Climbing, exemplified a disregard for employee input. Union organizers remarked that after the CDC lifted restrictions, El Cap removed mask and capacity requirements in spite of employee protestations.
“Employees weren’t comfortable with removing masks and management had said, ‘You know, we’re going to give [lifting restrictions] at least a few weeks,’” says Artesi. “And then [management] immediately backtracked on that.”
According to Cohen, Movement employees can provide feedback in person, via email, and through company-wide surveys. “Employees came up with the idea of supporting other team members facing financial strain during the lockdown through a ‘Chalk Bag Fund,’ and still others suggested we formalize the process, which we have—by making the relief initiative a formal 501c3,” says Cohen. “Similarly, we’ve developed a robust DEI program based almost entirely on input from employees across the country. Actually, we just completed a recent survey and we’re excited about the level of participation.” Cohen adds that employed input influenced the company’s 2022 plans.
Organizers also voiced a desire for more transparency with published wage ranges for each position, and a clear path to advance in the company.
“We’ve asked before [about pay ranges] and we’ve been denied that,” says union organizer Sylvain La. “We can’t tell what the pay range is for the positions we’re in.” La, a climber of 10 years, has worked at Movement Crystal City since 2018, becoming a shift supervisor in 2019.
Cohen notes that employees are encouraged to ask HR or their managers for specifics about pay ranges and career paths.
According to all the Union organizers Climbing spoke with, the number of full-time positions at Movement was reduced. Low says that prior to the pandemic there had been nine to 11 full-time shift supervisors. Currently, there are four.
“When the pandemic hit, all our gyms were shut down and later opened with very strict occupancy limits and operational hours,” says Cohen. “As a result, yes, staffing needs were impacted and, unfortunately, we had to let staff go across many functions. This was hardly a unique occurrence in this or any other industry, but it was painful just the same.”
El Cap Responds
Organizers announced their intent to unionize in a letter on June 29, 2021. Throughout the process, El Cap made it clear via meetings, emails, and internal social platforms that they were against unionization.
“We’ve done a good job building an engaging and fulfilling workplace, based on direct communication with our employees,” says Cohen. “We would like to continue on this path and not be inhibited by a third-party.”
Virginia is a Right to Work State—Movement Crystal City employees will not need to be in the union to work. However, they will be impacted by union activity.
El Cap representatives filed three objections following the election: whether shift supervisors could be members of the union and whether union organizers had used coercion to influence the outcome; whether it was lawful for union organizers to post union material on the company’s Facebook page and hold a union event on company property; and how union members’ activities “destroyed the laboratory conditions essential for holding a fair election” by disrupting a company meeting to address the union’s campaign and by allowing a union agent to enter company property.
El Cap lost all three objections.
Feeling pressure from management regarding his union-organizing efforts, Mason stepped back from a full-time shift supervisor to a part-time position last December.
“I stepped back because of mental health reasons and it was becoming a stressful environment [to work in], with some conflict with leadership around the unionizing work,” he says. “A lot of folks that are kind of leading the unionizing effort are facing additional scrutiny or negative attention around things that previously might not have been an issue. … They’re very hypervigilant about what we’re doing in a way that feels targeted.”
Sylvain La stepped down about a month ago. “There was quite a bit of pressure at the gym from the management,” he says … “Pressure we’re facing from being union organizers was a major factor [in stepping down].” Low stepped down as well.
Ultimately four unfair labor practice (ULP) charges were brought against El Cap for discrimination and retaliation against employees for union organizing activities. One of those charges was dropped by the employee. Charges alleged that El Cap reduced organizers’ hours and engaged in threats and reprisals “including but not limited to threats of termination.”
“It would be inappropriate to comment on individual ULP allegations that are being reviewed by the Labor Board, but for some employees to suggest Movement management was ‘targeting’ individuals is groundless and goes against the values and culture we’ve built here,” says Cohen. “We care deeply about creating an equitable and fair place to work, and reinforce the same expectations across every role in our gyms.”
As of April 4th, the National Labor Relations Board’s recommendation for union certification has been affirmed. Union organizers will now elect leadership and bargaining between union representatives and El Cap will commence. This past week organizers invited the local, regional, and national leadership to a preliminary meeting to discuss the bargaining process. Negotiations regarding pay, working conditions, and hours may take years.
Unionizing is invariably a tenuous process likely to raise tensions on all sides. Still, both El Cap and union organizers are looking toward a bright future. “Our commitment remains the same, to build the best indoor climbing experience for our members in an engaging, rewarding, workplace that’s second to none,” says Cohen.
“We wouldn’t be trying to form a union if we didn’t think that this was a company worthy of staying at,” says Artesi. “If the folks who were dissatisfied really didn’t believe in this company, then we just would have quit. But instead we see the value in being a part of this organization. We just want to be able to do it on our own terms.”