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First Unionized Climbing Gym: Movement Crystal City Breaks New Ground

(Photo/Photobac Photography) climbing gym union(Photo/Photobac Photography)
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The National Labor Relations Board will certify the first unionized climbing gym in the U.S. this week. It’s a huge win for the employees of Movement Crystal City, but the path to unionization wasn’t easy.

Last June, 15 workers from the Arlington, Va., gym issued a notice of intent to unionize to El Cap, Movement’s parent company and the largest climbing gym franchise in the U.S. If successful, they would form the first climbing gym union in the States.

“Movement for Equal Footing” (M4EF) tapped Workers United to help organize the effort. The group was confident it could secure an affirmative vote from its members.

Whether the push to unionize could overcome the hurdles put up by corporate leadership was another matter.

At the time of the filing, the gym was under the “Earth Treks” franchise banner. Since then, El Cap rebranded the location from “Earth Treks Crystal City” to “Movement Crystal City.”

The gym employees, who had originally organized under the name “Earth Treks Crystal City Workers United,” updated their moniker to reflect that update.

A Long Approach to Unionization

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) conducted the election in mid-November 2021, and MCC workers voted 28-14 in favor of unionizing.

In the following months, El Cap’s attorneys proceeded to file three objections with the NLRB. According to Common Climber, those objections claimed that some shift supervisors, who were also union organizers, abused their supervisory power and interfered with the election’s fairness.

The NLRB overturned two of those objections promptly.

The third objection asserted that the organizing members of M4EF coerced fellow employees to attain pro-union votes. For that objection, the NLRB ordered a hearing to review any evidence that might have supported El Cap’s claim.

The hearing occurred in January of this year, and the NLRB issued its official rejection of El Cap’s third and final objection at the end of March.

That decision cleared the final obstacle to M4EF’s union formation, and certification of the union will take place in the coming days.

The Road Ahead

The M4EF team will now draft a constitution, elect its leaders, and form bargaining committees. And then, the real work begins: coordinating with El Cap and Movement leadership to reach a collective bargaining agreement.

According to M4EF, the issues will pertain to compensation, employee benefits, and working conditions.

“Increasingly, there has been poor communication and decisions made rapidly without consideration for how changes will be implemented in local gyms,” union organizer and MCC employee Gus Mason said. “We don’t believe this is due to intentional oversight or malevolence, but because they are principally beholden to investors, leadership is limited in what they will do for employees at all levels.”

Appeals to Corporate Interests

Those on the side of union formation believe that collective action benefits the corporation by bolstering its reputation.

And at least one aspect of that reputation has to do with inclusivity and diversity — major, of-the-moment issues.

“Over two-thirds of union membership today is women and/or people of color,” Mason wrote for the Movement for Equal Footing page. “If we want to be a truly diverse, equitable, and inclusive company, a union is vital.”

In a recent interview with Climbing Business Journal, Movement CEO Robert Cohen described corporate’s position:

“We are committed to remaining the best place to work in our industry ― a place where coming to work every day is meaningful, engaging, and fulfilling, and a place where people work together to make the difference they want to see in the world.”

Climbing wall at Earth Treks Crystal City gym in Arlington, Va. At 42,000 sq. ft., it will be 10,000 sq. ft. smaller than the forthcoming Englewood, Colo., location.
Climbing wall at Movement Crystal City gym in Arlington, Va.; (photo/Movement, fka Earth Treks)

Unionization in Context

Not surprisingly, there have been previous attempts by other climbing gyms to form unions. Per Climbing Business Journal’s Gyms & Trends report, in 2020 workers organized at the Brooklyn Boulders and Hoosier Heights climbing gym chains to demand significant changes by their respective gyms’ leadership, launching petitions that obtained hundreds of signatures.

Stories of collective action labor movements are on the rise. In 2022 alone, employees at select Amazon, Starbucks, and REI locations have succeeded in forming unions.

At the time of writing, Movement operated 19 facilities in seven states. A 20th location was under construction in Dallas, Texas.

Several pro-union REI employees stand outside the SoHo flagship store ahead of the Mar. 2 vote; (photo/@reiunionsoho)

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