‘Absolutely thrilled’: Employees at Williamsburg’s Vital Climbing Gym vote to unionize

vital climbing gym
Brooklyn’s VITAL Climbing Gym has officially unionized.
Photo courtesy of Google Maps

Following several months of negotiation and organization, the National Labor Relations Board has certified that workers at Vital Climbing Gym in Williamsburg are now an officially recognized union, Climbers United.

Vital, one of New York City’s largest climbing gyms with locations in California, Manhattan and in Brooklyn, was founded by co-owners David Sacher and Nam Phan in 2010 with the goal of making climbing gyms progressive “community centers.”

However, employees at the 45,000-square-foot Williamsburg location say their experiences working at the gym are far removed from the idyllic and inclusive working environment painted by the gym’s owners.  

“From the time that I started, there was kind of this idea that, you know this isn’t really that great of a job and it’s really fun when you start out but over time it kind of wears on you and there’s this sense that we’re not valued as much as we would like to be,” said Vital employee and unionization leader Aaron Vanek to Brooklyn Paper on June 22.“We’re in a position where we know that we want to make a change [and] we have the support to do it. This is a great time to do this kind of stuff and I think it’s important in the industry.”

In May, employees at Vital’s Brooklyn location filed a petition for a unionization election with the NLRB in hopes of advancing their efforts to negotiate with Vital bosses for better pay, increased benefits and more.

On July 20, those hopes were affirmed when 43 of the 51 Vital employees who participated in the election voted in favor of unionization. 

vital unionization poster
Employees said they are excited for negotiations to begin.Photo courtesy of Photo by Varun Mahta

“Those of us on the organizing committee, and the wider body of Vital employees, are absolutely thrilled by this result, and more than that, we are absolutely unsurprised by this result.” Vital employee and union leader Varun Mehta said on Thursday. “From the very beginning, we have maintained that this is a motion aimed directly at positive and tangible change for those of us who work at this company, and in recent weeks, I think we’ve been extremely successful at spreading that information across the team. What we see today is the clear result of that action, and all our organizing to date. We needed 51% to win today. We got over 81%. There is going to be a union at Vital Climbing Gym and we couldn’t be more excited.”

Following the results of the vote, Climbers United members will now head into contract negotiation efforts with Vital’s management team to advocate for their demands which include increased pay to accommodate high cost of living, better workplace conditions, the addition of a grievance process and more.

A representative for Vital Climbing Gym declined to comment. 

“As wonderful of a day today is, we all understand that the work does not stop here,” Mehta said. “I’d like to think this big win will serve as a catalyst, one we will use to represent our wishes with strength and poise in the negotiations to come. We look forward to embracing the negotiations with open arms, with our eyes firmly on the future where we’ve signed our contracts and begun life as unionized workers.”

Vital employees and union organizers celebrated the news of the vote, and expressed their anticipation for the next stage of the negotiation process.

“The rapid growth that the climbing gym industry is experiencing is overwhelmingly on the backs of front desk employees, coaches, instructors, and route setters,” said Ayin Villagra-Brown, a Vital crew member and union organizer. “The margin by which this election was won illustrates how committed we all are to advocating for fairness and accountability in our field.”

Others involved championed Thursday’s union victory, saying this next step would work to improve the gym overall.

“Vital has so much potential, and today, we’ve proven that the workers of Vital are passionate about that potential,” said Vital cycling instructor and union organizer Ford Phillips. “This win is the first stone laid, and I’m excited to see where negotiations take us.”
Last updated July 20, 2023 5:28 p.m.