Skip to content
Join our Newsletter

State of the union

Why unions at ski areas are so hard to create (but they do exist)

Mont Tremblant is unlike most ski resorts in North America, in that its employees belong to a union, the Fedération du Commerce. It's not just a union of ski patrollers, as exists at five resort areas in the United States. This union represents everybody from lifties to housekeepers, cat-skinners to ski instructors, both full and part-time.

Union representation began in 1985 and, according to the union, it's been a harmonious relationship. "Kind," a union representative said last week, "despite the strike." That strike of 1,500 employees began just before Christmas in 2005. Tremblant's 200 managers kept the ski area functioning, but many visitors stayed home. The Globe and Mail reported that Tremblant had only 5,000 skiers per day during the Christmas break, compared to its usual 12,000.

Employees pushed for salary increases of 15 per cent from Intrawest, then the ski area's owner, in line with wage increases the Montreal-based union had gained in negotiations that year with 27 area hotels. Average wages at the ski area were $13.90 an hour at the time, according to the Globe. Workers also wanted job protections but, most of all, according to the union, the strike was about creating pension plans.

Sixteen days after the strike began, union members returned to work, accepting the terms recommended by a provincial mediator. Two other negotiations, in 2010 and 2015, later took place.

Unions in the ski industry—such as is being proposed for Whistler Blackcomb's 4,000-plus employees—are as rare as summer snowstorms. Quebec, with its strong labour culture, seems to be the most fertile ground. There, the same union that represents workers at Tremblant also represents those at Mont Sainte-Anne, Mont Habitant and eight other small ski areas.

Also notable is Red Mountain, the ski area at Rossland, B.C., where United Steelworkers Local 9705 represents all 260 non-management workers. The steelworkers reflect the community's long mining history. A zinc and lead smelter still operates along the Columbia River in nearby Trail. The collective agreement covering 2015 to 2018 addresses everything from coffee breaks to disciplinary actions to wage scales. The contract for the ski season now ending specifies wages ranging from $11.20 an hour for janitors, lift-ops and cashiers to, at the very top of the wage scale, $26.10 for a "journeyman."

Red Mountain casts itself as the "unVail" of ski areas. Launched as a community-owned property, it is among North America's oldest ski areas. In 2016, it began a crowd-sourcing strategy with a funding pitch offering donors nominal ownership in an effort to "buck the trend of MegaResort mergers."

Unions are far less prevalent at U.S. resorts. Workers in Las Vegas are highly unionized, but its market is huge and year-round, a different beast altogether than Whistler, North America's largest ski area. The largest union in Nevada, the Culinary Workers Union Local, has 57,000 members, most in Vegas. Ski Valleys of the West have only a few unions, such as those that represent bus drivers in the Aspen area and firefighters at Vail.

No place, however, offers a template for what is proposed in Whistler. There, a small group of ski instructors has started working covertly with a union, the New Westminster-based United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) 1518. If successful, the union wants to expand its efforts to represent all of the thousands of non-managerial employees at Whistler Blackcomb and, then, more broadly, into other sectors in the resort community.

"Probably nowhere in the so-called free world is there a working class so docile and doggedly disorganized as here in the mountain valleys," wrote Colorado's George Sibley several years ago in Mountain Gazette.

"And one has to wonder why, for the exploitation quotient seem to be pretty high—and growing all the time," Sibley continued. "The mountains and their valleys are beautiful, and the towns are quaint and picturesque, but for those who have to work at wage labor in order to live in such places, the work available seems to get worse and worse as the resort industry gets more and more, well, industrial."

Whistler organizers face long odds. Seasonality poses a great challenge. To form a union requires an election. That election must be held when people are around, not in May or August. Then there's the turnover. Ski schools and resort workforces altogether have high turnover. Every year, there's a large class of newbies. You have to reinvent the bullwheel, so to speak. Unionization is usually a longterm effort. It requires investment by workers who might suffer in the short term to make gains in the long term.

And finally, many of the jobs at ski areas require little advanced training. Yes, ski instructors get certifications, but the bar is a little lower than ski patrol, whose members typically have emergency medical training certification as well as advanced knowledge of avalanches and the dangerous explosives used to mitigate them.

Ski school hierarchies pose particular problems as well. There are the part-timers, those who take on group lessons at Christmas and other holidays. There are other part-timers who just do privates, often with their repeat customers. Many of these private instructors tend to be well-compensated with tips. That leaves the seasonal, but full-time, ski instructors as the potential core of a union drive. And once again, many of them are likely to be gone forevermore after the season.

Few templates exist beyond Red Mountain and the resorts of Quebec for what is being tried in Whistler.

More striking are the failures. The most direct example is from Beaver Creek, which, like Whistler Blackcomb, is also owned by Vail Resorts. Organizers there say the ski area has 300 full-time instructors and another 500 to 700 that work part-time, whether just during holidays or when private clients come to town.

The union filed with the National Labor Relations Board, wanting to represent only full-time employees. But the board ruled against the union, saying it had to take on the part-timers. That killed the campaign dead in its tracks, but not the complaints. Even some of those with privates say their take—principally through tips—has declined as Vail Resorts has raised its fees for ski lessons, now up to $900 a day in some cases.

Those who have been in the trenches of union organizing with Vail say the company engages in legal but ethically questionable activities. For example, at Park City, when a union vote was being heard several years ago, the company paid patrollers to sit in on anti-union messages. Union representatives were reportedly not given equal time on the payroll.

In an email to Pique, Vail Resorts executive and Whistler Blackcomb COO Pete Sonntag said: "Whistler Blackcomb and Vail Resorts have passionate employees. We listen to their thoughts and ideas and encourage open conversations through personal relationships. The employee experience is dependent upon those relationships and it is why so many people choose to work for us. We are committed to this inclusive culture and continuously improving it. We know our employees have the right to make informed choices on representation. We will always respect that right and the choices they make."

Aspen has an unaffiliated union for ski patrollers, but no union for instructors. "About 25 years ago, the Aspen instructors voted for a union," reports Patrick Hunter, an instructor. "The next day another vote was taken, one I had not heard about, that rescinded the previous vote." The ski area did not respond to requests for its version of the history.

Hunter liked what Aspen had in 1986, when he joined the ski school: A season-end bonus that resulted from a split of the school's net profits. The instructors' split was based on the total hours worked. "We were partners in the enterprise," he says. "New ownership didn't want a partner. They replaced it with a pay matrix."

If things have gone downhill at Aspen, Hunter and many others still think highly of the owners and managers. The company is "a monopoly in the valley, but it's a benevolent dictatorship," he says. "There is a good insurance plan and other benefits. On the other hand, the ski school is a cash cow and the instructors' cut of the lesson ticket is a joke."

Complaints usually come down to money. "Very often the managers have the attitude that, 'You really should pay us to work here, because these are the greatest mountains in the world.' That is kind of your compensation,'" says Al Kogler, a Denver-based organizer for the Communications Workers of America. The union represents 700,000 workers in private- and public-sector employment in the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico.

"That's one of the things that Vail (Resorts) frequently says, 'You get paid in fun.'"

Ski mountains aren't like working in creosote factories nor the gold, silver and coal mines that were the economic mainstays of so many ski towns from Telluride to Fernie, Aspen to Park City. Many of these towns have histories of sometimes violent disputes from their mining eras. The work of miners was brutally hard and dangerous, but many of the same principles of the early 20th century being fought over are the same as today.

In Colorado, the old coal-mining town of Crested Butte likely had the first ski union—at least in the western United States. Algernon "Gerry" Reese was a key figure in the forming of a union to represent ski patrollers. Now living in New York City, the 74-year-old Reese says the ski-area owners knew very little about how to run a ski resort. Elevating the importance of the ski patrollers was the mountain's steepness, on par with Wyoming's Jackson Hole and Montana's Bridger Bowl. "The mountain consists of a lot of chutes and gullies," he says. "Crested Butte was dangerous, and management didn't realize how dangerous it was."

The ski patrol Reese joined consisted of 20 to 25 men and a few women, although the women tended not to last. "It was a boy's club, like a fire department," he says. They worked six days a week and had to be available for extra work, be it avalanche control in the morning or sometimes a backcountry rescue. "We were there at the crack of dawn and we worked hard to make it safe," Reese recalls. He also remembers all the patrollers having training as emergency medical technicians, or EMTs. Controlling avalanches with explosives was dangerous—and still is.

Reese, who later became a county judge, remembers a modest hourly wage, no insurance, and a subpar equipment allowance. Dissatisfaction boiled over in 1975-76 when patrollers demanded discussions. Resort managers were not happy. "They wouldn't talk to us," Reese remembers. "We said, "You don't listen to us, then we're going to form a union.'"

In time, a union was formed. In a roundabout way, it was the result of the Vietnam War. Reese had stayed in school and earned a law degree, to avoid the draft. (Unlike the current U.S. president, he suffered no bone spurs.) "School acted as a deferment," he says. "It was totally unfair."

Guided by Reese, the Crested Butte ski patrollers first had to file a petition with a federal agency, the National Labor Relations Board. Reese says the board didn't take the ski patrollers seriously. But eventually, procedures were honoured, the election held, and a union was created.

Snow groomers were not invited. "We were friendly, but they really weren't part of our group," Reese says. As for ski instructors? Not a chance. "We thought they were a bunch of lightweights." There was also an age gap. Instructors were young, in their early 20s, and the ski patrollers tended to be older, in their late 20s or early 30s.

Owners resisted the new union. Then patrollers asked to see the company's books. "The lawyers turned white," says Reese.

Fire the ski patrollers and start fresh? Management was boxed into a corner: For all practical purposes, the ski patrollers were running the mountain. The owners reluctantly realized this. Managers might have been able to pick off the instructors one by one, for being late or whatever else, replacing them with more pliant local lads. But it was too late. The union got the patrollers what they thought they deserved.

Crested Butte was a different place when it was still shaking off the grime of its coal-mining era. Houses rented for $300, and beer draws were a dime, says Sibley, who was also a ski patroller. But ski areas were recording double-digit increases in visitation almost annually during the 1970s. Affordable housing was starting to become a problem.

During the last few years, though, the drum has tightened again. Bob McLaurin, town manager in Jackson, Wyo., with experience going back to 1985, told me he had never seen the housing market so tight. Reassignment of units to Airbnb and other internet-based rental sites must be part of it. Something else is going on, too.

In Wyoming, economist Jonathan Schechter studies job growth and average wages in Teton County. The county is similar in makeup to the valley called Jackson Hole, the namesake for the ski area. Nationally, 21 per cent of all jobs were in either the leisure and hospitality or retail sectors in 2016. In Teton County, that ratio was 47 per cent. Those tourism and retail jobs pay two-thirds to three-quarters of the typical job. That puts resort workers at a disadvantage in the housing market—and it's only getting worse.

For several decades, new technologies have been shrinking geography, flattening the world, as Pulitzer-winning author Thomas Friedman put it. Fax machines arrived in the early 1990s, followed by cheap telephones and now never-ending wrinkles to internet-based communication. It's become easier, for some people of moderate wealth, to live in a high-end mountain town, ski slopes and splashing rivers just minutes away, maybe making a monthly trip into the office in San Francisco or Toronto or New York.

From 2001 to 2016, jobs in the financial sector—everything from bank tellers to hedge-fund managers—grew 42 per cent, compared to 21 per cent for jobs overall. Those jobs, as of 2016, paid an average of $81,000 a year compared to $29,000 for leisure and hospitality sector jobs. Lower-paid resort workers are losing ground everywhere, but especially in the housing market.

Ski areas—and other hospitality businesses—depend upon a supply of cheap labour. "The model doesn't work well when all that extra money flashes into the communities," says Schechter. "All of a sudden, housing prices are no longer a function of local demand. They're a reflection of national and international demands."

Ski towns and resort operators have not shied away from building accommodation for their employees. Still, it never seems to be enough. Wages just don't keep up. Vail Resorts announced last winter it was increasing its minimum wage at its U.S. and Canadian resorts. In Colorado, that sees workers wages increasing from $11 to $12.25 an hour, but it should be noted that wages at most fast-food burger joints on Colorado's I-70 corridor start at $13, or even $14.

Union organizers have seen the most success with patrollers. Aspen has had a union unaffiliated with outside groups for decades. Steamboat also has a union representing patrollers, but it is affiliated with the Communication Workers of America. The same union represents Telluride ski patrollers, who organized in 2014. The Telluride patrollers have had two contracts with management, the most recent a three-year deal approved last November in a 56-0 vote.

Kogler, the Denver-based labour organizer, compares Telluride's success with the failure to organize the ski patrol at Monarch. He says he counsels patrollers to resolve things directly with the management if they can. Failing that, he advocates quiet, methodical foundation building. The Monarch effort was rushed, "which is never my preferred method," he says.

He charges that ski area managers hired a company, Labor Relations Institute, that Kogler describes as a Trojan horse for quelling union organization. It purports to provide education and union-avoidance consulting. Vail Resorts has used the same company, he says.

Vail Resorts does have one union in its stable of resorts in the West: the ski patrol at Park City Mountain Resort. It preceded the company. The patrol was formed in 2000 at The Canyons, which is adjacent to Park City. Vail Resorts took over management of the resort and, then later, acquired Park City, too. Vail Resorts CEO Katz then set out to consolidate the two ski areas. That consolidation is the basis for the boast of Park City being the largest ski area in the United States.

When the two ski mountains were merged, Vail Resorts declared it would not recognize the ski patrol union. For the union to survive, ski patrollers from the Canyons had to persuade their new colleagues from Park City that a union was in their best interests, says Kirah Solomon, a ski patroller and president of Local 7781 of the Communication Workers of America. They succeeded.

In arguing for reimbursement, ski patrollers there pointed to living costs. Many patrollers have chosen to live outside Park City, because it has become too expensive. They also point to their professional training and responsibilities.

Ski patrollers share a certain camaraderie, because they face risk together. "We learn to have each other's backs. That's not hyperbole," says Joe Naunchik, a Park City ski patroller. Naunchik grew up near Pittsburgh, an old steel town. Jobs were dangerous, too. An uncle survived Pearl Harbor only to die in a coal mine years later. Other relatives, too, were deeply impacted by their careers in industrial America—but, says Naunchik, had better lives because of union representation. "I was proud to become a union member here," he says. He wants Vail to be successful. "We just want our fair share."

In Whistler, organizers have their work cut out for them. Craig Riddell, a research professor at the University of British Columbia, points out that British Columbia requires a secret vote among workers as to whether to unionize. That's not good for union efforts. "There is convincing evidence that requiring a secret ballot vote reduces union organizing success," he says.

But unions fare better in Canada altogether than the United States. Canadian workers were, by and large, slower to unionize. But today, 17 per cent of Canadian workers in the private sectors are members of unions versus just seven per cent in the States, says Riddell.

Keith Murdoch, an organizer with UFCW 1518, which is working with the Whistler instructors, concedes the challenge. "It's certainly a lot more dynamic and challenging than your typical union campaign. You have the transient nature (of the workforce) and then you have a lot of people who are foreign workers (and not here on a permanent basis)."

Furthermore, Murdoch's union has an audacious goal: represent all ski-hill workers, similar to the unions at Red Mountain and Mont Tremblant, and not just one segment.

Why Whistler, why now? Vail Resorts takeover of Whistler Blackcomb, in 2016, was obviously a trigger. It's a "foreign" company, and a very successful one. It is, a ski industry veteran told me, one that values process over people. That process has yielded great profits.

When Vail Associates—the company formed in 1961 to create the original ski area in Colorado—morphed into Vail Resorts in 1997, ownership was made public. The initial stock price was $16 a share. The prices this week began at $223. That's an almost 14-fold increase in little more than 20 years. Many, many dividends have been declared in those 20 years.

True, investors could have lost it all. When Vail Resorts began expanding, Intrawest was flexing its muscles, too, buying more ski areas hither and thither. So was Maine-based American Skiing. The latter couldn't hang with the two bigger boys in their buying sprees and eventually disappeared. Intrawest succeeded in producing billions for its investors, the hedge fund Fortress, as the empire was peeled back, one by one.

Now, there's a new Intrawest—Alterra Mountain Co.—created by KSL Capital Partners (once a part owner of Whistler Blackcomb) and the Crown Family of Chicago, owners of the Aspen Skiing Co. It looks to have a similar strategy to that of Vail Resorts. It's possible—some say probable—Alterra will go public, too, becoming a process-oriented corporation like Vail Resorts.

But the question remains: Shouldn't people on the ground share in the economic progress of a resort? Or are the powder mornings enough?