In 35-34 vote, Keystone Resort ski patrollers decide not to unionize

Breckenridge Ski Resort patrollers to vote on unionization next

Keystone Resort Ski Patrol Director Mike Daly, from right, is pictured with U.S. Forest Service Snow Ranger Marcus Dreux and another member of the Keystone Resort ski patrol Oct. 12, 2019. The Keystone patrollers voted not to unionize.
Photo by Liz Copan / Summit Daily archives

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with information about the Breckenridge Ski Resort ski patrol unionization vote.

Keystone Resort ski patrol will not unionize.

On Monday, votes from a close race were tallied with 34 for the labor union and 35 against unionization. According to the National Labor Relations Board’s recent election results, there were 88 eligible voters, including all full-time and regular part-time ski patrollers and ski patrol specialists at Keystone.

Jonathan Cernanec, a Keystone ski patroller who was one of the leaders of the unionization effort, said nine ballots were contested with the union and employer challenging several ballots each. The national labor board wouldn’t confirm the number of contested ballots but said none were marked as void.

Contested ballots aren’t counted in the vote total and would need to be challenged successfully in court and then approved by the national labor board in order to be included.

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“Ultimately, the union side doesn’t think enough of those contested ballots could be appropriately thrown out or appropriately kept in to win,” Cernanec said. “So we graciously, as best we could, conceded a loss. So Keystone ski patrol will not be joining the Communications Workers of America — at least for now.”

Cernanec added that not having a strong majority of votes for the union isn’t favorable for negotiations. He said the effort to unionize was driven by a goal of making ski patrol a more sustainable career and to have compensation reflect the demand and responsibilities that come with the job. Cernanec said the starting hourly wage for a ski patroller at Keystone is $13.25, one dollar above Vail Resorts’ base pay of $12.25 per hour in Colorado.

“Making ski patrolling a more recognized profession — seen as a career and having the training and ultimately the compensation to match what a profession and a career gets paid — is still the goal,” Cernanec said. “It’s just going to not be through unionizing currently.

“As far as going forward, we’re not going to be a collective-bargaining unit, but we’re still a team. We’ve learned from this. … We may not be a union, but the National Labor Relations Board got involved, and Keystone leadership got more involved, and Vail leadership knows what’s going on, so our voices have been heard.”

Tim Cooney — a retired Aspen Mountain ski patroller and former Aspen Professional Ski Patrol Association president who wrote a letter to the editor in support of unionization — spoke about the demands put on ski patrollers.

“It’s highly technical. There’s a lot of professionalism involved and a lot of training. Especially with these big, higher lifts and gondolas. You have to ride the cables, and you have to be able to lower people from cabins. And if someone has a medical problem in a cabin, you have to have the technical know-how to lower them in a basket. There’s so much involved,” Cooney said, adding that patrollers do avalanche mitigation work and respond to nearby backcountry emergencies. “Every day a professional ski patroller does his or her job well saves a company millions of dollars in litigation.”

While Keystone ski patrol voted not to unionize, some other ski patrols across the country are moving in that direction, including Park City Mountain Resort, Steamboat Resort, Telluride Ski Resort and, most recently, Breckenridge Ski Resort. A petition has been filed for an election at Breckenridge. Ballots will be mailed to patrollers on April 12 and are due at 3 p.m. May 3, according to National Labor Relations Board Press Secretary Kayla Blado.

This is not the first time Keystone and Breckenridge ski patrollers have made an attempt to unionize. Both Keystone and Breckenridge patrollers were previously represented by the American Maritime Officers Union District 2A, according to a 2003 article by the Steamboat Pilot & Today.

Paul Chessin, a former Keystone ski patroller, was part of that effort. Chessin, who was a patroller for 20 years, said he doesn’t recall whether Vail Resorts owned the ski area when the union effort began, adding that Keystone and Breckenridge were owned by the same company at the time and that Breckenridge ski patrol was already unionized.

“There was, at the time, some general grumbling and dissatisfaction with members of the ski patrol about how they were being treated by management,” Chessin said.

At the time, Chessin suggested that instead of just talking about grievances patrollers had with management, they should focus the energy and unionize. An election was held, and Chessin said the union won by a significant majority.

“I think if done properly, a union and management can work very, very well together for the benefit of both,” Chessin said. “The line of communication should be open, and a union is one way in which to increase the openness of the communication channels. You don’t necessarily need a union, but sometimes a company thinks, ‘It’s my way or the highway. Employees, if you don’t like it, you can leave.’ … It’s that type of management philosophy that creates the need for unions.”

When the union decertified in the early 2000s, Chessin said he figured things were going well for the patrollers at Keystone, adding that he was sad to see that patrollers feel there is a need to unionize again.

Cooney predicted that if attempts are made by Vail Resorts to rectify things with Keystone ski patrollers following the unionization attempt, they will be short-lived.

“It’s a typical way that (corporations) fight back,” Cooney said. “… They’ll give a concession, and then they’ll satisfy people for then and hope (employees) will back off.”

Keystone and Breckenridge communications managers did not respond to requests for comment.

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