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Indybay Feature

burning man employees protest for worker rights

by Caleb Schaber
As ticket prices are raised for the burning man event, pay has been cut for many of the workers by half over the last four years. The owners of the company have had to settle numerous labor related lawsuits--from wrongful death to sexual harassment, but still treat their employees and volunteers poorly and often fail to follow osha guidelines or help workers injured on the job.
This weekend, Burning Man corporation (Black Rock City LLC) is hosting a Regional Burning Man gathering--the Burning Man logo is licensed for use with this regionals for smaller Burning Man events around the world. While this years theme is the Green Theme, which calls for environmental conservation, the one thing that has been over looked are worker rights. The six owners of the LLC have consistently overlooked workers and volunteers like they are expendable resource to be abused and exploited. The LLC members have had to settle numerous lawsuits with workers ranging from wrongful death to sexual harassment. Over six million dollars a year goes into the event through ticket sales, but workers hurt on the job are often left to fend for themselves. The playa restoration crew--the workers who spend five weeks after the event insuring that the Burning Man event continues to be the largest leave no trace event in the world--have had their pay cut by almost half in the last four years.

Please help us raise awareness of worker rights by joining this protest. The Burning Man company is a multi-million dollar franchised corporation and they are not above the law and need to take care of their workers and volunteers, and operate within the standards of safety, health, and wages mandated by state and federal laws.

Because the LLC usually will not rehire anyone worker or volunteer that brings up worker rights, those current workers and those who do not want to endanger their volunteer positions will be wearing paper bags over their heads with a burning man trademark.

Please join us Sunday 18 Feb, 1 p.m. at the Burning Man HQ. 1900 3rd St., between 16th and Mariposa in SF.
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Comments (Hide Comments)
by Josh Harkinson

I found out about this protest after the fact, but I'm interested because I'm in the middle of working on a story about Burning Man. Could you give me a ring? 415-321-1703

Josh Harkinson
by mark mckittrick
This is very disturbing news, and is my first time hearing it since I live on the east coast. A friend of mine who is one of many volunteers for the event, and has been for a number of years, passed this link onto me. What I find most unsettling is my uncertainty of how valid this issue is from your article. There are no citations or documentation of court dates or even interviews with any of the owners of the Burningman LLC to go on record for these serious issues you have brought to light.

In no way do I want to dilute your efforts, in fact I am a union member and am very concerned with upholding workers rights and employer accountability. But before anyone should expect to rally in protest, they should be given a clear and responsible view of the situation and the accused should be heard (regardless of spin).

All I am asking for is a little journalistic integrity before rallying a boycott on an event tens of thousands of people look forward to every year. If there is proof, and its sources cited, you will have another supporter to the cause to bring accountability to the parties responsible. Until then, you sound like you have an axe to grind.
by brightpathvideo
Video of today's labor protest at BM HQ is a couple of hrs away from being posted.
by wick
caleb, you should contact me, i will get my number to you
by Stop Wasting Time
Burning Man's DPW workers come out for roughly one month out of the year. Some a little longer, some less. Each worker is presented with a compensation offer and given the option of bunking in a trailer with other workers. If they have a special skill like carpentry, rigging, heavy machinery operators etc, then they are offered more pay. They are also given three meals a day and covered under workman's comp during the time they are working. If they aren't happy with the pay or conditions, they are not forced to come all the way out to the middle of the ass end of the desert for just a few weeks. It takes a lot of gas to get out there unless you are coming from Reno, the closest major town (2 1/2 hours away). This is a very minimal seasonal job and I imagine many better ones can be found throughout the country.

Now, in the past things were not structured with regards to workers and benefits, it was pretty much show up, maybe get food and leave with a little cash in hand. Things are going by the book more than they ever have before and it is not out of line for workers to demand more pay.

Regarding the protest video, I have a problem with Schaber attempting to talk about injury issues with other previous workers without knowing any of the facts. It is a shame that others aren't taking Schaber to task for the multitude of partial truths and other situations he speaks of but has nothing to do with. He was fired from the Org, has been wanted by the local sheriff and BLM on several occasions, from reckless endangerment with a vehicle, to the most recent for threatening the lives of other employees. He is truly a disturbed individual who feeds off of attention, whether positive or negative. He ran for mayor of Seattle once, he worked on a large piece of art once, he pretended to be a professional journalist to get into Iraq last year (after being turned down trying to work for a contractor). This is what he has done and all he can talk about, aside from spending way too much time complaining about Burning Man. In my opinion, he does not earn his keep and avoids work, unless you call selling Taliban sandals on Ebay a steady job.

In the video, the woman protester, let's call her "E.S.", speaks about a situation at the event last year in which a viral flu went around and made workers sick for several days. It was not from lack of handwashing stations, it was unknown how the bug spread the way it did. As soon as people started coming down with the ick, extra water bottle sanitizing stations were set up and signs were posted telling people to be clean and careful. She also complains about not having proper gear to do her job (Playa Restoration). There is nothing stopping someone from saying "I need this safety thing to do my job properly and if I don't have it I'm not going to work."

Christ, it's not like workers can't make change happen in the BM Org. If enough people came forward to say that they expected more for their employers, things would change. It doesn't appear that more than four people out of hundreds are stepping up to bat. I don't buy the excuse that people are afraid to come forward. Most of the DPW are hard core punks, rail riders and circus kids. Fear isn't in their vocabulary.

by SSgt John 'Kamikaze' Kelly (jk95828 [at]
"Most of the DPW are hard core punks, rail riders and circus kids. Fear isn't in their vocabulary. "
Love it!
Just for the record. I wasn't housed or paid.
That was a choice I made to get back in to my core/primary group; DPW.
If anyone is going to badmouth Caleb, best they use their real names as well... or is it they are afraid of repercussions?

The LLC has relied on "beer labor" since day 1, but it doesn't excuse them for taking the shortcut on workman's comp insurance.

I agree with many that Caleb needs to get his facts collected before making another protest. I even told him as much in person tonight when I shook his hand and congratulated him for not punching the guy who kept trying to hug him.

OK so Caleb has a chip on his shoulder.

Ok so Burning Man is a relatively cool thing which inspires folks to make excuses *beyond belief* for their behaviors, other peoples behaviors, and many many things.

Lets look at the core issue here, and pretend for one second that Caleb *or anyone else with an axe to grind* doesn't have anything to do with raising the issue. Is it right to pretend that sub-standard conditions exist? Is it right to mock a legitimate protest even if a person with an axe to grind is involved in the protest?

it's a Slippery Slope, to use an overused phrase, that the legal business front for Burning Man takes with a raw dismissal of this topic. Knuckle up and address it, be honest and truthful and more folks will respect that than would be offended by the conditions ( in my opinion ).

I'm waiting for a statement by someone on the LLC... In my opinion, silence is damaging.

And for the record, I voluntarily endured many sub-standard conditions working for DPW in 1999,2000, 2001, 2002. I finally quit when safety of the night dispatch position was compromised.

A large issue I have with my history with the LLC and DPW is the fact that verbal contracts are made and broken with the regularity of breathing. Verbal contracts like the understanding after several years in a row that there will be food for the night crew, and then in 2002 there was none to be had at night. I was told to "fend for myself, go get some food from the kitchen and cook it" only to find the commissary resources locked up. I finally just went to Reno and bought groceries!...

For anyone in the know to pretend that conditions are sub-standard is ludicrous. You know they are, you have allowed your love for the event to excuse the behavior, or maybe it just never bothered you.

It is legitimate for anyone to complain, there are laws about these things to keep exploitations like this from happening, even if the people want to be exploited.
by Emory Moody
(chuckle) uh, insert the word "do not" in two key sentences... as in " to pretend that sub-standard conditions *do not* exist is ludicrous"

Heh... I guess this is just getting me fired up... come on, it's hellish work conditions that most of us felt proud to have survived, and I won't pretend that I didn't feel proud.

I just want to see accountability... Yeah I know it's a tall order.

Here's the real rub, If I didn't care about the people in question, I would get fired up about it.

Come on, LLC folks, prove that you are better than you appear right now. Make me proud to know you.
by Emory Moody
Damn, I mean if I didn't care about the people in question I wouldn't get fired up ( and make so many typos)

OK I promise that's the last correction for the evening... (calm down, think first , type slower... breathe...)
by Caleb Schaber
I was never fired, never arrested, never charged with anything in BRC. But now I am guilty--I have brought up illegal labor practices, and I will continue to raise awareness on these subjects. Well, no rest for the wicked.
by Larry Harvey
Let me know if you think I am running my company wrong. I listed my email and I care.

by Caleb "Shooter" Schaber
Um, you really don't have room to talk here. You just turned your back on your comrades in this war--sort of like why they fired you from the Air Force and you lost your security clearance, too, huh?
by Stop Wasting Time
Nice creative wording there. Of course you have never been arrested or charged in BRC because you always conveniently skipped town or changed your name when the law was looking for you instead of facing them to explain what you had done. Didn't Tom Price just have a meeting with you about the lies you have been spreading about him for the past two years? He was one of the people you threatened last year. I'm sorry, but everything that comes out of your mouth is coated in some sort of grudge holding hissy fit you haven't been able to shake since you left DPW in 2003.

There have been shady labor practices and shitty things in the past, but there has been an honest effort to do things by the book now. There are a lot of good, sensible people working DPW and if they truly had a problem they would be going to the LLC about it.
It's funny how, Black Rock City LLC, the private company that runs Burning Man, appears to be sending out its sockpuppets to make ad hominem attacks on the leader of the protest, rather than simply addressing the complaints of the protesters.

Really, Black Rock City LLC has no business smearing anybody. They have a few nasty skeletons in their own closet.

For example, a couple of years ago, one of the (male) principals of the company was involved in a very ugly assault on a woman that was subsequently covered up by the organization (the man who committed the assault is still one of the company's senior executives and is still in a position of power over female employees; the woman who was assaulted still has physical scars). You can read an account of the incident in Piss Clear, a magazine that's been published out at Burning Man for a few years, here:

This is exactly the kind of despicable treatment of its workers that Burning Man has long been known for. If you care anything about women's rights or workers rights, please support the DPW protesters.
by Stop Wasting Time
When you come off looking like a whiny boy stomping his feet, you again speak of things you don't have involvement in or complete knowledge of so that people go "oh my god! he said sexual assault! he MUST be telling the truth about EVERYTHING!"

Yes, there was a huge fucking serious incident with a horribly drunk person in power that was by no means swept under the rug or covered up. This person was punished severely and removed from the DPW he cared about so much. He did not resume his office at BMHQ for a year and went through alcohol treatment and therapy. To this day this person has not touched alcohol since the incident and I know this is something he will never forget or forgive himself for. The woman who was harmed had medical expenses covered and received compensation. From what I know, there has not been a further lawsuit from this person. She even came to Burning Man last year.

After that incident, huge changes were instituted for the DPW, a lot of who were akin to feral "lost kids" and some got help for their problems, others didn't want to be helped so they went on their way.

Burning Man, rather than being some cold inhuman corporation is more like a family and if one of it's own goes down a dark path, all reasonable efforts will be made to help that person get off that path and better themselves.

Back to the original broken record ranting...You really should stop using the word "sock puppets" because it gives you away Caleb. It's funny for you to think that the Org is wasting time sending people out to discredit you. There are just a whole bunch of us who are sick of you trying to do the same kind of attention grabbing shit starting you did back in school.

You know, usually people protest when they have brought their grievances to an organization, job place, government etc.. and not made headway they are asking for. There was no previous meeting between DPW and the board, no "DPW rights manifesto", nothing has been discussed with anyone in the LLC. You have just spent the past several months bitching incessantly online and wherever you can about things from the past because some of the Org pissed you off, then you decided to bring two friends and a cameraman friend to the office "protest" things that aren't an issue to anyone but you three.

You burned your bridge so magnificently that you aren't welcome back in any other capacity as a "local" to the event. Even as a local you threw a fit at the gate, demanding you be let in early last year, even though you weren't working and the Bureau of Land Management specifically states that BMOrg cannot allow non-workers in before the event officially starts. A large group of people watched you throw your fit, actually stomping your feet and screaming in the face of the gate manager, demanding that because you had been to Iraq as a pretend reporter that somehow you were better than other people and needed to have folks treat you as such.

The original points are this:

1. Workmans comp--it exists
2. Pay--negotiated based on skill, and none of the jobs in question are full time work, they are barely seasonal at that, if you don't like the pay then don't come out to the barren desert heat

What are you complaining about again?
by larrywilleathishat
...check out this blog and the comments in it, especially the comments in the blog entry toward the bottom of the page. Larry Harvey is trying to defraud one of the original inventors of Burning Man out of his ownership of the trademark. Obviously the private company that puts on Burning Man is interested in franchising the trademark for regional spin-off events and for merchandise:
by yep
I have always thought the worst bosses and workplaces are run by former left-wingers and hippie/hipsters/punks.

In a normal working environment it is expected that you dislike your boss and you put in your time, demand more money and compensations and have a somewhat conflictual relationship with management.

Hipsterish bosses tend to have the attitude that you should be willing to do your job because you love it and if you complain about compensation then maybe its not the right job for you. This creates a dynamic rife for abuse since workers lose all leverage.

Burning Man may be an extreme case but you can find this type of thing in all types of workplaces. You work in a coffee shop and the manager wants it to be different and workers to be familly so complaints about overtime or lack of benefits isnt a matter of demanding what you deserve but not being a good fit for the work environment. Workers for Unions often face problems that wouldnt be allowed for the actual members of the Union but its excused since your work for the Union should be because of your comittment to activism and not about trying to support yourself (but then how far down the line does this go until there is no point in the Union).

I guess I also wonder if Burning Man is an extreme case. Isnt the talk on the Burning Man site and all the vitreol against a worker complaining violating the spirit or Burning Man a bit similar to what one would find during labor unrest at Disney World, Epcot Center, Marine World, Bill Graham Presents etc... (and Isnt Burning Man once it becomes commercial just another entertainment company providing an exciting vacation getway for hipsterish adults who have the money and time )
by Matthew "Metric" Ebert (me [at]
I supported Caleb for months when he went overseas, and used to defend him publicly, and then when I withdrew my support, he began to attack me on the Internet. He mentions me by name and talks about my business, but he gets it wrong. He tries to bind me into his supposedly righteous campaign, and it is an insult. Should I try to "correct" him, when anyone with a clue is already hip to his lack of integrity and character? He stinks, literally and figuratively. That was the second time I tried to be supportive, and the second time that he has turned into a troll. Shame on me. For me to have typed this is already giving him much more than he is due.
by Caleb "Shooter" Schaber
Metric AKA Matthew Ebert and I worked together for years for the Burning Man company. He did receive the payment I mentioned in the protest video--thousands of dollars. It's sad when someone that was for worker rights get bought off.
by Metric
So, now I get the last word. Because he killed himself, fool. Not surprising for someone who got off on turning the knife in wounds he created. He was the true opportunist. I got bought off for thousands of dollars? Yeah, right. I live in a mobile home in Gerlach. Tell a nice story on the internet and people will love you, like he needed to be loved, poor Caleb. He whored himself to some Canadian Cougar, for much less than thousands. All he could get. And she stole everything he had, didn't she? He took my work and prostituted himself over it as if it was his own. Foreman of the work ranch, my ass. Pretender. I forgave him, but people still believe the untruths and ugliness he spun. I suppose there's those who know, and those who believe. I pity them, and him.
by NotYerMa
It's pretty petty and sad that you decided to make a post mortem reply here, Metric.
Rest in Power Caleb! ✊?The fight against the org still continues on today.
by Fstick
For the record, Metric has every right to say anything he wants, about Caleb it the LLC for that matter ... Everything he says is correct and then some ... I was there ... And so was Metric ... With Fucking Schaber, or rather he was with us ...

I lived with Schaber, worked with him was his occasional nemesis and always his friend ... This is our history and truth be told, Caleb was a total fuckup and he occassionally created ALMOST effective art doing dumb things .... But mostly he just took credit for other people's ideas and lived off off his friends ... So be it ...

In the same vein I'm a drug addict criminal .. but you'd still hang out with me ... And so it was with Schaber, too. Metrics just telling the truth and I wish more people would emulate that. I miss Caleb ... And I very much enjoyed those times but truth be told, when Metric, Gringo, myself and a few others were out in the wasteland working our asses off ... Schaber was writing abrasive tabloid "journalism" or threatening people over Myspace and claiming credit for all of it ....

We accepted it then and you should bow ..but I would hasten you to make judgement calls about a stitch in time you really don't know much about ... And if you want to hear some fucking awesome tales of that time ... Invite us out for a beer .. just make sure that you change the subject by at least 15% it you decide to write a book.

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