Protesting the Protestors [Update]

Over at, Caveat Magister’s attempts to laugh off the Burner community’s Commodification Camp concerns – Why Am I Making Fun of Burners and 12 Shocking Revelations About Ultra-Rich Plug and Play Camps – went down like a lead balloon.

Commenter Metapony likened it to the 2007 DPW workers rights protest at BMHQ, during a Regionals Conference:

This burning blog posting mocking people and misrepresenting the issue reminds me of something…
Oh yes, I remember! This is like the time there was a small protest across the street from the Burning Man office (during the spring regionals summit in 2007) and the BM Org sent a bunch of people out to make fun of them…

So carry on that fine tradition of misrepresenting and mocking folks with real issues, CM. Good job.

This is an interesting chapter of Burning Man’s history that I had never heard of before. From Bright Path:

Today, Feb. 18, 2007, a few workers, some with their heads covered by paper bags, staged a small demonstration outside of Burning Man headquarters in San Francisco to protest what they say are reductions in pay, forced “death waivers” and lack of adequate health care for the workers who primarily clean the desert up after the Burning Man event.



Now that I’ve seen the video, it definitely has some resonance with the current situation.

The protest begins in a fairly low-key fashion, with 2 of the protestors afraid to show their faces for fear of losing their jobs or future art grants. Caleb, the unmasked protestor, is very well-spoken about the reasons for their protest. Then, Burning Man HQ’s doors open and some other protestors stream out to disrupt the protest with a protest of their own: mocking the seemingly valid concerns about pay cuts, medical treatment, and possible violations of labor regulations.

Caleb "Shooter" Schaber

Caleb “Shooter” Schaber

Sadly, a couple of years after this video was made Caleb “Shooter” Schaber, the unmasked protestor, gonzo artist, and  former combat photojournalist, committed suicide in Gerlach, NV .

At the time these events occurred, he spoke out on about the sock puppets that were dispatched to attack him as revenge against his peaceful protest. People wondered on ePlaya if the counter-protestors were acting independently, or if they were sent out by BMOrg to misdirect the situation. Some of the protestors were identified as Regional representatives of the Org.

Here’s some further discussion of the situation at Indybay and Fark.

Does anyone know the real story behind this? Was it all just a Cacophony-style prank, another Big Farce – or were the protestors expressing legitimate concerns? Did BMOrg ever respond seriously, or was the pranking the extent of it?

If you feel like protesting today, sign the petition against Commodification Camps.


aleb David Schaber - founder of the Chupacabra Policia, press correspondent in Afghanistan, writer for Hustler magazine. He earned his playa name of 'Shooter' with a .38 in a Seattle bar in 1996. On April 17, 2009 he took the Hunter S Thompson exit from life. Image: flickr/Danger Ranger (Creative Commons)

Caleb David Schaber – founder of the Chupacabra Policia, press correspondent in Afghanistan, writer for Hustler magazine. He earned his playa name of ‘Shooter’ with a .38 in a Seattle bar in 1996. On April 17, 2009 he took the Hunter S Thompson exit from life. Caption + Image: flickr/Danger Ranger (Creative Commons)

[Update 11/2014 9:32pm]

A Burner who was there that day at the Regional conference but wishes to remain anonymous contacted us and provided some further details. I asked:

Were the protestors concerns fake? Did BMOrg do anything about them? When the anti-protestors learned what the protest was about , what did you do then? Did you go back inside and report back to anyone, or did nobody  care?

Anonymous Burner replied:

In regards to Caleb’s group’s protest: I believe their concerns were real.   Personally, I agree with where they were coming from.  In fact,I believe that these concerns are manifesting again today within DPW.
in regards to The “protest of the protest”: I can only speak to what went on that day.   The BMOrg didn’t “do anything” in regards to the protesters that I was aware of.  The regionals did not go back to “report” to anybody.   The regional’s network was not a hierarchical structure at the time (nor is it today to my knowledge).   Did people care?   Sure.  There was definitely independent discussion after the fact, but not within the frame of the conference.  The issue had absolutely nothing to do with what the conference was being held for, which was open discussion about building and strengthening “Burner” communities within our regions.  

BURNILEAKS: Workers Want Rights

Thanks to Anonymous Burner for bringing this to our attention.


Burning Man Worker Rights

List of Grievances


my life is better than your vacationIn August 2014, members of DPW upper management, referred to as “The Council of Darkness”, were informed that the Burning Man workforce was unhappy and seeking to organize for more fair treatment.

This came as a surprise to the Council, some of whom have requested a list of issues with examples provided so they can start making improvements.

The Council promised no retaliation in response to members of the dpw airing their work related issues; a threat perceived by many, that has kept us silent. The meeting was recorded by the human resources department. Let’s move forward in full faith and present our grievances – the things we believe are wrong and should be addressed.


This form is meant to help create a list of grievances; Issues that you can choose to either agree or disagree with and a box at the bottom of each issue for you to contribute a relevant example. The grievances with the highest amount of “agrees” will be brought to our leadership with requests and recommendations for action.

You may propose solutions to these issues. Please add them in the “solutions” section at the end of the form.

We need DPW workers, volunteers, and management to speak up with concise examples in order for our grievances to be taken seriously. Some of the instances of unfairness are self explanatory and matter of fact. But others need further example. Remember that there has been a promise, recorded by human resources at the meeting between the Council of Darkness and two members of the DPW, that no retaliation shall be pursued for serious testimonials of instances of unfair labor treatment. You do not need to name specific persons, you can explain their position in the organisation and the circumstances as well as relevant facts. Please try to maintain appropriate discretion. We genuinely believe the members of the council will keep their word to diligently address issues to the best of their ability without punishing those who speak up.

This document is for past and present DPW members only. If you are a not member of the DPW, please do not participate here. We will release a petition when the time is right, and we will need your support at that time.

Below is a tentative list of grievances from the DPW community. You can and should add your own, by submitting them on the form you will find a link to at the bottom of this document. After a final edit, we will present this document to the council.

Read these issues carefully and then use the form to voice your support for these issues being aired. There is a group of us devoted to making a final edit, taking in consideration your input, for presentation to the council.

Issues relating to common labor rights

These are things that break federal or state labor laws.

1. Workers are often paid far below minimum wage for manual labor, and do not receive overtime pay.

2. Workers often do not receive forced breaks or the correct amount of days off.  Some worked weeks straight, and were on-call at night.

3. Workers are discouraged from sharing information about pay with each other.

4. Workers are not provided with adequate safety gear or training.

5. Workers are discouraged from organizing and in some cases, intimidated in response.


  1. I was treated with serious disdain, after presenting my ideas about organising the DPW, by a member of upper management. I felt talked down to and treated as a moron, and in the weirdest turn of events, I was then accused of being aggressive and threatening towards them.
  2. In reference to a person who was involved in organizing the DPW, I was told by a DPW manager that they would like to fire that person, but since they were not able to fire them, they would not promote them.

6. Volunteers may work for many years without reimbursement or consideration for the value of their experience.


  1. Compensation and workload vary dramatically within DPW.  I have witnessed many people on many occasions express anger and frustration about the discrepancies.  It erodes morale.

7. Budgets and pay rates stay the same every year and are not adjusted for inflation, but workers are asked to do more every year – meaning that every year the entire paid workforce effectively receives a pay cut.


  1. My workload increased tremendously this year and though I was given more responsibility, my pay stayed the same from last year. I was told by my manager that they simply were not given a budget that would allow an increase in my pay.
  2. Manager would like to give long term (5+) Assistant Manager pay increase.  Payroll budget actually decreased so was unable to.

8. Managers, Board members, and crew members are allowed to get away with harassment and assault of other crew members and keep their jobs

Things that go against Burning Man principles

The worst offenses are those that fly in the face of Burning Man’s Ten principles. List things that are unfair, unequal, and hypocritical here.

1.  Repeat and long-term (over three consecutive weeks of labor performed) Volunteers are not allowed to eat during the week of the event – how much money does this even save? How can you expect unpaid people with no access to a grocery store for three weeks to then provide their own food for a week?

2. Founders, many of whom no longer work in any capacity for the production of the event, have deluxe trailers, their own camp, a private gourmet kitchen, servers, and other luxuries, which are paid out of the same budget that could provide compensation to the workforce.

Issues that affect general morale and worker happiness

These are issues that relate to how special and different the experience of working DPW is and how it can be protected or improved.

1. In the decision making process of firings, because of interpersonal issues, those closest to the parties involved are not consulted enough. This results in misconceptions, and perceived poor treatment of those that are let go by people they do not know, and for reasons that may be unclear to those being fired. This in turn can cause mental distress and insecurity within the crew.


  1. One crew member [in a managerial position] was not asked back the next year.  This “firing” was due to behavior that was unacceptable to his bosses.  However, the behavior in question was not unacceptable to the rest of DPW. Also, the nature of the behavior was such that had he been asked to change it, he could’ve.  He did a great job and enjoyed it very much.  It distresses me that this type of firing takes place when other managers are true jack-asses in their manner, yet remain in their position of power indefinitely.

2. Psychological help for DPW could be improved. Every year we see mental breakdowns and in the worst case, suicides. There could be more focus and attention paid to the mental wellness of people who sacrifice 6-10 weeks of their lives to labor very hard, for very cheap, in a very harsh environment.

3. Worker freedoms and our general ability to have fun are being eroded. More rules, regulations, and restrictions are being unfairly imposed on the DPW, decreasing morale. There seems to be a lack of understanding or consideration about how these decisions affect us.


  1. The decision to ground all DPW vehicles for duration of the event was not only unfair and unnecessary, it was counter-productive to those of us that still have to work during the event. We have always chosen sober and responsible drivers to take a large groups on a tour of the event that we have worked ourselves into the ground for. It’s hard to want to walk or bike everywhere when you’ve been working the way we do for the amount of time we do it in. The DPW taxi program was a brilliant idea; it insured that there would be a sober driver and people would not abuse their work vehicle privileges.
  1. The last minute addition of required OSHA 10 certification was poorly timed and caused added stress to a workforce that is far from resources, short on equipment, and short on free time to devote to additional last minute requirements.

4. There is no clear and established process by which someone goes from being a volunteer to being an employee and getting paid for their work during pre event. There is no official path, and no rhyme or reason to who gets paid. If there is a rhyme or reason it seems to have a lot to do with favoritism, being liked, and knowing the right people. Many people work years volunteering during pre event without getting paid. It seems like there should be a standard path to employment and a logical and fair pay scale in pre event for repeat DPW members.

5. Considering the length of time workers spend in such a brutally harsh environment, it is surprising that more suitable housing is not provided for staff.  Some people seem to get housing (living container or trailer) provided if requested, and some do not.  Whether or not you are provided housing does not seem related to length of time on playa.  Again, the only reasoning here seems to indicate nepotism.  6 weeks or more in a tent is a long time.  Providing a dark, cool space for people to sleep would benefit the crew both physically, emotionally, and mentally.  If a worker is already able to provide their own housing, assisting with storage over the off-season would also be helpful.


  1. Manager requested housing for Assistant Manager who was to be on playa for total of 6+ weeks.  Was refused with the statement “housing is only for mission critical employees”.

6. There have been instances of theft in the past.  For workers without a vehicle or container to lock their belongings inside of, a set of crew lockers with posted accessibility hours would be helpful, perhaps located at the Depot.

7. There seems to be a disparity in how the work day is divided.  Most crews work during the day.  If a crew member is injured on the job site in the evening, it is considered “personal time” and not covered by worker’s compensation.  However, a worker can get terminated for activity that occurred during the evening.  That seems like a double standard.  In reality camp, if someone gets into an altercation at the pub after work, they do not get fired the following day.


Proposed Solutions

If you have ideas for how Burning Man can address any of the above issues, please submit them on the form and they will be added here.

  1. Implement a system of representation for the workers that empowers us from the bottom up (people we vote to represent us), so that we may contribute and be heard regarding the decisions that affect us.
  2. Create a clear and transparent system of pay with a standardized system of promotion in the company. Give DPW a fair wage with a clear path to sustainable employment.
  3. Create a forum for workers to express their concerns and ideas to management before the issues fester.
  4. Publish a budget online that not only includes expenditures, but also the income of Black Rock City LLC.
  5. There should be a formal procedure for hiring and firing.  There should be a clear and defined way to apply for any and all paid positions.  In order to be fired during the work season a pre-defined protocol, agreed to by DPW as well as the Council of darkness should be followed for each and every instance, regardless.  Any off season firings (pre or post) should follow a similar protocol and give written notice of the decision to all concerned parties.  A meeting with HR should be permitted if requested.


What’s Up With DPW and Gate?

Kim Jung Ilo from DPW, the crew that spend months constructing and removing Black Rock City for us every year, reaches out to bridge the cultural divide.


(source: Facebook)

This was my response to a thread asking, if I dare paraphrase, “why are DPW such assholes and are they ever been nice or any real use to you?”, which seems to have been deleted. Various ignorant and sage comments followed, mostly thoughtless; none quite hit the mark, in my opinion, and as a member of DPW, I felt the need to put some sense into the conversation. I still feel it…

DPW sets the table and cleans up afterwards for the biggest cultural potluck there is. It’s a lot of very hard work. (The DPW work season is where ADHD workaholics go to hang out with each other, I’ve heard it said. From the inside, it’s remarkably apt.) That some of us resent the eventual guests for interrupting what some feel is our real occupation – the DPW season – with the actual party, at which some of us don’t feel comfortable or wanted, is both silly and understandable. So they/we hang/hide out in the servants’ quarters with friends.

dpw assesSome of us ARE assholes, to be sure, and I’m sure there are some who would say that about me, and even though you, original poster, were talking only of your own experiences, it’s best not to generalize too much. DPW members are all too often people who already have difficult, fringe-y lives and it is an amazing comfort to come out and be and do with like-minded souls. Our often apparently brutal affection for one another isn’t universally translatable to the psychological vocabulary of outsiders and the respect it both implies and demands isn’t automatically conferred on just anyone who shows up in our midst. The type of people who can do what we do are frequently habituated to being wary of strangers due to default world dynamics and the subsequent need to be self-reliant – not an automatic recipe for openness nor a casually sunny demeanor.

In contrast, the raver culture that many burners come from is characterized by a genuine, but necessarily superficial openness to new faces. This is likewise a cultural language that is understandable to those who are acculturated, but seems weirdly phony to those who are not or don’t recognize it for what it is. “Why is this beautiful girl hugging me? Is it because she wants to have sex with me?” Probably not, sadly. “Why is that ragged DPW member shouting insults at me. Does she hate me?” It might be an inappropriately placed attempt at familiarity offering you the chance to play. Similarly, say “how’s it going?” to a stranger and you expect them to say “good” (or “well” if they’re avid grammar mavens). However, should you start answering that question with an account of your day, said stranger will likely be put out or at least confused. The cultures simply don’t line up, though both are lovely in their own context.

DPW Parade, 2013. photo: Carnivillain, Flickr

DPW Parade, 2013. photo: Carnivillain, Flickr

Everyone wants to be cool and feel part of the group, but if you haven’t been out there in the DPW manner, you’re just not, in all likelihood, going to have the markers of someone who merits automatic respect and acceptance. We’re wary and standoffish with each other at first, as well.

What makes for a negative interpersonal experience, anyway? Is it that the person you’re interacting with is possessed of some negative trait? That’s generally how we react. Is it that we ourselves have some negative trait? That’s seldom how we react, though, in truth equally likely, right? “I didn’t have a good time interacting with him” is generally voiced as “what a jerk” not as “he’s probably really nice, but we didn’t get along”. It’s pretty simple self-protective ego tactics, right?

We’re not evolved to deal well with strangers, though many of us have learned to do it fairly well, but none of us deal well with anyone outside of wherever that boundary of “stranger” is set. Your behavior is no doubt the same even if your threshold is broader and your tolerance for perturbation greater.

Still feel like judging? If the answer is yes, then you’re either very dull-witted or a complete dick. You decide.


I come at DPW from something of a weird perspective – over-edumacated, pretty square dude, living a pretty square life – I found myself hired by the bmorg to build a major project, thrust in amongst the heathens at the beginning of May. I was green as a ’70’s avocado fridge, had my share of freakout, meltdown, etc., but found something I didn’t know I was missing, or wanted. I felt “I’m not one of these people, but I have an unreasonable affection for them”, and found that I couldn’t not come back. It’s been ten years and counting, now, and I still feel like an outsider sometimes, but I recognize that as my own neurotic bullshit. I find that I am in an environment that suits me very well with people whom I can respect and admire and feel honored to be part of. The rough love was a godsend; being with dozens of other alphas and getting along more or less was a huge relief. It broke something loose inside my soul and that has made me a better, much better person.
I, for one, love “the participants”, whose simple enjoyment of the event can elude me, being a jaded, behind-the-scenes-motherfucker, and envy their, your, uncomplicated joy at it all. The last three years have each been my best yet, so I’m learning. I tease my fellows for hating on the participants when they do, pointing out that it’s unworthy to revile the very guests we’re throwing a party for; after all, we wouldn’t have anything to do if they weren’t coming.



Buck Down shared Gate’s perspective:

so i was nudged to add a little perspective on behalf of the Gate Crew which suffers from similar PR vis a vis our perceived (and occasional very real) antipathy towards participants. in our case – we actually have to interact WITH EVERY SINGLE ONE OF YOU as we get you into (and to a lesser extent – out of) the event. sadly – the ones of you who are super cool, and completely have your shit together (which is by far really the majority) – we barely get to interact with – as the transaction takes next to no time at all (and thank you! for making our, and your lives easier on that!) however – its all the “special snowflakes” who have wandered off and lost their cars, can’t follow simple instructions are trying to sneak themselves or others in, and/or put their own and our lives at risk out there are the ones that can fill up a lot of our day – or at least the more memorable parts. after 6-8 hours a day, day after day, of dealing with the least prepared, most annoying people black rock city has to offer -it gets progressively easier to start building up a resentment that unfortunately can spill over to a lot of less deserving people – add to that a dynamic that Kim Jong Ilo mentioned of having spent a long time working out in an empty desert that suddenly became full of noise and people which is more than jarring and it becomes easy to see how we start retracting in to an “us” and “them” dynamic. it’s not something we are especially proud of – but it’s real. you all have seen how just how much even a week in that desert can completely run you through an emotional roller coaster – now imagine that for a month – or two months – how about 4???? this shit aint easy kids. and when all is said and done – a lot of us aren’t doing it for you, or burning man – we’re doing it for each other, and our bonds are not dissimilar to the ones felt by soldiers at war. at a certain point, many of us stop caring about the event, or what it means, or art – we just know that our best friends are out there doing a tough job in the heat and dust and will be damned if we are going to let them do it alone. so when you do stumble on one of us when our manners aren’t what they probably should be – just know that what may come across as disdain for participants is actually rooted in a jealous and protective love for one another in our crews. we promise we’ll try to be better about it – but just know it comes from someplace real.