United we patrol
There were times last season at Steamboat ski area when all the ski patrol were out on calls and there was no one on hand to respond to even one more accident, according to Steamboat patroller Al Rosenthal.For patrollers at the six unionized areas that in April voted to band together into a national labor union Aspen, Crested Butte, Steamboat, Breckenridge, Killington, Vt., and The Canyons, Utah lack of staffing and its impact on safety is one of the best arguments for organizing.”We had times this past season when our duty station was empty of patrollers, so there was not a patroller available to respond to accidents,” says Rosenthal, a 25-year patrol veteran and president of the new United Professional Ski Patrols of America. “”It just so happens if you were the one who had the heart attack in that time period, our response time might not have been as good as it had been in the past.”Post 9/11, he says, Steamboat owner American Skiing Company already on shaky financial ground cut patrol by 20 percent, from 50 to 40.Through pressure from the union, which formed in 2000, patrol staff was back up to 44 by March, but Rosenthal says that number needs to be kept at 50 full-timers.For the record, the 2001-02 ski season was the deadliest ever on Colorado’s ski slopes. Sixteen snowriders died in-bounds at 10 different areas, with seven of those deaths occurring at resorts with unionized ski patrol including one at Steamboat, four at Aspen Highlands and two at Breckenridge.”Running a safe program has to do with ski patrol visibility out there on the hill, and that has to do with staffing,” Rosenthal says. “Having a million skiers, basically the same number as the year before, and a 20 percent cut in ski patrol, we just weren’t as visible in the high-traffic areas.”Union organizers say safety is one of the biggest considerations driving the ski patrol labor movement. There is a domino effect that begins with better working conditions, they say, which help ensure staff longevity, which in turn leads to a higher level of professionalism and medical certification. Those elements make for a safer mountain for the average snowrider, says Phil Kelley, a negotiator for the ski patrollers and a vice president of the national District 2A Transportation, Technical, Warehouse, Industrial and Service Employees Union, which now includes the new ski patrol union.”There historically has been a supply of ski patrollers that enables a resort to pay lower starting wages than, say, daycare workers. They’ll tell you that it’s easier to get someone to ski patrol than to get someone to change dirty diapers,” Kelley says, “but a rookie ski patroller is not a finished professional, and it takes many years to become a truly seasoned, professional ski patroller.”But Rick Smith, Vail Resorts vice president of human resources, argues that unions have no impact on staffing levels or longevity. “To say that is absolutely unfounded and is strictly a marketing statement. Working conditions are no different at Breckenridge than they are anywhere else, and we just had a patroller (at Vail) who retired with more than 35 years.”‘A happier place to work’For some ski patrollers, the debate over the formation of a national union comes down to powder lines over picket lines.”You’re a ski patroller for the love of the job, and if you get all caught up in the politics of it, it’s probably time to move on,” says longtime Vail Ski Patrol foreman Billy Mattison. “It’s a lifestyle type of job. You better love to ski to be a ski patroller.”But for the patrollers at the six unionized areas says times have changed in the ski industry. Crowded slopes, rampant litigation and bottom-line corporate consolidation require a higher level of professionalism from ski patrol. And organized labor, they say, is the only way to force management into recognizing and rewarding those increased demands.”This is not a casual job at all, and it has become more complicated and professional all the time,” says Tim Cooney, a 20-year patroller at Aspen Mountain. “We’re the stable part of the company and management is the less stable, and so those patrollers who say we don’t need all that bureaucracy of a union and it’s just a fun job have a different perception of what professional ski patrolling is.”To liberally paraphrase Jimmy Buffett, changes in ownership and management latitudes often bring changes in attitude amongst the rank and file, creating fertile ground for the spread of unions.Crested Butte’s ski patrol formed the first union in 1980, followed by Breckenridge and Aspen in 1986, when those areas were under the same ownership. Keystone’s patrol set up shop in 1994 when that area was still owned by Ralston Purina, then informally disbanded its union last ski season after burying the hatchet with Vail Resorts management.”Overall, everybody’s really happy now, but there was just a lot of tension going on because of the union,” says Keystone patroller and former union president Greg Rood. “I felt like after we stopped doing union stuff, it just seemed like a happier place to work. The way (management) treated us when we formed the union was wrong; now they got a clue and we don’t have to have a union.”Brouhaha in BreckThere wasn’t quite the same kind of lovefest going on last season at another Vail Resorts’ ski area Breckenridge where several demonstrations were staged by patrollers after the ski company froze wages in response to travel industry panic in the wake of 9/11. Breck patrollers protested the wage freeze at a big-air competition one night, then entered a float in the annual Ullr Fest parade that depicted Vail Resorts as an evil green dragon.”Vail Resorts made more money than any other ski company in the country last year, then had a wage freeze,” Aspen’s Cooney says of the record revenues for VR in 2000-01. “It seems inconsiderate.”Glenn Cottone, president of the Breck union, was a bit more conciliatory heading into late-August negotiations with Vail Resorts for a new contract.”We did end up negotiating a raise that was satisfactory to everybody. Things ended up working out, but it was a bit of a rough start,” says Cottone, who notes Vail Resorts also had a remarkable 2001-02 season, despite 9/11. “We’re hopeful because of Vail’s good year that they had last year that we can have a successful and speedy negotiation.”After a strong Presidents Day weekend at its four resorts, the ski company reinstated the annual 3-percent wage hike, including for the Breckenridge Ski Patrol. But the raise was delayed by more than a month for Breck patrollers, according to VR’s Smith, because the increase had to be negotiated through the union in collective bargaining.Smith says the 80-85 non-management patrollers at Breckenridge are treated no differently than the approximately 220 patrollers at the company’s three other Colorado resorts.”Hopefully, what we’ve demonstrated to Keystone and Vail and Beaver Creek is there’s no need for an intermediary between management and the employees, and that they can come talk to us,” Smith says.Who’s next?Both Smith and Vail patroller Mattison say they have heard no rumblings of organization on this side of Vail Pass, and Smith says he doesn’t expect any as long as the ski company, which now also owns Heavenly ski area in California, continues to offer the most competitive pay structure and benefits package in the industry.”The union’s got to get more members,” Smith says. “It’s a business, and the only way they make money is off union dues, so their role is to organize people and that’s certainly within their rights, but it’s my job to take care of our employees, and I think myself and my management team can do that better than a third party.”Smith says he isn’t particularly worried about the bargaining power of the new national union, which now boasts about 500 members, with the lion’s share of those between 150 and 175 at the four Aspen areas. He seems dubious of the move to nationalize. “I think it’s a marketing spin move,” Smith says. “I frankly don’t even know what it means; it really has no impact on us.”Steamboat’s Rosenthal says ski areas where communications between management and ski patrol rank and file is solid and where management is responsive to concerns about working conditions need not worry.”We aren’t actively going out and seeking members,” Rosenthal says. “We’re here and available to help other ski areas if they want help. People will seek us out if they want our help.”Kelley, the negotiator, says sometimes just the possibility of a union forming is all it takes to keep management on its toes.”We have raised the level of working conditions in the ski industry for ski patrollers in a large number of areas,” he says. “Just the hint of a union has raised wages at at least a dozen resorts that I’m aware of.”
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Vail’s updated plans regarding the state guidelines and isolation housing requirements is one of several pieces of information guests are waiting on heading into the 2020-21 season.