I’ve really enjoyed an ongoing public dispute between two Burning Man “volunteers” about whether a multi-million-dollar “non-profit” organization should pay its workers. When capitalism raises its ugly head out there on the playa, you know the Burner bureaucracy has a huge PR problem.
The argument started when Reno journalist Jessica Reeder, who had volunteered at Burning Man for 10 years, wrote an op-ed column asking a pertinent, or impertinent, question: “Will Burning Man finally do right by its workers?” “Burning Man likes to encourage volunteerism,” she wrote, “meaning that a large portion of its workforce isn’t paid, but is asked to ‘gift’ their labor ... My gift to Black Rock City was seven-day workweeks in extreme environmental conditions.” When Ms. Reeder asked for compensation she was turned down for years before finally “earning” a paid job. That’s when a co-worker filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which announced a settlement in December.
That settlement required Burning Man to compensate the complainant for “lost wages” and to advise volunteer workers “of their right to fair treatment under the law.” Nevertheless, the wealthy Bay Area-based Burner hierarchy doesn’t like workers who want to be paid for their labors. That would be too much like capitalism, which they abhor. So workers are still encouraged to “volunteer,” which means donating their time for the greater good.
Joanne Fahnestock of Reno spoke for Burner officials in an op-ed arguing although volunteers don’t get paid, they can leave whenever they want. “One of the 10 principles of Burning Man is gifting time, energy, money and kindness,” something that neither “workers who filed the complaint nor the NLRB understand,” she wrote. This looks like a clash between dubious high-minded principles and federal labor laws.
Despite Burning Man’s holier-than-thou attitude toward capitalism and money, the “non-profit” rakes in money hand over fist, grossing over $20 million last year while sharing $3 million to $4 million with its enthusiastic co-conspirator, the Washington-based U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which issues an annual permit for a naked drug festival in a National Conservation Area. Oh yes, there’s the art and the creativity, but that’s the cover story. Why else would allegedly sane people pay a minimum of $300, and often much more, to bake themselves to a crisp out there on the Black Rock playa?
Some prosperous techies pay more than $20,000 to live in air-conditioned luxury at Black Rock City complete with gourmet chefs and personal “sherpas” who bring them whatever they want (use your imagination) whenever they want it. So Burning Man has gone corporate and upscale, which is the antithesis of what they purport to believe in — “gifting” and “radical self-reliance,” whatever that means.
As if $20 million wasn’t enough, Burning Man is now asking the BLM to allow the event to grow to 100,000 participants, which would mean gross receipts of more than $30 million. At a public hearing in Lovelock earlier this year, Pershing County Sheriff Jerry Allen noted although the event generates millions of dollars for the Northern Nevada economy, his host county receives less than one-half of 1 percent of the proceeds. Organizers are also asking for more space, about 22.6 square miles of previously pristine desert land, and BLM is virtually certain to rubber-stamp their request.
As Jenny Kane of the Reno Gazette-Journal wrote, “Since the event has become a part of mainstream pop culture ... it has become a more restrictive event in the face of numerous severe injuries and several fatalities.” So here’s the bottom-line question: How much is enough?
Guy W. Farmer, of Carson City, is a longtime critic of Burning Man.