“DO NOT PRACTICE ON STRIKE,” read the bold white letters on the red strike post signs, some of which are pulled up with ski sticks.
On Saturday, a dozen off duty skiers from the Stevens Pass ski area stood in front of City Hall in downtown Leavenworth, Washington, the Bavarian tourist town 40 minutes from the mountain. They waved these posters while handing out stickers that read “I SUPPORT SKI PATROL” and informative palm tree cards that said, “We need your help pressuring Vail Resorts to negotiate a contract with us, and training, fair wages to offer a safe and healthy workplace with respect for what we do. “
Eight hundred miles away, eight of Utah’s Park City Mountain skiers gathered on Lowell Avenue at one of the main resort entrances and handed out tickets. “Our contract expired on November 14th,” read the cards. “We need adequate periods of sickness, hazard levies / pandemics, health protection for guests and employees, and respect for professional skiers. Help us send a message to Vail Resorts! ”
Patrols say the pickets are the culmination of failed attempts to negotiate collective bargaining with Vail Resorts, Inc., the joint owner of Stevens Pass and Park City Mountain. As the signs said, the information post was not an official stoppage strike as the participating patrols were on their days off. But they also implied a threatening question: will the patrols go on strike at some point and effectively cease business at both resorts?
(Photo: Sarah Gray)
Unionized ski patrols are not new – patrols at Colorado’s Crested Butte Mountain and the Aspen Skiing Company’s four ski resorts (Aspen Mountain, Snowmass, Aspen Highlands, and Buttermilk) have been unionized since 1978 and 1986, respectively. Patrols at Utah’s Canyons Resort unionized in 2000, though the union was disbanded when the mountain was bought by Vail Resorts in 2014 by Vail and its main competitor, Alterra Mountain Company. The two companies now own 45 resorts in the US alone. As of 2015, four more ski patrols have joined forces: two owned by Vail Resorts (Park City and Stevens Pass), one owned by Alterra (Steamboat, Colorado), and one independently owned (Telluride, also in Colorado). In addition, New Mexico’s independent Taos Ski Valley attempted to unionize in 2015. All recently formed unions are members of United Professional Ski Patrols of America Local 7781, a chapter of the national Communications Workers of America District 7. None of the patrol unions have ever gone on strike.
The Park City union first reached out to Vail in January 2020 to negotiate an extension of their previous employment contract. Inquiries include provisions for wage increases, disability insurance for seasonal workers, waterproof uniforms, and regular sick leave that currently only comes into effect after an employee has worked 1,500 hours. Citing the pandemic, the company said it would not be available for negotiations until June and the patrols could not hold a video conference with company officials until August, said Joe Naunchik, union president. In November, frustrated by slow progress, the union decided to let its contract expire in order to put more bargaining pressure on both parties. (When their contract expires, the Patrols and Vail are no longer bound by the ban and lockout Clause that prevented both sides from using a forced work break as a negotiating tactic.)
Vail Resorts sent Outside a statement regarding the negotiations with Park City. “The union has called for a retrospective wage increase amid one of the most difficult financial situations the entire travel sector has ever faced and when no other employee in our entire company has received an inflation increase,” says Vail. “They also asked for a major change in the way we provide seasonal employee benefits – an approach that has been around at the resort and our industry for decades. We are confident that we are offering our patrols and all of our employees wages and benefits that are very competitive. Nevertheless, we always remain open to the concerns of our employees. However, the issues raised by the union are very complex and do not lend themselves to a quick resolution. “The statement also referred to a negotiating meeting scheduled for January 20th, attended by both Vail and the union.
Meanwhile, Stevens Pass patrols, who voted for union formation in 2019, waited 21 months to sign their first contract with Vail, union president Brianna Hartzell said. The pandemic halted negotiations for five months in the spring of 2020, but Stevens Pass patrols say discussions crept before that. The union is calling for a better pay structure to encourage seasoned patrols to stay with the company. Under the current structure, a 23-year-old veteran can earn just a dollar an hour more than a rookie patrol earning Washington’s minimum wage, union members say. By gaining certain skills and responsibilities, a patroler’s hourly wage can be increased by just a few cents. “We lost really veteran patrols to this stuff,” said Katie Warren, Stevens Pass union vice president and patrol seventh year.
(Photo: Sarah Gray)
Another requirement, Hartzell said, is adequate education, including professional avalanche training, weather forecasting courses, and more emergency medical training. It takes several seasons to build expertise in these areas on a patrol team, says Hartzell, who sustained a serious wrist injury while working and was unable to work that season.
“If you want someone who can shine a femur in the dark during a blood moon eclipse while training a novice on a 50-degree slope and taking the guest back to a toboggan run, secured and extended, you need someone with more than.” two years of experience, ”she says, referring to an actual event at the resort that reflects the need for the company to keep its best patrols. Of the 48 patrols at Stevens Pass, 23 are first or second year, union members say.
Without an existing contract, Vail is not legally required to resolve work interviews within a specified period of time. In 2019, the company hired LRI, a consulting firm that claims “we literally wrote the book to counter union campaigns” to dissuade Stevens Pass patrols from union formation. In the past 14 months, the Stevens Pass union filed three unfair labor practices charges against Vail with the National Labor Relations Board. (Two were later withdrawn to move the discussion forward.) In its most recent December 2020 filing, the union said Vail did not show up for scheduled Zoom meetings on August 18 and December 18.
Regarding negotiations with Stevens Pass, Vail said, “Since Stevens Pass Ski Patrol voted for a union in 2019, we have been actively involved in collective bargaining in good faith, with our next scheduled trial date being Tuesday, January 26th. Unfortunately, we have received very little and inconsistent engagement on their side of the negotiations. “Vail denied the union’s claims that it did not provide adequate training programs, claiming that the union never confirmed the August 18 and December 18 meetings.
Vail recently responded to some requests from Park City patrols and agreed to extend health coverage beyond the 80-hour maximum for emergencies operating during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Naunchik, the company also put N-95 masks on patrols on Jan. 14. Vail has also complied with Utah’s House Act 3007, which requires workers to pay first responders in certain situations and extends coverage to Park City ski patrols during the pandemic.
Patrols at both resorts say the unions are asking Vail for a response in good faith – so that the company comes to the table to compromise and work towards progress in a timely manner. Even Naunchik, who comes from a long line of miners, aluminum mills, teachers, and machinists in western Pennsylvania, doesn’t want a work-stoppage strike to take place. But if negotiations continue to stall, he won’t rule it out. “We want Vail to treat ski patrols as professionals,” he says, “rather than as a seasonal, expendable workforce that can be exploited.”
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Main photo: Melinda Behum