CWA Mounts Effort to Organize Rocky Mountains Ski Patrollers

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By Tyrone Richardson

Dec. 3 — The approaching ski season is expected to be a busy time for Rocky Mountain ski resorts and for the Communications Workers of America, which is trying to mount its campaign to organize thousands of ski patrollers in the region.

The labor union that represents about 700,000 workers in media, airlines and health care is bolstering resources to organize more than 8,000 ski patrollers in Colorado, Utah and New Mexico this ski season. So far the union's campaign has had mixed results. Most recently, the Nov. 12 ski patrollers at Taos Ski Valley in New Mexico voted against the CWA in a neutral third-party election.

Ski patrols are not necessarily unfamiliar with the CWA. The union is the collective bargaining representative for an estimated 225 ski patrollers at the resorts of Steamboat Springs, Crested Butte, Telluride Ski Resort, all in Colorado, and Canyons Village in Park City, Utah, according to Al Kogler, administrative director for CWA District 7 office in Greenwood Village, Colo.

Ski patrollers, whose duties range from providing first aid to handling explosives for avalanche mitigation, might seem atypical to the CWA's traditional membership. But, Kogler said the employees are seeking improvements in “typical work issues” areas such as wage increases and employment protections that were weakened during the recent recession.

“These guys deserve all the provisions we give to all first responders,” Kogler said. “These are mega billion-dollar industries and they can take care of these people.”

Virginia Doellgast, an associate professor at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations, said ski patrollers are part of the CWA's membership trend of representing “service employees” such as flight attendants and call-center workers.

“The reason why (the CWA) would come to them in the first place is because they have a reputation and expertise representing service employees with professional status and identity,” she said.

CWA Mounts Ski Patrol Organizing

CWA Local 7781, operating as the United Professional Ski Patrols of America, has represented members of ski patrols in Colorado and Utah since at least 2003. That year, ski patrollers at Steamboat Springs, Canyons at Park City and Crested Butte chose representation by Local 7781. The workers were previously represented by American Maritime Officers Union District 2-A until it disbanded in 2002, according to the CWA.

The CWA is not the only labor union representing ski patrollers in the Rockies. The unaffiliated Aspen Professional Ski Patrol Association, formed in 1986, represents ski patrollers at the Aspen Skiing Co.-owned resorts of Aspen Mountain, Buttermilk, Snowmass and Aspen Highlands, all in Colorado, according to its website.

Union membership for ski patrollers has ebbed and flowed throughout history, partly because of decertifications. That includes the loss of Breckenridge Professional Ski Patrol Association, which represented ski patrollers at Breckenridge Ski Resort in Breckenridge, Colo. The union was decertified in 2004, according to its website.

It was not immediately clear how organized ski patrols are impacting Aspen Skiing Co. resorts, in addition to Crested Butte, Steamboat Springs and Canyons. Resort officials did not respond to Bloomberg BNA's repeated requests for comment Nov. 20-Dec. 3.

National Ski Areas Association, a Lakewood, Colo.-based trade group for ski area owners, operators and suppliers, pointed out that unions have been shedding memberships in the Rockies.

“Recent efforts by unions to organize ski patrols have not been successful, with only one ski patrol—Telluride—in the last 15 years or so voting to unionize,” said Dave Byrd, the association's director of risk and regulatory affairs. “In fact, in that time frame, we've had more ski patrols vote to decertify their unions than ski patrols who have voted to unionize.”

Improving Working Conditions

As for the APSPA, the union said it was established to reverse reductions in employee pay and benefits “as a way to meet the owners' demand for cost reductions while enhancing management's own compensation package.”

“Many things had been taken away when we returned to work in the fall of 1985,” according to the APSPA website. “These included a profit sharing plan, equipment allowances, part of the health insurance benefit and pay raises.”

Kogler said a similar scenario is fueling the CWA's recent organizing drive, adding that the last recession led some ski resorts to impose pay freezes and reduce benefits for ski patrollers.

“If workers don't have a voice in the process, they have a lot of inequalities,” Kogler said. “It happened across the country that 2009 and 2010 the economy tanked, and now we're fighting to get back to higher wages and benefits.”

Similar comments were made by CWA spokeswoman Candice Johnson, who said improving workplace conditions is a universal issue.

“It's just like any other worker who wants to have a voice in the working conditions and want to make improvements,” she said, adding that it “shows you that people no matter what the job want to make improvements.”

Candace Horgan, a spokeswoman for the 28,000-member National Ski Patrol, did not respond to Bloomberg BNA's requests for comment Nov. 20-Dec.3. The trade group represent 98 percent of the country's ski patrollers, according to its website.

Union Mounts ‘Resources.'

Kogler said District 7 is ramping up its efforts to organize the ski patrollers, noting that the CWA's national leadership recently approving a new fiscal budget to “ramp up resources.” Kogler stopped short of specifying what resources, but said the union has conducted research to identify resorts and the number of ski patrollers within Utah, New Mexico and Colorado.

Part of the union's campaign has been cost-free: organized ski patrollers speaking with non-union members.

“The workers talk to each other,” Kogler said. “These workers do a lot exchange programs … working at several places throughout a week.”

Ski patrollers are not the only Rocky Mountain employees being targeted by the CWA. Kogler added that the union is trying to organize skiing instructors at the Beaver Creek Resort in Avon, Colo.

Michael H. LeRoy, a professor at the School of Labor and Employment Relations at the University of Illinois, told Bloomberg BNA Nov. 30 that a union could be using “many” organizing tools at its disposal. That includes hiring additional office staff, paying to advertise on billboards and financing a “strike fund” to support ski patrollers to walk off the job if necessary.

“There's a gamut of possibilities. The union could also fund a place where workers could meet off-site and in privacy,” he said. “There could also be some concerted action that includes refusal to work overtime and that's an edgy strategy. You'd be fired for doing that, but right in the middle of the ski season means it could be hard to find another ski patrol.”

Organizing Faces Rough Terrain?

Byrd said ski patrollers get into the largely seasonal profession because they love it.

“The challenge for ski patrollers is that typically, these jobs are seasonal, not year-round positions,” he said. “Still, there is an undeniable commitment and dedication from our patrol—for many, it's more than a profession, it's a passion to help others, it's a well-considered lifestyle choice for most of them.”

Kogler says ski patrollers, all of whom have emergency response technician certification, should receive the same benefits and compensation as first-responders such as police and firefighters.

“It's really the amazing thing that these people have 30 to 40 years of experience doing this and they do it every year and it's their passion,” Kogler said. “They are professionals and it's more than the mindset that these are the ‘surfer dudes' in the ski patrol.”

The CWA's organizing campaign gained some momentum Feb. 26 when ski patrollers at Telluride voted 47-1 for representation of the CWA Local 7781 in a National Labor Relations Board-conducted election.

On Nov. 11, a first labor contract was ratified for the unit of 57 ski patrollers. The three-year collective bargaining agreement “improves wages, benefits and job security and establishes a grievance policy,” CWA officials have said.

“Forming a union allowed us to meet with management as a group and have direct input on our working conditions,” ski patroller Tony Daranyi said in a written statement provided to Bloomberg BNA. “This first contract is a great step towards increasing our voice in our workplace.”

Scott Clements, the resort's director of ski patrol and risk management, described the agreed deal as “great for all parties involved.”

“We are pleased to be able to move forward and focus our attention on providing professional ski patrol services to our guests,” he said in a written statement to Bloomberg BNA Nov. 30.

Election Loss at Taos

The ratification by ski patrollers at Telluride was followed days later with the CWA losing an election in a 22-22 tie vote at Taos Ski Valley.

That election was conducted by Yuma, Colo.-based labor resolution attorney Pilar Vaile. Under NLRB election rules, a tie vote results in a loss for the union.

The CWA's organizing effort came after the once family-owned northern New Mexico ski resort was purchased by billionaire investor Louis Bacon in 2013. Bloomberg BNA was unsuccessful reaching officials at the resort for comment Nov. 20-Dec. 3.

There have been some changes made at the ski resort since Bacon took ownership. These include committing millions of dollars for facility improvements and a Sept. 16 announcement by Taos that it was increasing the resort's minimum wage to $10 per hour.

To contact the reporter on this story: Tyrone Richardson in Washington at trichardson@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Susan J. McGolrick at smcgolrick@bna.com