Two hours of debate, questions and some answers may not have changed many minds about unions in Whistler, but it brought the issue out in the open where all residents had a chance to discuss a matter that affects the two fundamental employers in the valley.
Tuesday night’s forum at the Fairways Hotel attracted about 60 people interested in the United Steelworkers of America’s bid to organize employees of Whistler Mountain and Blackcomb. Another xx listened to the live broadcast on Mountain FM.
While opponents of unions outweighed supporters by about a 3:1 margin among the people who spoke or faxed questions, union supporters from Squamish and the Lower Mainland made up about 1/3 of the audience.
Ann Chiasson, who was on the six-member panel as a concerned citizen, questioned why a group from outside Whistler was needed to act on behalf of local employees.
"We’re a developing community, we have problems that outsiders may not understand," she said. "We can’t afford to let outsiders make our decisions."
That drew a question from Squamish resident Sandra Bauer, who asked why there wasn’t a public forum every time a Whistler hotel was sold to the Japanese or a when real estate is sold to the Americans.
Silvia Simpson, a national representative for the Canadian Auto Workers who was on the panel, said: "We agree Whistler is indeed a changing place, it’s become a world resort. But one of the things that is going to happen is you’re not going to get by with a transient labour force."
A radio listener asked Simpson to provide an example of a resort community that has a full-time, rather than transient, labour force. She could not, but said employers need the kind of stability that year-round employees would provide.
"Unions are here to stay and you’d better get used to it. This is a wonderful place, we want to make it wonderful for all," Simpson concluded.
(LDG) suggested 2/3 of the lift companies’ employees are transient or on a work visa and therefore have little invested in the valley, yet they have the most influence in terms of whether the lift companies are unionized.
"The labour code is the labour code, we can’t exclude someone," said Ken Neumann one of two members of the Steelworkers on the panel. "If they’re an employee, under the code we bargain for them."
Simpson added that it goes both ways. She said it was transient workers who voted to decertify the Listel hotel.
Neumann said "We recognize employers have to have a profitable situation, but we want to share in that profitability." He said employees should be able to expect decent housing, but did not go into details on how that could be provided.
Pemberton resident John Douglas summed up one of the biggest concerns when he asked Neumann if Whistler Mountain was unionized and workers went on strike would everyone be out of work.
Neumann said it was an unfair question. "It depends on what business you’re in."
He said 97.3 per cent of all collective agreements the Steelworkers negotiate are done without any work stoppages.
Discussion about the requirements for certifying a union (55 per cent of employees have to sign a card) and the restrictions on employers during an organizing campaign led one audience member to ask Neumann: if 46 per cent of employees signed a petition asking you to leave the valley would you go?
Other concerns raised included whether the flexibility and volunteer labour that the lift companies now use would be allowed to continue. Neumann said that would have to be worked out in the collective agreement but employees are sensitive to those concerns.
Other panel members included Susan Carrigan of the Steelworkers, labour lawyer Allison Matacheskie, MLA David Mitchell and Susan Arnold, a labour lawyer from the management side.