union talk 

The unionization of Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains could set a precedent in the ski industry as union leaders with memberships declining in traditional areas look to the expanding tourism market to broaden their membership base, says the president of the Canada West Ski Areas Association. Jimmy Spenser, says the CWSAA has not met to discuss the United Steelworkers of America Drive which is taking place on Blackcomb and Whistler, but after decades in the ski business, he is not worried about making a few guesses regarding the future of the ski business if the union organizers start signing up resort staff. "I think it is fairly significant that unions are progressively losing the favour that they once enjoyed across the nation," Spenser says. "Union memberships are not growing in steel plants, because the number of steelworkers doesn't seem to be growing. But the number of employees in the tourism sector is definitely increasing. This may be a move to bolster union coffers." Spenser says no matter what union organizers say, many ski areas have been walking the fine line between red and black ink for about the past decade, all the while making improvements to terrain, lifts and investing money in service. He feels that in a seasonal industry like the ski business, the benefits unionization would bring are definitely overshadowed by the lack of flexibility a union framework imposes. The dependence of the ski industry on fickle influences like the weather, makes ski areas a lot different than steel mills, Spenser adds. "The slightest hiccup in the weather can be the difference between breaking even and going into the red," Spenser says. "We're certainly skating the fine line with the weather in this business. There's always been a saying in the business that goes, ‘How do you make a small fortune in the ski industry? You start with a big one.'" Meanwhile at Red Mountain Resort in Rossland, where the Steelworkers have been certified for the last decade, a mountain manager, speaking on the condition of anonymity, says the ski resort business is a funny one for unions to operate in. "The bottom line is having unionized staff really cuts into the bottom line," the official says. "At the end of the year you don't have as much cash left to invest back into the infrastructure of the hill." That fiscal fine line is the crux of the problem in the unionization debate, according to the official. He says many employees at Red Mountain, mostly young people looking for short-term employment and ski passes, don't have a keen interest in being union members. First-year liftees at Red Mountain get $7.25 an hour to start. "This whole (ski resort) business doesn't lend itself to unionization. But, if bigger areas like Whistler and Blackcomb start to go union, it could start some type of movement in this business, the results of which may not be fun to predict."

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