- Interview by
- Meagan Day
For years after its founding in 2008, the Santa Fe–based artist collective treated New Mexico to playful and immersive art experiences, like 2011’s Glitteropolis, which used fifty pounds of glitter in a 3,200-square-foot diorama. But the small collective had bigger plans. In 2016, with financial backing from the state and city as well as Game of Thrones creator and Santa Fe resident George R. R. Martin, Meow Wolf opened the House of Eternal Return, a large-scale, permanent, interactive multimedia installation situated in an old bowling alley in Santa Fe.
Meow Wolf’s unique concept was part theme park, part art exhibit, part immersive storytelling experience structured around a mystery narrative that hurtles through the multiverse. It was a major hit. By 2018, the House of Eternal Return was bringing in half a million visitors every year, and Meow Wolf has already begun planning two new art complexes, one in Las Vegas and another in Denver. Last year, the New York Times called Meow Wolf “a multimillion-dollar dream factory” and suggested it might be poised to become “the Disney of the experience economy.”
In no time, Meow Wolf has transformed from an informal artist collective into a formal business. As the management side has adopted traditional corporate structures to serve its purposes, Meow Wolf workers want to keep pace and establish some structure of their own. That’s why Meow Wolf workers are voting today on whether to form a union. “Solidarity. For the Multiverse,” reads the Meow Wolf Workers Collective’s website. “When we work together, we build worlds.”
Jacobin’s Meagan Day spoke to the Meow Wolf Workers Collective’s Emily Markwiese and Michael Wilson about why want to form a union, how they went about organizing their coworkers, and the obstacles they’ve faced in a workplace that prides itself on an offbeat culture while still operating like a traditional business.
How long have you all been working at Meow Wolf, and what do you do there?
I’ve been working here for about six years now. I started on the House of Eternal Return project as a volunteer on the narrative team, and then, when that contract expired, I began working on the tech team doing installation. Now I’m a technical director on the Denver project.
I’ve been with the company for nearly three years. I started as a part-time writer on the narrative team and became the narrative production manager for the Las Vegas project. I did that up until April of this year, when we had a bunch of layoffs due to the coronavirus, followed by a big company reorganization. I’m now the senior story editor for Denver and for exhibitions moving forward.
You mentioned a round of layoffs in April. How big were the layoffs? Did they speed up the organizing drive, or delay it?
Right now, we’re somewhere between 250 and 280 employees, 130 of whom will be in the bargaining unit. Before April, we had around 500 people. So we lost a huge number of employees in April.
Organizing has been ongoing for ten months, almost eleven. I think we would have expected a lot of engagement immediately after the layoffs, but that wasn’t the case. In fact, I think there was more organizing downtime immediately after that event than at any other point, in part because people were questioning their job security.
The number one thing that people say to us when we reach out to them is that they’re worried they’ll lose their job. People have no context for unionizing and want to know: “Will I be retaliated against? Is this going to put my job at risk?” It took a couple of months after the layoffs in April to convince people that they’re not going to lose their job, what we’re doing is a protected activity, and it’s actually illegal to retaliate against us.
Another piece of this is the massive reorganization right after the layoffs. Pretty much everybody got a new job title. I think almost every department has been completely restructured from the top down.
So we lost half our company, and then there were a couple of months where people were getting used to essentially a new job while also being stuck at home. We finally got back to a comfort level where people were willing to talk about unionizing again in August. Once we hit August, the momentum started building, and then it just felt like the snowball was rolling down the hill for real.
August was also when the solid structure and plan and timeline of our organizing committee was really codified. Within the span of three weeks in August, we went from probably ten people on the organizing committee to between thirty and forty, with people coming in and out as they felt necessary, and probably a solid twenty people who were involved consistently and still are. We went from having one committee to four committees. This thing that was kind of nebulous solidified just in this one monthlong span.
Neither of us was involved in the very early days of organizing. It started when one of our organizing members, Bill Rodgers, reached out to the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and started the initial conversations. And those initial meetings between people talking about the union happened at Buffalo Wild Wings and weird little restaurants in town where they wouldn’t run into any other Meow Wolf people. Because, you know, Santa Fe is not a big city, and we had 500 employees at that point, and they wanted to keep things under the radar.
I’ve heard that in those early days, it was just word of mouth, inviting people for a drink and gauging support. But my first meeting, we laid out a schedule for the next four weeks. It was starting to get very organized. All the while, our campaign lead from CWA has been very helpful, giving us pointers and tips but letting us form our own organization.
When did management become aware of the campaign, and how have they reacted?
There were a lot of people in both upper management and middle management who knew what was going on before the official announcement. But it was Labor Day weekend when we officially went to the founders, which is the group of people who founded Meow Wolf, and told them what was going on and asked to have a meeting with them. That’s when we also went public and sent out press releases.
The original meeting with the founders was great. We have three CEOs at Meow Wolf, and they were not in that meeting. It was just the founders and us. And it’s a double-edged sword, but we’re all actually friends as well. We’ve been friends for a long time. Santa Fe’s a small city. This is the pool of creative thirty-something-year-olds in Santa Fe. So it went well; they didn’t necessarily say they supported the union, but they didn’t overtly say they didn’t either.
Our conversations with the CEOs were mostly done through lawyers. None of it was tense, it never felt weird, but we didn’t have a single one-on-one with the CEOs until last week. And I have to say I wish we had had more one-on-one conversations with the CEOs. Because I don’t want to paint it all rosy. The reality is that there has definitely been a lot of what you could call anti-union messaging from the leadership of the company.
It’s hard to say what we were expecting was going to happen. Like Michael said, there’s an extra layer of complication in that Meow Wolf is a whole mishmash of professional and personal relationships between people who have worked together and seen each other go through really remarkable and sometimes painful life events.
Before that first meeting we had with the founders, we stayed up until almost midnight the night before, strategizing about how to approach this in the most thoughtful but also professional way possible. This is a major decision, and these are people that we’ve known for years or decades.
You know, the reality is that, in a capitalist society, a company is going to do company things. They’re going to protect their interests. I don’t think any of it has been overly malicious. I’ve never felt any malign intent. I’ve never felt like my job was in danger throughout this conversation. But I will admit to some frustration.
They definitely settled on this “A union is a third party, unions make things harder to do, unions are bureaucracy, employees won’t be as free to do X, Y, and Z” type of messaging. I didn’t expect them to just be like, “Union awesome.” But I will say that I personally was a little surprised at the strength of the anti-union rhetoric at times. In an article that came out over the weekend and made the cover of the Santa Fe New Mexican, they painted the union as a third party instead of what it is, which is the people who work at Meow Wolf.
On the one hand, I feel like we can’t expect them to be fully supportive of unionizing without a historical understanding of unionizing in the workplace, and we don’t have time to do that kind of education. There’s an incredible amount of things to focus on, and I don’t think that anybody in management right now has an excess amount of time to do deep research on the history of the labor movement.
But on the other hand, I have also been surprised at times by some of the language used, and the similarity between some of our company’s official statements and the official statements of something like Starbucks. I understand why companies say generally similar things in the face of a unionizing workforce. But at the same time, part of the brand of Meow Wolf is being radically different.
I think the reason we can see similarities between Meow Wolf’s response and other corporate responses to unionization is that a large source of leadership’s information and language is coming from this outside counsel that has been supporting management. So it makes sense that their statements would sound like something from outside.
Right, we’ve been talking to CWA, and they’ve been talking to [Kauff McGuire & Margolis].
KM&M is a law firm that seems to have a track record of being brought on when management is faced with workforces organizing. We’ve made friends with people at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), which recently organized, just to be able to compare experiences, and at one point in talking to them, we realized their management also hired KM&M and hired the exact same lawyer.
I actually interviewed the BAM workers when they were organizing, and one thing we discussed was this pervasive idea, either put forward by management or already held by workers or both, that white-collar workers in creative sectors aren’t the type of workers that unions are meant for. Did you encounter any resistance along those lines in your campaign?
The messaging we hear, and I will give credit to leadership, because this is very effective anti-union messaging for Meow Wolf, is that unions are kind of corporate. They’re kind of what everyone else does, and we don’t do that. This can be effective because most people don’t even understand what unions are anymore, and America has so thoroughly demonized unions that if they do have an idea of what a union is, they think of like movies about Teamsters doing shady things.
But the thing is, Meow Wolf is a corporation. If the company were truly not doing things by any book, we wouldn’t have investment firms. We wouldn’t have corporate offices. Those sorts of corporate structures already exist within Meow Wolf. So while I think the messaging has the potential to be effective, the argument falls apart pretty quick.
The reality is that structure for the workforce needs to exist. When workers need their rights and need their voices heard, you can’t just stumble your way through and make it up on the fly. You need some scaffolding to hold it all up.
Nobody we’ve talked to has ever outright said, “I’m not a steelworker. Why would I unionize?” I think it’s a little more subtle. I have worked here through the transition from being a collective non-business entity into being an actual corporation. And I think there’s a historical internal message at Meow Wolf that it’s so rare for artists to be getting paid a salary with benefits. It’s a really deeply ingrained line of thought for people here.
There is truth to that, but there is also another side of that coin, which is that our stated mission is to value creatives and artists as much as any other job. And so I take issue with rhetoric that implies we’re lucky to have jobs as artists in the first place as a way to argue against unionization. Actually, Meow Wolf is creating a labor market where these jobs are valued, which is incredible, and I’m really glad that that is part of our mission. I do truly believe that by unionizing, we can set an example in the themed entertainment and art world.
It’s important to also know that, especially for the initial workforce at Meow Wolf, we’re talking about people from Santa Fe, which is an economy where, if you’re a young creative person, there’s not much to do for work but wait tables.
When Meow Wolf started to grow, a lot of young people suddenly were making the most money they’d ever made in their lives, and getting paid to do something consistent with their creative interests. And even if the most money they’ve ever made is $40,000 a year and is not actually industry standard, it feels in Santa Fe like a massive amount of money. So the idea that you’re lucky to be working here at all is a powerful thing.
I want to be clear that I think the company has done a lot of good work over the years. The fact that they were at the forefront of paying people an hourly wage that was much higher than minimum wage — I think that’s amazing. The fact that they offer benefits that are pretty good to young people who otherwise don’t have them — that’s great. But when you start to think about industry standard, it falls apart.
Something we’ve been trying to emphasize to people is that we’re not doing this because we feel at risk of being exploited in the same way that people who work in the service industry do. It has taken a lot of conversation to help people readjust how they think about unions in general, to understand that this is a supporting structure. It’s a way to keep the things that we already really value about this company. It’s a way to make sure that we are sticking to these mission statements that the company has shared with the world.
There certainly has been a line of rhetoric from management that implies that unionizing is the most corporate or bureaucratic thing you could do. But for the past several years, the general workforce has been asked to trust management when they incorporate structures that look really traditional, when they pull in things from other worlds that don’t seem to align with a radical creative economy and make them work for Meow Wolf.
Well, we’re saying the same thing. We want to pull in a traditional-looking structure that you wouldn’t expect and make it work for us. Workers also need to be given the benefit of the doubt that we’re trying to make Meow Wolf better and make it a leader for the arts economy in general.
When Meow Wolf was thirty people, you could just trust each other. And I’m not saying that we don’t still trust each other, but when you’re over 200 [employees], you’re a mature company, and you have to evolve. At some point ,you have to admit you can’t just go on trust between 300 people. That’s not a functional system at that point.
I think that a union can support the ideals of the company. I always say, this is me being active in my workplace, not passive. This is me not just showing up for a paycheck. This is me saying, let me do some things to make this place awesome.
I saw on the Meow Wolf Workers Collective website that you have a public list of community supporters. What’s the thinking behind proactively getting buy-in for the union drive from members of the public?
Maybe this is biased because I grew up here, but I don’t think Meow Wolf would exist without Santa Fe. It was built up in the very early days with community support of all kinds, from monetary to endorsements.
I’m incredibly proud that Meow Wolf has been able to become such a huge thing in this little town, and I’m proud that that was on the foundation of people who have been here for generations. To me, sharing the union campaign with the public and asking for support is an extension of that initial ask that Meow Wolf made to the community of Santa Fe so long ago. I feel like it’s something that requires the response of the community. It’s a community effort.
There are a lot of people on that list who have invested a lot of time and resources into the company as a whole, and who I think are very interested in seeing this workforce be as capable and healthy and progressive as it can be. There are a lot of people on that list who are former employees, too, which has been heartwarming to see. Honestly, I look at that list of people, and it makes me a little emotional.
It makes me so happy when I look at that list of public support. Locals love and support Meow Wolf. The number of repeat guests we get at the House of Eternal Return is amazing. People just keep coming back. Ultimately, it really feels like Meow Wolf is a success story for the city of Santa Fe as well as for the people who created it.
To me, as somebody from Santa Fe who has worked at Meow Wolf for six years, the idea of forming a union has never been an anti–Meow Wolf stance. I want to see Meow Wolf succeed. And I feel like the people of Meow Wolf are its most valuable asset, and they always will be.