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How realistic are Whistler's union ambitions?

Two labour experts weigh in
union station United Food & Commercial Workers Union 1518 organizer Keith Murdoch. photo submitted

Last month, the community learned of a union drive at Whistler Blackcomb (WB) being organized by a small group of Snow School employees.

The group, dubbed the Whistler Workers Alliance, has set its sights high. With the backing of one of the Lower Mainland's largest unions, the United Food & Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) 1518, the alliance is targeting not just ski and snowboard instructors, but the entire 4,000-plus WB workforce. If that effort is successful, they say they will extend the union push into the resort's other sectors as well.

"The real focus right now is Whistler Blackcomb, but there are other industries that we are working with," UFCW organizer Keith Murdoch told Pique in a February interview. "This is a long-term project, so we're not looking to go away anytime soon."

But just how realistic are the group's ambitions? Pique spoke with two labour experts to help answer that question and clarify how the unionization process works in British Columbia.

According to UBC professor Craig Riddell, who specializes in labour economics and relations, the alliance could face a major hurdle obtaining the support of at least 50 per cent of WB's bargaining unit (meaning non-managerial staff) required to unionize.

"It's a tough labour force to unionize because many of them are only here for short periods of time," he said, referring to WB's transient workforce. Roughly 3,700 WB workers are employed as first-time or returning seasonal staff this winter.

"Think of joining a union like an investment: You're putting in time and effort at the beginning, and you may end up having to go on strike to get the initial contract you want, and it presumably pays off in the future. But if you're only involved in that activity for a year or two, that may not be worth it."

The reality is, however, that neither the workers nor the employer get to define the bargaining unit. That is left up to the Labour Relations Board (LRB), an independent tribunal with the responsibility of deciding whether a specific group of employees is appropriate for collective bargaining purposes, based on several criteria, including similarity in skills and working conditions; geographical proximity; and the practice and history of collective bargaining in that industry or sector.

"The labour board has a voice as to who they get to represent," explained Mark Thompson, professor emeritus in the Sauder School of Business Organizational Behaviour and Human Resources division

In Riddell's opinion, the alliance may have a better chance at organizing by targeting a specific group of employees before expanding its efforts later.

"There's nothing preventing the same union from organizing a different group of employees," he noted. "The important thing to remember is that different groups may have different objectives in becoming unionized. The people who are only here for a year or two, they probably only care about wages. But the people who are longer-term employees back season after season, they may care about non-wage benefits."

Thompson, meanwhile, called the alliance's broad strategy "a sensible one," considering the UFCW's organizing costs would largely be fixed, no matter the size of the bargaining unit it is targeting. He likened the alliance's outsized ambitions to a union drive in the 1970s to organize Canada's banks, which ultimately failed. The largest bank organizing drive in Canadian history, the efforts were met with limited success due, in part, to employers' interventionist tactics, according to labour analysts. Still, the efforts forced banks into taking a hard look at their own practices, Thompson said.

"It made the banks clean up their act a lot and they became better employers, incidentally, but the unions didn't get the benefit of that," he explained.

While it's unclear at this point just how much appetite there is for a union at WB, there's no denying employees generally hold a dim view of Vail Resorts, which took over the ski resort in a $1.4-billion takeover in August 2016. According to an internal email to WB staff that was obtained by Pique this week, the company's most recent Employee Engagement Survey results are historically lower than those over the past three years,* and the lowest among all of Vail Resorts' ski properties. In response, WB said it would be bringing in outside facilitators to hold focus groups with frontline and managerial staff.

"We are all aware that both the integration and the many changes experienced in the last year have been hard," read the letter, attributed to Whistler Blackcomb COO Pete Sonntag. "Employees and their leaders have done incredible work. However, we know many are also frustrated and concerned and we must learn from this and do better." (The full survey results were released Wednesday, March 14, after Pique's press deadline.)

B.C. strictly regulates employers' anti-union tactics, although the scope of permissible communications during an organizing campaign is a tricky thing to define. Generally, an employer has a right to express its views to staff in a neutral way; such communication must not be intimidating or coercive, and must be defensible as being true.

Employers are prohibited from doing anything that could interfere with the right of employees to join a union, including the threat of dismissal, the promise of additional benefits, or a wage increase.

Last week, Vail Resorts announced it would be raising the minimum hourly wage at all of its North American resorts — including at Whistler Blackcomb. Given the alliance's union drive only came to light publicly in recent weeks, Thompson called the timing of the announcement "very interesting."

"That might be considered an unfair labour practice," he added. "Once the union has announced things, you can't go around raising wages just to show the workers they don't need a union."

Thompson said Vail Resorts would have to show that the wage increase was in the works prior to the union drive to avoid penalty from the LRB.

For employees, union recruitment cannot take place on company property during business hours without the employer's consent, although this does not prevent staff from "discussing the merits of unionization and distributing union literature" during lunch hours or other breaks, according to the Labour Relations Code.

Now, the Whistler Workers Alliance needs to obtain signatures from a minimum of 45 per cent of WB's potential bargaining unit in order to move forward with the union application. Signatories are permitted to revoke their support on or before the date the union applies for certification with the LRB.

The LRB also will not disclose the names of employees who have supported a union's application.

*Clarification: An earlier version of this article stated that Whistler Blackcomb's Employee Engagement survey results were the lowest in company history. This was based on WB's internal email, which stated that this winter's results were "well below previous years." In a follow-up email, WB communications director Marc Riddell said that this year's results were lower than the previous three years, and that results in 2002, for instance, were "significantly lower." Riddell declined to provide a further breakdown of how the results compare to other years the survey was held.