Western workers fight for better conditions

Ski patrollers, grocery clerks and teachers organize for fair wages and support for their jobs.

 

As the pandemic enters its third year, employers are ready for work to return to normal, without any hazard pay or working from home. But even though we no longer call our frontline workers heroes, the pandemic has permanently shifted those workers’ understanding of their value. Without workers to keep the world going, we’ve learned, everything comes to a stop.  

Essential workers have risked their lives to afford child care and health insurance and put food on the table. It was a perilous but necessary gamble, and it gave the survivors a sense of solidarity. Now, workers across the West are coming together to fight for fairer pay and the support they need to do their jobs.

Lee Moriarty, a business manager for her union, the Park City Professional Ski Patrol Association (PCPSPA) has worked through 50 rounds of negotiations for a new contract between PCPSPA and Vail Resorts Inc. Union members Tyler Grundstrom, Kate Foley, Lee Moriarty, Emmet Murray and Katie Woodward hold signs in Park City, Utah.
Courtesy of PCPSPA

ON LEE MORIARTY’S DAY OFF, she was buried in a snowy grave on a Utah mountainside. She’d volunteered to be there as part of her ski patrol’s program to train dogs and their handlers to rescue avalanche victims. Whenever the dog got near, she made high-pitched noises, like a dying animal.

Moriarty, a fourth-year patroller at Park City, the United States’ largest ski resort, was trained to throw explosives for avalanche control and perform emergency medical procedures in the wilderness. Like many veteran ski patrollers, she loves this work enough to do it in her spare time, for free. But this kind of dedication has long been exploited by ski resorts, which pay certified experts like Moriarty hobbyist wages.

At the start of this winter, Moriarty made $16.98 an hour — enough to cover car insurance and rent for the suburban apartment she shares with three roommates, but not enough to build savings in a resort town that’s skyrocketing in popularity. Even so, she earned more than many of her colleagues, because of her advanced certifications and years of experience; the resort’s old contract offered rookies a starting wage of just $13.25 an hour.  

Moriarty is also a business manager for her union, the Park City Professional Ski Patrol Association (PCPSPA). She has worked through 50 rounds of negotiations for a new contract between PCPSPA and Vail Resorts Inc., which owns Park City and 39 other resorts across three countries.

PCPSPA wants the resort to acknowledge that ski patrolling is not a hobby. Some of Park City’s force have been on staff for decades. We want to prove that patrolling can be a career,” said Moriarty. “There needs to be money behind that to make it happen.”

Negotiations for higher pay began nearly two years ago, but the pandemic disrupted the process. “It was hard to track people down,” said Moriarty. Many patrollers have to find different work in the summer, so the new season of negotiations began in earnest in winter 2021.

Going into negotiations, Moriarty said, “our best-case scenario would be creating a structure to give people the chance to grow over years, not stagnating,” because stagnation leads to turnover instead of retention.

The patrollers were nearly unanimous in their decision to strike. They had ample community support; regulars knew that patrollers are crucial to keeping the ski slopes safe, and many were surprised by their low pay, even as the cost of living in Park City went up 10% last year alone. Locals donated over $100,000 to PCPSPA’s solidarity fund, in case of a work stoppage. That support made all the difference between a fair compromise and another 50 rounds of negotiations.  

On Jan. 14, after almost two years of negotiations, the union ratified a contract that established a $19/hour average wage for Park City patrollers, and a union starting wage of $16 for rookies.

Vail Resorts is a leader in the ski industry, and its new contract with Park City patrollers could set an important precedent. Eventually, the company had to face the real possibility of a strike. “Our biggest strength, revealed in the last session, was the amount of community support,” said Moriarty. 

PCPSPA’s contract is now on the same timeline as other unionized Vail resorts, including Stevens Pass in Washington. This allows patrollers across different resorts to negotiate future contracts in tandem. “This will strengthen our position as we all continue the push for better patrol and ski industry wages nationwide,” PCPSPA announced on Instagram. “This contract is not the end of the fight, and we will move forward with resolute passion for workers’ rights.” 

“Our biggest strength, revealed in the last session, was the amount of community support.”

Educators from Beverly Cleary K-8 School demonstrate in support of Portland Association of Teachers’ negotiations for stronger contract protections and more prep time to adapt to the complications from COVID-19.
Courtesy of Joshua Tabshy/Portland Association of Teachers

IT WAS SEPTEMBER 2021: Summer was over, and the emergency contract Portland teachers ratified at the beginning of the pandemic had ended, too. The delta variant was clobbering Oregon, putting kids at risk. Teachers were desperate to extend their contract’s protections and secure more prep time to adapt to the new wave of complications. “How do we serve kids in quarantine? What are we expected to do with staffing shortages, or if we get sick?” said Elizabeth Thiel, president of the Portland Association of Teachers. Yet this winter, after four months of extensive negotiations, educators walked away from the table empty-handed.

Thiel suggested that the teachers’ biggest weakness at the negotiating table was their unwillingness to follow through with a work stoppage. In other industries, a worker pushed to the edge might simply refuse to work unpaid overtime or do any work not in their job description.

But in the classroom, teachers know that children’s education and development will suffer if they dig in their heels.

And COVID-19 has only increased what’s asked of educators; not only did they have to teach, they had stay late to wipe down desks and air out classrooms. Students came back from a remote year with infinitely varied needs, from catching up on their reading level to having to relearn how to socialize in a socially distanced world. Teachers scrambled to meet those needs every day, without ever having enough prep time to adapt lesson plans or coordinate with colleagues to create consistency across classrooms. 

“Teachers feel so deeply the unmet needs of their students,” said Thiel. “There’s an enormous gap between what the students need (and what is possible), and it’s completely being placed on educators. Educators are laying their bodies over that gap, and some are falling in.”

“Educators are laying their bodies over that gap, and some are falling in.”

In a process that’s being played out across the country, the state government and the Board of Education — fueled by politicized groups of parents demanding “Open Schools Now” — insisted on a return to a normal five-day school week “at all costs,” Thiel said. Like other essential workers, teachers were faced with a dilemma: Either struggle to meet the grueling demands of the job with little support, or just quit.

The teachers sought to have some basic needs met: two hours a week of prep time plus a dedicated planning day each month, and a release on a 32-hour cap on overtime for special education teachers who have to fill out individual educational plans for their students.

But the union stepped away from the table in late December, after the district rejected its most desperate requests for prep time. “It was urgent that educators left for winter break with hope,” said Thiel. “To come back and know that things are going to be better. And to give families an opportunity to plan ahead.”

This semester, Portland Public Schools’ staff shortage has been so severe that during the worst of the omicron surge, Thiel said she knew of schools where half of the classrooms were taught by substitute teachers. If no subs were available, classes were taught by administrators, counselors, or no one at all. “What is the point where a school doesn’t have enough staff?” Thiel asked. “What happens if a school doesn’t have a nurse? What happens when half the teachers are out and they’re all subs, or people who aren’t subs? A different sub every day — in some cases, every hour?”

Despite the staffing shortage, the teachers who remained were expected to preserve a five-day in-person school week, even though they lacked enough time to adapt and prepare. “At what point is a return to a normal, in-person school week no longer normal?” asked Thiel. 

On January 12th, workers gather outside a Denver King Soopers store to begin striking for safer working conditions and higher pay.
Kevin Mohatt/Reuters

IT WAS 9 A.M., and Kim Cordova had 30 minutes free for an interview before she had to drive through an ice storm for another long day of negotiations with the supermarket company Kroger. Cordova is the president of United Food and Commercial Workers #7 (UFCW), Colorado’s largest private-sector union, and her union was on its ninth day of striking for safer working conditions and higher pay.

The day before the strike began, the Economic Roundtable released a report that surveyed over 36,000 UFCW Kroger employees. It noted that 14% of Kroger employees were currently homeless, or had been homeless in the last year. (In response, a Kroger spokesperson said that the company is trying to balance wage increases with keeping food prices low for the communities it serves.)

“When (Kroger) says grocery prices are going up, look at the automation and gig workers they’ve set up,” Cordova said. Supermarket workers are often seen as expendable, able to be replaced with new — and often temporary — workers. “They’re saving money by not providing pension benefits for those workers, or health insurance. But food prices haven’t gone down.” 

Like teachers, grocery store workers provide an essential service that enables society to run smoothly. But unlike most schools, grocery stores are run for profit, with a board of investors trying to optimize returns for stockholders.

“It’s sick that so many of our workers deal with food insecurity while they are surrounded by it.”

Kroger is well aware that one in five of its associates is on food stamps. “It’s sick that so many of our workers deal with food insecurity while they are surrounded by it,” said Cordova. “The food pantries in their grocery stores are sourced by other food-insecure workers.”

These conditions, which are ubiquitous in the industry — low pay, no food security, and no company-provided personal protective equipment — pushed over 8,000 employees to go on strike. Support was nearly unanimous: In a blind vote, 100% of Kroger’s King Soopers employees in the affluent Boulder area agreed to strike, as did 98% of their Denver team.

In the middle of negotiations, Kroger started pulling back on its offer. “We had come to a mutual understanding that (using gig workers) was going to be a problem,” said Cordova. Non-unionized contractors could be assigned shifts over union members, meaning that no matter how much pay they negotiated for, workers might not be given enough hours. The new workers might receive comparable wages, but they would lack access to pension funding and health care — and they would undermine union members’ fight to keep those benefits.

“They’ve been going through hell together. It’s only been them. The company turned their back on them right when the employees needed them the most — taking away their hazard pay. Some workers had to pay for childcare when the schools closed,” said Cordova. Just within the last few weeks, UFCW #7 has lost workers to COVID-19.

“We risked our lives together, and now it’s time to stand up together,” she said. The union reached a tentative agreement with King Soopers on January 21. The workers immediately returned to work as they waited to vote on the terms of the new contract. And they have continued to show up every day, keeping food on the shelves for their community.

Ellice Lueders writes for the Arizona Daily Star and lives in Tucson, Arizona. Follow her on Twitter at @erlueders.

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