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The Worst Place on Earth, Revisited

Participants fill the Playa as approximately 70,000 people from all over the world gather for the 30th annual Burning Man arts and music festival in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada, September 3, 2016.

My beliefs about Burning Man are well-established. Even before it was taken over by techbros, the idea of going to the desert with a bunch of other hippies, getting naked and doing whatever drugs in the scorching heat sounds like a dystopia unimaginable even to my dark brain. Yet some people seem to think this is a good idea. I have no idea why. But take that and add the incredible wealth of the New Gilded Age, extreme exclusivity of events, and it being the center of everything that is wrong with the nation and you have an even more unhinged hellscape.

So it’s not like I needed another reason to hate Burning Man. But now I do, because the workers are treated like utter trash.

Describing Burning Man to someone who has never been is an exercise in superlatives. Given its freeform, anarchic nature, it is to some extent what you make of it, and it has a different meaning to different people. Some regard it as the provenance of obnoxious trust-funders and rich techies; others, as the terminus of 1960s-era hippiedom. At a minimum, Burning Man resembles a more libertine Coachella, a giant drug-driven wardrobe malfunction bursting with alternate theories of don’t-tread-on-me hedonism and solipsistic schemes for freer living.

Again, bad enough without even knowing about the working conditions!

Preparing an inhospitable desert landscape for the equally brief and boggling surge in population that temporarily creates what is known as Black Rock City requires a coordinated effort of labor, workers and volunteers who toil in harsh conditions, often for low pay or no pay, for months on end: running electric lines, hauling equipment, cleaning up the mess at the end of it all, and dealing with the logistics of bringing thousands of vehicles and structures to the playa. (Although that word means “beach,” it is universally used to describe the festival zone.)

Salon spoke to several former and current employees and volunteers for Burning Man, who painted a picture of a dangerous and stressful work environment and a toxic management culture that contributed to a number of suicides of seasonal employees, at a rate far greater than the national average. Those who spoke exclusively to Salon recalled tales of labor abuse, unequal wages, on-the-job-injuries including permanent blindness and a management that manipulated workers who were hurt or who tried to fight for improved conditions.

Ricardo Romero, 35, began working with the DPW in 2008. He had originally volunteered with Burners Without Borders, assisting disaster relief in Pisco, Peru after the 2007 earthquake, where he met a DPW manager who offered him a position on the playa.

Romero told Salon he was a volunteer at first. “I never asked for much money, kept my head down, kept my mouth shut, respected the authority,” he explained. Still, what he saw happening troubled him. “Over the years I just kept on seeing so many of my co-workers getting fired for complaining about worker treatment,” he explained. Romero says he heard from others that if they compared pay — which varied wildly, depending on management’s whims — they could get fired. “I’d hear things like, ‘That person got fired because they stuck up for someone or called out some abuse that they witnessed,’” he added.

Romero noted that management seemed to hold grudges. “I had enough of it,” Romero told Salon, “and then in 2014 I contacted a labor lawyer.”

Romero had been talking to workers about possibly organizing a union, in an effort to fight back against their treatment and get more transparency about wages and wage differentials. In April 2017, he received a call: He was “uninvited” to return to Burning Man. It would have been his ninth year.

Burning Man denied firing Romero in a statement, claiming instead that “his temporary employment expired.”

“The only reason I got fired was because I talked back to management and brought up issues related to how workers were treated, how we were informed and how the company supported us and cared about us,” Romero said. “As a laborer, I was in good standing.”

“When Burning Man did not offer him a position the following year, Romero complained to the National Labor Relations Board,” Jim Graham, Burning Man spokesperson, told Salon in an email. “The complaint made no mention about unionizing.” (Both Romero and Romero’s lawyer, Kevin Brunner, dispute the company’s claim that he was not fired for trying to organize)

“Burning Man decided to settle the charge rather than go through the time-consuming process of litigating it. There was never any finding of wrongdoing,” Graham added. “As part of the settlement, Burning Man provided NLRB’s standard notice language to its employees. Burning Man ensures all employees are aware of their rights under federal labor law and does nothing to stand in the way of their exercise of those rights.”

Romero said the organization’s response is “part of a campaign to discredit me and diminish the importance of the NLRB case.”

Right before he was “uninvited,” Romero suggested that some of his colleagues refrain from signing their contracts to protest mistreatment. If that’s why he was fired, that would likely violate national labor laws. Romero added he believes that Burning Man’s claim they did not want to go through the “time-consuming process of litigating it” is contradicted by management’s decision to hire two large law firms. One is Jackson Lewis, which has a reputation for union busting.

Romero was represented by Kevin Brunner of the law firm of Siegel, Yee and Brunner, an Oakland firm whose attorneys have a long legacy of civil rights and labor law. It is illegal to fire someone for trying to organize, Brunner told Salon, saying that in his judgment Romero’s case was cut-and-dried.

These techbros ruining our country only get better the more you know about them.

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