The lifts at Park City Mountain kept spinning this week after Vail Resorts and the ski patrol union reached a collective bargaining agreement, narrowly averting a strike that 98% of union members had voted to authorize.
Tensions had been building over a year and a half as the two parties met for 50 bargaining sessions without substantial progress. Ski patrollers, who provide medical care on the slopes and mitigate avalanches, picketed last year for higher wages.
But it was only after raising a $100,000 solidarity fund from the community and threatening to walk off the job — an action which would have likely closed Utah’s biggest ski resort — that the publicly traded vacation giant Vail Resorts presented an offer that the union members found acceptable, raising their wages from an average of $15.32 per hour last year to an average of $19 per hour, with other added benefits.
The deal was reached after 15 hours of negotiations last Wednesday and was later approved by the majority of the ski patrol union’s membership.
“That meeting was the first time we’ve seen any real progress from the company at the bargaining table in 17 months,” said Patrick Murphy, the business manager for the Park City Professional Ski Patrol Association. “I do think that the company seeing our solidarity fund and our strike authorization vote — I think that carries a lot of weight and showed them that we meant business.”
The union — whose motto is, “United we bargain, divided we beg” — had long held out for a $17 dollar starting wage for ski patrollers, which is offered at other major ski resorts across the western United States.
Vail Resorts refused to meet those terms, which Murphy, who’s worked on the Park City ski patrol for five years, said was disappointing. The base wage under the new contract is $15 per hour, but ski patrollers on the Park City side of the mountain who sign up to work a shift out of the connected Canyons base area, or vice versa, will receive a $1 per hour raise for the entire season. That provision makes it so $16 is essentially the new starting wage, he said.
Although it’s a significant increase from the $13.25 base wage patrollers were paid before the deal, many union members voted against the new contract because they felt it failed to recognize the value ski patrollers provide to the multi-billion dollar company.
“There were a lot of things that we wanted that we didn’t get out of this,” Murphy acknowledged.
He said the deal syncs the Park City union’s upcoming bargaining sessions with ski patrol unions at other Vail-owned resorts, which he believes will give patrollers more leverage in the future.
Vail Resorts and the union released a joint statement last week that said they were “appreciative of the engagement and commitment on both sides.”
Vail did not respond to a request for comment after the contract was approved.
Human labor behind the ‘wilderness’ experience
All non-union Vail employees received a pay bump this year to a minimum of $15 per hour, but that has not been enough to attract sufficient staff to many of its resorts.
Park City has kept several of its lifts closed this year due to a staffing shortage, and other Vail-owned ski areas like Stevens Pass in Washington state have opened less than half of their terrain, sparking threats of a class-action lawsuit from pass holders.
The nationwide staffing shortage has given employees more bargaining power over the last year and may have been a contributing factor to a wave of strikes in the fall. But strikes in the ski industry have been exceedingly rare, according to Jesse Ritner, a Ph.D. student at the University of Austin, who runs a skiing history blog.
The ski industry saw its first major wave of unionization efforts in 1965 when workers at Aspen, Sun Valley and Park City first organized, Ritner said. And in the early 1970s, ski patrollers struck at Aspen Mountain, the only such instance he is aware of.
“At the time, it did not shut down the resort,” he said. “Aspen hired new patrollers to break the picket line, despite appeals to the [National Labor Relations Board]. … Many still lost their jobs permanently.”
Several ski patrols at Vail-owned resorts won union elections in recent years, which Barry Moldover, a retired Salt Lake City-based electrician who spent 40 years in the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, said could be part of a renewed interest in the potential benefits of unionization.
“I think the younger workers are realizing that they’re getting a raw deal from society, working for low wages, having to turn to a gig economy,” Moldover said, pointing to recent polling that found 65% of Americans approve of labor unions with the highest approval ratings among 18- to 34-year-olds.
Less than 11% of American workers are union members, compared to over 20% in 1983. In Utah, as of 2019, only 4.4% of workers belonged to a union.
Annie Coleman, a professor of American Studies at the University of Notre Dame and author of “Ski Style: Sport and Culture in the Rockies,” noted that outdoor workers are somewhat unique because when a skier hits the slopes, for example, they don’t necessarily want to think about the grooming, snowmaking, avalanche control, lift maintenance and other labor that has preceded their vacation.
“It’s been easy to overlook service workers in ski towns,” Coleman said, “...because we just kind of take their presence for granted and focus on the scenic view and the exhilarating experience and the time with our family that we love.”
That has started to change, Coleman said, with the COVID-19 pandemic, understaffing issues and other factors.
“We’re being forced to recognize the human labor that goes into these experiences,” she said. Just the threat of a strike by the ski patrollers elevated the essential role they play to keep ski resorts functioning and safe, and if they had walked off the job it would likely have been the biggest labor action in Utah in decades.
Jobs in the outdoor industry often have perks, like the ability to work in scenic places, an issue at play in a recent Biden administration executive order that sets a $15 minimum wage for guides and other workers on federal land.
“The beauty of outdoor guides’ work,” Coleman said, “is that they bring people into places and make their clients feel like they’re alone in the wilderness. So it’s really uncomfortable when you have to talk about paying them by the hour.”
“Just because your job is fun doesn’t mean you don’t deserve to get paid accordingly for that job,” said Murphy, the union’s business manager.
He said the union is still discussing how to best distribute the $100,000 they raised for a potential strike fund, but he said some of it will go to other ski patrol unions, adding that he would like to see other wage workers in the ski industry unionize.
“The number one advantage of organizing,” he said, “is being able to have one unified voice against these big companies. If you’re one seasonal employee, it’s very easy for a company to just discount what you’re saying. But if you stand up together, … the company is forced to listen to you.”
Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.