Art News

Why Meow Wolf Denver Employees Decided to Unionize, and the Next Steps

Evan Semón
Meow Wolf opened Convergence Station in September.
Employees of Meow Wolf's Convergence Station were shocked at a December meeting when they were told that the creative operators' hours would be cut substantially. When the Denver facility had opened a few months earlier, it had about 100 creative operators, hourly employers who played the characters in the behemoth immersive installation, engaging audiences with wacky conversations, games and performance art.

"We'd been open since September, and they're telling us about budget cuts and that somehow they expected us to be sold out until the end of time," recalls Sam Silverman, a creative operator. "This is the third location to open, too, so it's a little frustrating."

Meow Wolf, which got its start as a Santa Fe collective in 2008, had opened The House of Eternal Return there in 2016. After that proved a surprise hit, the group announced that it was expanding its operations to Las Vegas and Denver. Convergence Station opened here in September 2021 with 294 employees; there are currently about 230 employees at the Denver location.

"We have meetings regularly around maximizing schedules," explains Meow Wolf chief communications officer Didi Bethurum. "In December, the exhibition had been open for just three months, and we were still establishing baselines of peak visitation days and new seasonality. The changes in hours were part of the process of adjusting accordingly, both reducing at times and increasing. All this time, we’ve extended full-time benefits to these hourly employees, which is a priority for us. We also have a very open communication policy around work/life balance to ensure we can honor people's availability."

"When we first opened, we were sold out every weekend into April 2022," adds Meow Wolf public relations manager Erin Barnes. "Our weekdays have been quieter since November 2021. We wouldn’t characterize the shift in attendance or reducing/increasing employee hours to be notable. Our local attendance dropped a bit since the opening hysteria, but this has been evened out by out-of-state visitors. And employee hours have both increased and decreased slightly, but not significantly.

"Since opening, our full time staff has always averaged well over the state minimum of 30 hours a week to remain at full time status, and we’ve extended full time benefits to these hourly employees, which is a priority for us," she adds.

Still, the December meeting struck a chord, and Denver employees immediately started a Discord chat to discuss unionizing, which employees in Santa Fe had already explored. "We're not trying to be unreasonable, by any means," says Silverman, who joined the organizing group. "It's just good to have a voice on both sides."

That month, the union representing Meow Wolf's Santa Fe employees had filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board.

According to Milagro Padilla, who led Santa Fe's unionizing efforts, "Unionization has had a positive effect in several ways. Workers understand that together they have more power than they do individually. That power and community help break down feelings of isolation and fear by creating solidarity between workers. There have also been serious contractual gains: significant pay increases, overtime for salaried employees, doubling the maternity and paternity leave, and 401k matching, among others."

In January, Meow Wolf announced a new CEO, Jose Tolosa; prior co-CEOs Carl Christensen and Ali Rubinstein returned to their original roles as chief financial officer and chief creative officer, respectively. Jim Ward stepped down as co-CEO, as well, but remains an adviser to Meow Wolf.

"We were really disappointed with the approach that was taken in Santa Fe, and we're excited about new leadership," Padilla says. "We reached out to Jose Tolosa shortly after the announcement of his hire, and look forward to meeting with him."

AJ Ehrmann, another creative operator, also joined the Denver union organizing committee. "I believe a part of the origins of organizing came from hour cuts back in the winter of 2021," she says. "We signed on with the expectation of stable hours; there were no seasonal positions in place to accommodate for this change, and I never saw anyone laid off in order to collect unemployment for a period of time — just many workers scrambling for hours and second jobs, as the shift was so abrupt.

"I recall a moment during this time, around the holidays, when there were workers facing food insecurities, and as a solution were directed to a local food bank," she continues. "Three weeks later, a volunteer opportunity became available at this same food bank, and we were asked to volunteer. Later, once the hours began to recover, there were workers who were forced to resign from their position because they were no longer allowed to work as solely 'pick-up shift' employees, even though they were put in that position during the shortage. It was disheartening to see so many wonderful people leave because they needed to find the job security elsewhere."

On July 5, a collective of Denver employees issued a statement saying that they had formed a union to join the Meow Wolf Workers Collective under the Communications Workers of America Local 7055.

"The MWWC will honor our collaborative ideals through a contract with the company," the employees say in the statement. "Through this contract, we will center the needs of all workers by seeking employment protections, thriving wages, reasonable accommodations for diverse abilities, clarity in communication, inclusive opportunities for career growth, and a diverse workplace that is free from discrimination and harassment of any kind. The age of starving artists is over. We have an obligation to demand diversity in our staff and in our work. The company and our union must use our platform to boldly dismantle the outdated and toxic cultures that harm our society and prevent humanity from achieving a better world. We must create accessible worlds that we want to live in, and we will eagerly collaborate with the company to achieve that."

Silverman says that Meow Wolf managers shouldn't have been shocked by the move.

"We already have a union in Santa Fe, so I'm sure they've known it was coming for a long time," he says. "We were trying to keep it under wraps until we exceeded a certain threshold of signed [union authorization] cards. After we passed 50 percent, we went public, and our numbers are now over 60 percent. I know we need around twenty or fewer people before we're at 70 percent of the company, so we have pretty solid numbers there."

 In an email sent to Convergence Station employees on July 6, general manager Alex Bennett wrote:

Hi everyone,

Yesterday, some employees in Colorado expressed intent to join the Communications Workers of America and MWWC on the website and Instagram. An article in The Denver Post was published this morning.  

We wanted to let you know that Meow Wolf has not received any notification from the CWA regarding their intent to organize. After we saw the Instagram posting yesterday, we reached out to the CWA and let them know we have not received any communication. As a result, they are discussing their intentions and we will let you know once we hear from them and keep you informed of next steps. 

That being said, we want to make clear that Meow Wolf recognizes and respects our employees’ right to organize. The article in The Post does not reflect this at all. Unfortunately, it paints a very outdated picture of us publicly, which hurts Meow Wolf and hurts us all in turn.

Meow Wolf’s success is built upon collaboration, and when employees raise something, we listen.

We are a different company than we were when the MWWC started organizing. We have new leadership, and have increased wages and benefits in the past year. We also learned a lot during that entire process and are extremely proud of the progress we’ve made together.

It’s worth noting a few of the benefits we now offer to all employees, including Denver, regardless of whether or not they are included in the bargaining unit of the Meow Wolf Workers Collective / CWA:

A $18 per hour minimum wage, increased from $17 on April 18, 2022, exceeding Denver’s minimum wage of $15.87 per hour

Between 25 - 30 days of PTO, more than double the national average of 10 days

401(k) Savings Plan and dollar-for-dollar company match up to the first three percent (3%) 

Paid parental leave of 12 weeks (previously 6 weeks in 2021)

Bereavement leave time of 4-6 days (previously 3-5 days in 2021)

Two Medical Insurance plans to choose through BlueCross Blue Shield; up to 100% paid for employee premiums and 50% paid for dependents

100% of employee premium paid Dental and Vision Insurance, Long Term Disability Insurance and Employee Assistance Program (EAP)

A substantial focus to continue to make Meow Wolf a diverse, inclusive and safe place to work

These are important accomplishments that make us stronger and better able to deliver on our mission. 

The Denver leadership team and I have always strived to be as accessible and transparent as possible – and that will be our goal throughout this process.

I understand there may be some questions, and everyone is eager to know the next steps. We will provide an update as soon as we can. In the meantime, I want you to know that we are here, all is well, and we appreciate your dedication to the mission we all share of bringing art and experience to the community and the world. 
"Everything is a process," says Ehrman. "We went public with the union, and shortly after sent out the formal email for recognition."

Late on July 6, the employees sent an email to the Meow Wolf board laying out demands and requesting voluntary affirmation of the union; the deadline was the end of the day Friday, July 8.

While Silverman declines to disclose specific demands, he says that Bennett's email was "a great start." If the Meow Wolf board and CEO do not voluntarily recognize the union, he adds, "we will take future steps to then have a full vote."

"I do believe Meow Wolf has strong values when it comes to a commitment to inclusion and diversity," Ehrmann says. "I was in awe of the detail to care they took during our training before we opened to the public. There was a lot of education and training for a diverse set of needs, sensitivity training, creative work and in-depth safety training.

"I also believe the company has work to put in when it comes to our commitment as a B Corp," she adds. "We have been given opportunities to do volunteer work for the community, but we can't participate in this work if we as workers are struggling to care for ourselves. Commitment to community as a company starts with support of its workers. My hope is that this union will unite the vision for these values and bridge the gap where we can be the best support for our community, and the environment, while also supporting ourselves."

"I don't think our company has been this enthusiastic in a long, long time as we have been in the last few days," Silverman concludes. "We're just so insanely ecstatic right now."