By Ed Staskus
There once was a union maid, she never was afraid, of goons and ginks and company finks, she went to the union hall when a meeting it was called, and when the Legion boys come ’round, she always stood her ground.” Woody Guthrie
Early in 2019, five weeks into a union-led strike against the country’s biggest car maker, General Motors was losing about $90 million a day and thousands of auto workers were watching their savings shrink. Yet there was no end in sight for the longest labor upheaval in many years. Nearly 50,000 workers were idled, picketing outside GM factories from coast to coast, squabbling about wages, retirement benefits, and the fate of the shuttered Chevrolet plant in Lordstown, Ohio.
At about the same time, teachers at New York City’s YogaWorks studios, a nationwide chain that advertises itself as “America’s #1 Yoga Studio,” asked the wellness corporation to recognize a union. “It would appear to be the first union in the United States to include yoga instructors,” according to The New York Times.
“Yoga teachers are poor,” said Abi Miller, feeling like the low man on the totem pole. He posted his feelings on a Facebook group page. “This is a vibration that I lived for the first years of teaching yoga,” he said. “I did lots of free community events. While there is absolutely nothing wrong with doing those things, it prevented me from jumping towards my dream. It held me back because I was afraid to ask for the money that I was worth. It delayed my process of stepping into the teacher that I am meant to be. This industry is in full boom and makes a ton of money every year. If you are a teacher, why wouldn’t you be deserving of having a little piece of that pie?”
Although yoga is for everybody, everybody can’t always get to the front of the table for their piece of the pastry. Joe Hill, the songwriter, and union organizer, back in the day, once pointed out why that was. “Work and pray, live on hay, you’ll get pie in the sky when you die.”
“We believe yoga is for every body,” is the mantra of YogaWorks, fiddling with spelling and meaning. “No matter your age or fitness level, we offer yoga that will work for you. Our programs remain authentic to ancient yoga tradition while seamlessly integrating today’s popular styles. Join us on the mat, we’re here to honor and empower your journey toward personal growth and well-being.”
Even though the request by their employees, who honor and empower the journeys of all those who come to the studio, was polite, if firm, the response by the company was equally firm, if not exactly polite. It was stern, if not rabid, in the tradition of labor-management relations, which are almost always adversarial.
Unions and bosses have never exactly been a baby blue meeting of the minds. They have spent most of their time since the Industrial Revolution poking one another in the eye. When it’s gotten out of hand, which it often has, it’s ended up as an eye-for-an-eye. Sometimes it gets ramped up to two eyes for one. It never gets damped down to turning the other cheek. No one is that Christian Buddhist Muslim Jewish or God-fearing.
In the 1890s the Carnegie Steel Company went toe-to-toe against the nation’s strongest trade union, which was the Iron and Steel Workers. An 1889 strike had won them a three-year contract, but three years later Andrew Carnegie was determined to break them. The company locked the workers out of the plant and all of them were fired.
They workers stormed the factory and took over the company town. Three hundred Pinkerton guards, locked and loaded, were called in, but when they got there they were met by thousands of strikers, many of them locked and loaded, too. After a full-out gun battle, the Pinkertons gave up and ran for it. In all, nine strikers and seven Pinkertons were killed. More than a hundred were injured. Eight thousand Pennsylvania National Guardsmen were called in and the strike was quickly broken.
The Battle of Blair Mountain, near Welch, West Virginia, in 1921, was a spontaneous uprising of ten thousand coal miners who fought the company’s hired guns and their allies, the state police, for three days before federal troops intervened. In 1987, while union members staged a fight as a distraction, others set fire to the Dupont Plaza Hotel in Puerto Rico. The union was in a dispute with management about pay and health care. Ninety-seven people were killed, many of them burned beyond recognition.
In New York City, the battle between YogaWorks and their working people was more in the way of a war of words. It was about hitting the bricks, not throwing bricks. Non-violence stayed the course. A YogaWorks official sent an e-mail addressed to their NYC teachers and trainers, painting the union as an untrustworthy group simply looking to collect dues from them, and on the look-out only for their own welfare.
The e-mail, from Heather Eary, a regional vice president, ended in blunt capital letters. “DON’T SIGN A CARD.” The capital letters referred to cards being circulated by teachers and by the union, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, stating the signatory wanted the group to represent them.
“YogaWorks does not believe that employees joining, and paying dues to, a union is in the best interest of YogaWorks, our employees or our students,” the message said. “We are surprised that the machinist union would ask us to help them possibly take away your right to decide whether you want to go running to join them.”
There was something queer about the message, as though it needed to get into down dog on both feet and both hands, to get itself grounded in the gap between the company’s principles and appetite. “Our offer to work in collaboration with the company still stands,” said David DiMaria, an organizer with the union. “Hopefully they will see past their original reaction.”
Carla Gatza, the head of human resources for YogaWorks, said, “We believe that our company, our employees, and our students are best served when YogaWorks and its employees work together without the interference of a third-party union.”
“They often say the yoga teachers are the center of this business,” Tamar Samir, embroiled in the unionization bid, said of the company’s leaders. “But then somehow the way that teachers are supported in terms of pay and benefits and job security doesn’t match that.” That being said, YogaWorks promptly closed its SoHo center, throwing its employees out of work and its students out on the sidewalk.
A union is an association of workers, often in a trade or profession, formed to protect and further their interests and rights. They began forming in the mid-19th century in response to the social and economic impact of the Industrial Revolution. National unions bubbled up in the post-Civil War era as the coasts and regions were brought together by commerce and railroads.
Labor unions benefited greatly from the New Deal in the 1930s, especially after the Wagner Act was passed to legally protect their right to organize. The number of workers belonging to unions peaked in the mid-50s at about 35% of the workforce and the total number of members peaked in the 70s at about 21 million. Membership has declined ever since. In 2013 there were 14 million members compared with 18 million in 1983. In 2013, the percentage of workers belonging to a union was 11%, compared to 20% in 1983.
There are more than 50 thousand yoga teachers in the United States, and according to the Yoga Alliance there are two people interested in becoming a teacher for every current teacher on the classroom floor. At that rate, should they succeed in signing up the proletariat of yogis, the Machinists and Aerospace Workers will soon be the biggest union in the country.
“Do I think that yoga teachers deserve more job security and better pay? Yes,” says J. Brown of J. Brown Yoga. “Are there a lot of yoga center owners who are participating in a business model that exploits teachers? Yes. Does the Yoga Alliance 200-hour teacher training standard bear a lot of responsibility for creating this model and fueling more people to follow it? Yes.”
He didn’t stop there. “Do I think that 100 teachers in NYC becoming part of the union, so they can attempt to negotiate the terms of their employment with YogaWorks, will do anything to change the model across the industry and give teachers more job security and better pay? The answer is no.”
There are about six thousand yoga centers nationwide. Twenty years ago, all of them were mom and pop places, independents, riding the wellness gravy train. In the past ten years venture capital has gotten its tentacles into the practice, for good reason.
There are 36 million pairs of active feet on mats nowadays, according to Yoga Journal. The number of people doing yoga grew by 50% in the past five years. Sun salutations are now as popular as swinging a golf club, without even having to go outside and get a sunburn. Popularity polls show that 15% of everybody has done yoga in the past year.
J. Brown sees “bottom line economics infecting the entire landscape of yoga centers. That is why yoga teachers have come to be paid so little and treated so poorly by both the corporate and independent operators.”
The median income in the United States is about $32,000. Median pay at GM is about $40,000. Roughly speaking, the average hourly pay for a member of the United Auto Workers ranges from $28 to $38 for those hired before September 2007, and between $16 and $20 for workers hired afterward. In 2015 yoga teaching was rated as one of the top one hundred jobs in the country, according to CNN, with a median annual paycheck clocking in at more than $60,000.
The compensation at YogaWorks ranges from about $35 to $100-or-more to teach classes of an hour’s length, occasionally an hour-and-a-half. The average teacher, teaching an average of 25 classes a week, working about 30 hours a week, at an average rate of pay of $50.00 a class, will make their $60 thousand-or-more a year without breaking a sweat, unless it’s a hot flow class.
One of the complaints made by yoga teachers about their jobs is the extra time they have to spend cleaning the yoga rooms after class, even though the rooms are simply empty spaces with wood floors that usually just require mopping up some sweat and sweeping up some dust balls.
The pay for hotel maids ranges between $9.00 to $13.00 an hour across the country. The pay range hardly varies, suggesting there aren’t many opportunities for increased pay or advancement, even with several years of experience. The average cleaner, working 40 hours a week, vacuuming making beds disinfecting hotel rooms, makes approximately $21,000 a year, a third of what the average yoga teacher makes.
But it’s not just cleaning up after class. There’s more to it than that in the teaching racket. Hotel maids may have to mess with some messy stuff in the rooms they clean, but they don’t have to fiddle with their iPods. Yoga teachers do. “We’re constantly having to change our playlist, constantly having to sequence, testing it out,” Melissa Brennan of CorePower Yoga said. “The expectation is go out and do all of this work and then come back and bring it back to the studio.”
The work on their digital music players is not compensated and has led to resentment, notwithstanding that teachers make about twice what the average Joe and Jane do. On the other hand, resentment is not morally superior to making money, so you might as well make as much of it as you can when you can.
Melissa and Effie Morgenstern are suing CorePower. They claim the company has failed “to pay its instructors for certain hours worked, causing their average weekly compensation to drop below the minimum wages they are entitled.”
“They hide behind the fact that you have all this gratitude and love and appreciation for yoga and your peers,” said Effie. “In a lot of ways, they weaponize relationships,” Melissa said. “I know there is a part of me that feels really foolish for buying into that and thinking that these people did care about me.”
The suit is the fourth action with similar complaints filed against CorePower. Almost two thousand other yoga instructors joined a separate class action lawsuit, claiming they are “overstretched and not being paid the minimum wages they are entitled to.” In a statement, CorePower Yoga said the lawsuit brought by Brennan and Morgenstern is without merit and maintains there was no wrongdoing. “CorePower is proud of its practices, believes they are fair, and will continue to stand by and defend them.”
When yoga went commercial it went capitalist. Yoga is cool beans, but cool capitalism is still capitalism, no matter how many times headquarters quotes BKS Iyengar Seane Corn Leslie Kaminoff or anybody else. They might as well cut to the chase and get right to Sadie Nardini, the bright shining light of yoga commercialism.
The debate about traditional vs. modern in the world of yoga is over. It’s been bushwhacked. The answer is free market capitalism. It’s about selling and winning and making money. It’s not for the faint of heart. After all, you can go broke in the yoga game, like anywhere else. “Capitalism without bankruptcy is like Christianity without hell,” says Frank Borman, businessman and ex-NASA astronaut.
Yoga is progressive open-minded socially conscious, except when it isn’t, when it comes to collective bargaining. Then it’s status quo push back time. “The dynamic of unions doesn’t reflect who we are, how we interact, how we make decisions or where we need to go,” is what automaker corporations and venture capital yogis all say when push comes to shove. It’s my way or the highway.
Yoga literally means union. Yoga yoke union. It can be understood on different levels, philosophically, religiously, and psychologically, as in no longer living at cross-purposes with yourself. It can simply mean going to yoga class, getting in step with like-minded folks. It might soon mean a first sighting thunderbolt, yoga teachers walking the picket line, fending off glib-talking union-busting ginks and finks.
Meanwhile, Andrew Carnegie, the Bluto of plutocrats, is rolling over in his grave laughing hysterically, while new-age union bosses are getting with the new dynamic, and Krishnamacharya and his antecedents are springing up out of corpse pose with surprised looks, all shook up at the ruckus.
Ed Staskus edits Theatre PEI. He posts on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Made in Cleveland http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com.