Seeking power, a few ski workers go union

by Ray Ring

(This is a sidebar to an HCN magazine cover story on the New West's servant economy.)

It was a gritty interruption of ski business: At the base of the main lift of the Red Lodge ski area in Montana, on a busy January Saturday, 15 lift operators staged a sit-down strike.

Their starting pay was a scanty $4.75 an hour and they wanted a raise. They were also protesting an attack on their benefits: The charge for employee meals was being upped from $2.50 to $3.50.

While a crowd of skiers gaped, the strikers chanted and called upon their bosses to make concessions.

Such organized outbursts of anger are not new to ski country. Around the West, ski workers who feel squeezed have tried to take some control of their situation. Among the examples:

* Overcoming resistance from ski-company bosses, ski patrollers have formed unions at several Colorado ski areas, with Aspen at the forefront. One of the patroller unions made headway by allying with the national AFL-CIO.

* The United Steelworkers of America has organized nearly every worker - from lift operators to bartenders - at two small ski resorts in British Columbia, and is campaigning to do the same at a major B.C. resort, Whistler/Blackcomb.

* A union trying to get established in Colorado, SHARE (Ski, Hotel and Restaurant Employees) also is allied with the AFL-CIO, and hopes to organize entire ski-town workforces.

So far, only a small percentage of workers in ski country have organized successfully. Traditionally, resorts harnessed young seasonal workers more interested in fun than the package of wages and living conditions.

The rural nature of resorts, along with "Western mentality and individualism," also discourage unions, says Glenn George, a University of Colorado law professor specializing in labor issues. "You don't have the concentrations of assembly-line work" that nourished unions elsewhere, George says.

Service workers in the West have been most successful going union in Las Vegas, where, George says, "you have a vast number of people doing exactly the same kind of work in close geographic proximity' - essentially a classic industrial setting (HCN, 4/3/95).

As the ski business matures, though, it becomes more clearly industrial. The business is taking over whole regions, with major resorts shifting to year-round operation, and the workers are less transient. Even the seasonal workers tend to be older, having more years - or decades - on the job, and they see it as a blue-collar career.

Only at the British Columbia resorts, Kimberly and Red Mountain, is a majority of the work force unionized. And those resorts are special cases, dating back to 1983. The Steelworkers already had a beachhead, representing miners in the area, and only had to spread the organizing to take in other workers.

With a similar broad intention, the SHARE union tried to establish a beachhead in Aspen during 1993. The campaign targeted a few dozen maintenance, housekeeping and laundry workers at a ski-company hotel, but company resistance was fierce. The ski company fired a union leader, and to settle a complaint he had filed with the National Labor Relations Board, the company eventually paid him an undisclosed settlement. But by then, the workers had voted against going union.

"It's proved to be a lot tougher than I anticipated," says Gerald Lackey, a pro-labor attorney who moved from the Rust Belt of Ohio to Carbondale, near Aspen, several years ago and got involved in organizing campaigns, including the one at the hotel.

Lackey says he encountered in Aspen a "plantation mentality ... In this valley the ski company is enormously powerful and has enormous resources. The company is the major employer and it pays pretty well (relative to other local employers) ... People want that job and when the company exercises that power, people get scared."

Lackey and union organizers have come to understand that all ski workers are not created equal. In Aspen and elsewhere, the most effective organizing has been done by ski patrollers - the top of the hierarchy on a ski mountain, with skills and experience that are harder for the bosses to replace.

Aspen's patrollers voted to form a union in 1986 - motivated by a cut in their benefits, says Doug Driskell, who was active in the campaign. Since then, the Aspen Professional Ski Patrol Association has negotiated a contract at the start of each season, typically seeking a small pay raise. Benefits have been won back, but slowly. Driskell, who is now the union's business manager, says, "We didn't try to do it all at once."

The average Aspen ski patroller now makes about $10.60 an hour with eight years' experience, for doing traffic control and first-aid on the slopes, conducting evacuations, exploding avalanches and investigating accidents that could be the basis of multimillion-dollar lawsuits. As Driskell says, "It's highly skilled work with a great deal of responsibility."

What the union contract provides most to the 150 or so members, Driskell says, is stability and job security. "The company can't just yank these benefits' or terminate workers without due process.

While the Aspen patrollers stayed independent of any national backing, a union at the Breckenridge (Colo.) resort - with Lackey's help - reached out to the AFL-CIO last fall. The Breckenridge Professional Ski Patrol Association had weathered several ownership changes at the resort, until new management reduced wages and benefits and refused to bargain, says Derek Greiner, the shop steward.

"Now we're dealing with a large company," which has professional negotiators on its side, "and that's the appeal of affiliating with the AFL-CIO," Greiner says.

The Breckenridge patrollers picketed at the base of a prominent run, filed a complaint with the federal labor board and got Lackey to call in Phil Kelley, an Ohio-based negotiator for District 2A of the Transportation, Technical, Warehouse, Industrial and Service Employees Union. Kelley, who's been organizing for District 2A for 18 years, says, "I'm generally given the tough assignments."

Kelley says the contract he negotiated in Breckenridge granted the patrollers binding arbitration: From now on, any dispute with management at the resort will be decided by an independent third party. "It's the first contract like that at any major resort," he says.

Unions are no cure-all, and their culture doesn't always appeal to Westerners. Sometimes workers reject their tactics as too confrontational. At Montana's Big Mountain resort north of Kalispell, patrollers forming a union in 1992 met with Kelley but decided not to affiliate with District 2A. "He opened our eyes in some ways," says Mike Block, who was the union's president. "But that was not the direction we wanted to head. I think it put up a bigger wall between us and management. We had to ask more to get less."

Last fall, the Big Mountain patrollers voted 12-2 to disband their union, because, Block says, management had changed its attitude. He says that going union - even temporarily - helped push wages up nearly $2 an hour. "I think if we hadn't organized," Block says, "things now wouldn't be progressed as far as they are."

As for the Red Lodge strikers, they got fired on the spot, but about half of them were rehired and granted raises of 25 or 50 cents an hour. The others got some expert advice from Ron Burke, an organizer with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local No. 532 in Billings. Their complaint of unfair labor practices is pending before the National Labor Relations Board.

- by Ray Ring, HCN senior editor

© High Country News