Unionizing Made Me a Different Person

Forming a union with my coworkers at the immersive arts company Meow Wolf wasn’t easy. It was stressful and scary. But we pushed past that fear — and ended up transforming our lives in the process.

Meow Wolf Art Collective’s “House of Eternal Return” in Santa Fe, New Mexico, photographed on July 31, 2017. (Mark Ralston / AFP via Getty Images)

My first interaction with a union effort was the December 2019 morning my coworker pulled me aside in our work parking lot to discuss the nascent organizing campaign among our peers, eventually culminating in an ask if I had any interest in attending a union meeting. I now know this was an “organizing conversation” with a worker whose support for the union had not yet been assessed, and that I would have been marked down as a “three” — a worker who, on the one-to-five scale, is neither openly supportive of nor explicitly against unionizing their workplace.

Much of the time, “on-the-fence” workers are on the fence because of a fear of retaliation, apathy, or severe burnout. For me, it was all three. I had heard the words “union” and “collective bargaining” in hushed tones occasionally but didn’t understand their implications or how they were relevant to me and my work at Meow Wolf, the Santa Fe–based punk art collective turned multimillion-dollar immersive entertainment company.

Privately, I assumed it to be the latest in a series of attempts to create superficial change at work that would soon be forgotten. In the four years that followed the successful opening of the House of Eternal Return (HoER), Meow Wolf’s flagship permanent art installation in Santa Fe, few of the dozens of workers who had built the exhibition reaped any proportional benefits of its enormous success. Artists remained among the lowest-paid staff. A seemingly endless barrage of scandals, impossible deadlines, and increasingly out-of-touch corporate executive managers had exhausted the workforce. I was demoralized and under more pressure than I had ever been before.

I didn’t know enough about what it meant to form a union to understand how spectacularly I had misjudged the organizers. I was twenty-three then. Fast forward to a month before I turned twenty-five, and I was a signatory when the Meow Wolf Workers Collective (MWWC) reached a tentative agreement with our boss.

The second time a coworker contacted me about the union effort, I was in a hotel room in Denver. I had joined a small team to conduct a site visit for Meow Wolf’s newly announced, most ambitious permanent exhibition to date, Convergence Station. Six months prior, the pandemic had just begun in the states. HoER closed indefinitely, and all Meow Wolf employees ceased in-person work. Within two weeks of HoER shutting its doors, Meow Wolf let go of close to half of its full-time employees and immediately brought on a substantial number of highly paid, out-of-state themed entertainment contractors.

The shockwave of the layoffs persisted. Many of us were afraid of another round. We’d seen some of our oldest friends and collaborators lose their jobs; we had taken on the work of the people in our departments who were now gone. The layoffs for me meant being reclassified as a technical director, a job that entailed overseeing the design, production, and installation of the five stories worth of lighting, audio, and interactive technology projects in Convergence Station — and a significantly greater level of responsibility than my previous role.

Those of us involved with construction on the Denver project were required to work in person, and the fear of infection with COVID-19 was present at all times. I had just returned from a long, bitterly cold day on the construction site when my phone rang. It was a coworker of mine who I didn’t have regular conversations with.

MWWC artists installing part of the Cosmohedron in Meow Wolf’s Convergence Station. (Emily Markwiese)

“I know you’re busy, but your name keeps coming up, and it would mean a lot to a lot of people if you came to the next meeting,” she said, referring to the union meetings. “It’s informal, just talking.”

A week later, I joined the meeting via Zoom while sitting on the floor of my living room, in front of the coffee table that had become my desk since beginning remote work. I didn’t know what to expect, nor who had been involved up to this point save for the two coworkers who had approached me. I was afraid to make an appearance, as though I were crossing some forbidden threshold.

Within Meow Wolf I found a sense of purpose and community that I had never experienced before. I had watched it change enormously and had in turn changed enormously within it, and the thought of outcasting myself terrified me. I feared that being noticeably involved in the union effort would be seen as a betrayal by Meow Wolf’s original founding leadership. I had paranoid visions of being deemed untrustworthy and having my ties to the company irreparably severed.

When I joined the meeting, I was surprised to see many familiar faces. I was introduced to Milagro Padilla, our campaign lead from the Communications Workers of America (CWA), someone who I would later trust with my life. I would stay on for the next two hours, as friends and coworkers went around describing how burdened by precarity and overwork they had become over the past several years, how they felt like we might get left behind by some impossibly huge ship that nobody at Meow Wolf could control anymore.

The stories shared were those of people who were critical contributors to Meow Wolf, for almost a decade in some cases, who were now struggling to live in Santa Fe. Some felt that the workforce had lost its seat at the table as the company grew and workers were no longer able to meaningfully influence internal operations or long-term, future ambitions. Others were sacrificing their personal lives to keep up with the demand of the postlayoff workload. Most of these people had known me since I volunteered to assemble hundreds of circuit boards for the tech team of HoER as an eighteen-year-old. Many of them had taken me under their wing in the years that I was the youngest person on staff; now they were some of my closest friends.

Every person that spoke during those two hours ended their message not with despair but optimism. There was hope that a different way was possible, that by unionizing we could build a solid foundation to stand on together that could not be shaken, no matter how Meow Wolf as a company continued to morph and grow.

I remember turning my camera off momentarily to wipe tears away from my eyes, as both the pain and clarity of the situation set in. For the first time in years, I was reconnected with the feeling I’d had as a teenager joining my first HoER installation meeting, one of understanding that a group of people I cared about tremendously were about to do something unprecedented and life-altering together.

When I closed my computer, I knew I did not have a choice but to do everything I possibly could to ensure we formed a union. I felt that I owed it to the people in that meeting room who had changed my life. Now it was my turn to try and do the same for them by joining them in an effort to unionize.

Going Public

Meow Wolf Workers Collective went public with our intent to unionize on September 3, 2020, and I had never felt as much simultaneous excitement and dread as I did the night before. I sat on the foot of my bed nervously reading and rereading our announcement copy, as though it would somehow change if I stopped looking at it. On our private Slack channel, I watched messages from the other organizers appear on my screen. “Welp. No going back now,” one read.

I was full of hope for what we had created together and the potential it had to change our lives for the better, yet overwhelmed by the acknowledgment we were all doing this for the first time. I felt the weight of knowing that what we were about to do was irreversible, and that no matter the outcome, it would personally affect the lives of everyone who worked for Meow Wolf. We trusted each other entirely but did not know how it would end.

For me, going public with our union demand was a point of no return. While I believed Meow Wolf’s leadership would share in our vision of hope for the future, I knew there was a possibility I might be labeled as a troublemaker among management and thus denied career opportunities or become an easy target for another round of layoffs. Still, I knew that things could not go on as they had, and that moving forward, I had to openly display my belief in and commitment to our union, no matter what personal risk it might entail.

As weeks lengthened to months, I became increasingly outspoken. To the surprise and dismay of everyone who had been involved with organizing up to this point, Meow Wolf’s executive management immediately hired a notorious anti-labor law firm, Kauff McGuire & Margolis, and came out in clear opposition to the union upon learning of its existence. The organizing committee was operating at full capacity countering the anti-union propaganda that had been pushed out to the workforce by every level of management, engaging in a near-constant stream of organizing conversations, and preparing for an election. Each day came with a new series of crises, and just staying afloat began to feel crushing.

Management’s anti-union campaign had scared many of the on-the-fence workers in the bargaining unit and instilled hostility toward the union in a small but outspoken portion of the workforce. A handful of the most vehement opposers made a staff-run website entitled “Reunion for Meow Wolf” in which the union was painted as corrupt and harmful, only concerned with getting dues and doomed to tear the company apart from the inside. Within a given hour of a relatively normal day at work, entire departments would move from supporting to opposing the union. It was not unusual for explosive arguments to break out on the shop floor.

MWWC artists finalizing a diorama in Meow Wolf’s Convergence Station . (Emily Markwiese)

One organizer had a coworker and friend storm away from him mid-conversation, insisting the union would strip artists of their creative freedoms. We later learned this worker’s manager had made an unfounded claim to their team that unionizing would prohibit Meow Wolf employees from performing on site installations in new project locations. After a particularly heated meeting, one of my closest friends and I angrily hung up on each other while unsuccessfully trying to resolve our differing stances on unionizing.

I began to feel a pervasive sense of doubt. There were so many scrambled and discordant projections of what a union would mean for the future that I now struggled to see clearly what that union would look like.

I was frustrated and needed someone to talk to who had been through this process. I had been closely following the social media accounts of the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) union through its successful election and into its first collective bargaining agreement. Through an Instagram direct message, I formed a relationship with two of the main organizers. I asked them to meet over Zoom.

Up until this point, I had viewed our union effort as isolated to Meow Wolf itself. But in talking with them, I saw we were part of a historic wave of newly organized art workers.

Crucially, they spoke about how their contract had already begun to change their lives, how much relief and stability it had brought them and their coworkers. Hearing what they’d accomplished, what we were fighting for began to come into clearer focus. Giving up now would mean letting go of the future my coworkers and I had imagined together in the early organizing meetings, one where we would see each other thrive.

Talking with the BAM organizers put more into perspective for me than just the life-altering potential of a good union contract. I had lost sight of the fact that the disillusionment and hopelessness I felt were successful outcomes of an expensive anti-union campaign — one orchestrated by corporate lawyers in another state who had never struggled alongside the people that made up the union they aimed to defeat. Management had the resources to fund an anti-union campaign, but I trusted that we had the resolve to render it obsolete. Years of building multiversal worlds together had taught us how to do the seemingly impossible; now we were going to unionize Meow Wolf.

After the Election

The week of our election, management called for a town hall with representatives of the union. Among the organizing committee, we viewed this as a damage-control gesture. The invitation came shortly after we openly identified a series of “informational sessions” the company carried out as having been captive-audience meetings. From the moment we announced our intent to unionize, management doubled down on projecting the image of Meow Wolf as a radically progressive company, insisting they were not engaging in anti-union tactics. This image became increasingly difficult to uphold the more we publicly drew attention to the reality of the situation.

Still, given the extremely polarizing effect the anti-union campaign had on interpersonal relations at work, we felt it was important to show our coworkers we did not have to be discouraged. In the town hall, one executive referred the workforce to UnionFacts.com, an anti-labor website owned by the infamous right-wing corporate lobbyist Rick Berman. Another high-level director from the company’s social impact division depicted the union as an aggressor that threatened to break apart the “Meow Wolf family.” The night before, those of us who were chosen to represent the union met to remind each other that our power is in our unity, while anti-union efforts have only fear to rely on.

The MWWC Bargaining Committee in front of Meow Wolf’s House of Eternal Return in Santa Fe, New Mexico. (Emily Markwiese)

We spoke confidently about the logistics and legalities of getting to a contract, but more important, articulated a common message. As Meow Wolf continued to find its footing as a company, we needed to do the same as workers. We were telling the company to trust us as the experts of our own livelihoods, to let us lead the way in making Meow Wolf what we believed it could be.

The workers of Meow Wolf voted, via an anonymous third-party election software, to form the Meow Wolf Workers Collective on October 20, 2020. Meow Wolf, at this point, accepted it was the will of its employees to unionize.

At work the next day, there was an unmistakable sense that even though we’d been collaborators for years, even though we’d gone through myriad harrowing moments together, we were seeing one another in a new light for the first time. This was the feeling of true solidarity. Milagro would often tell us, “We win on hope.” I saw that he was right.

Three months after we won our union, I was elected to the bargaining committee alongside nine of my coworkers. Negotiations went on for eighteen months. For the better part of a year, we would return home from twelve-hour days on the construction site to begin three-hour-long proposal drafting meetings.

I am, generally, a soft-spoken and calm person. I tend to inwardly process difficulty; rarely do I externalize big emotions. In the final week of bargaining, I found myself crying tears of rage, struggling to speak through a clenched jaw to a board member and top-level executive after receiving a wage counterproposal that would leave so many of my peers in the same precarious condition they’d been in for years.

MWWC technical systems engineers installing in Meow Wolf’s Convergence Station. (Emily Markwiese)

In the bargaining room, I learned that anger, when it is over injustice, is an emotion to be honored and wielded, never ashamed of. Unionizing taught me that conflict has a place in growth. Real change is uncomfortable, disorienting, and ultimately unknowable until you’re on the other side of it.

It is also what leads to moments like the one I had standing outside of work the morning after we’d reached a tentative agreement at midnight, when a coworker ran up to me with her arms open. As we held each other she said, “I didn’t realize this is what it felt like to be taken care of.”

Our contract doubled parental leave from six to twelve weeks, secured $1 million in immediate wage increases for existing workers, guaranteed non-merit-based yearly raises, and instated overtime for salaried employees, matching 401k contributions, a labor-management committee, and layoff protections, among many other wins. Within the first week of reaching a tentative agreement, multiple coworkers confided that they had planned to resign but changed their minds — the union had restored their motivation.

One of the employees who had publicly signed his name to the Reunion campaign sent me an Instagram message saying he now realized he’d been misled. The contract was ratified with a 99 percent yes vote one month later. The labor-management committee began meeting to resolve workplace issues that had long afflicted the workforce but had largely gone unaddressed by management. Union stewards were regularly accompanying their coworkers to meetings with their supervisors to act as advocates in difficult conversations. The wage adjustments in the contract kicked in, which for most of our bargaining unit meant the first meaningful raise they had seen in over five years, and the difference between being able to continue living in Santa Fe or being unwittingly pushed out to a less expensive location.

At work, there was a collective feeling of relief and excitement for the future. I had not felt this hopeful about Meow Wolf since the night we unveiled the House of Eternal Return to the public six years prior.

Not long after the opening of Convergence Station, Meow Wolf workers in Denver organized and won voluntary recognition from the company, doubling the size of the Meow Wolf Workers Collective overnight. A friend asked if I’d share some words of advice with the newly elected bargaining committees.

The most important thing I could think to say was this: Sometimes, when it gets really hard, and it will get hard, you will feel like you just want everything to go back to normal. You’ll maybe feel like you’re tired of fighting, of being in difficult conversations. You might feel frightened by the understanding you are at the steering wheel of a ship that is going to change yours and others’ lives forever. You are going to have to challenge the parts of yourself that are afraid of conflict and discomfort.

But what is waiting at the end of that tunnel is a significantly better quality of life for you and your coworkers. What is on the other side of that fear is the true meaning of solidarity, when you take a risk for people you don’t know because you don’t want them to go through the things you have gone through. Do not let your fears drive you. You are going to be a different person at the end of this, and that is a precious thing that can never be taken away.