September 2023

State of the Unions

Ski areas focus on improving relations and benefits as more employees seek to leverage collective bargaining. 

Written by Troy Hawks | 0 comment

The number of U.S. ski area employees, namely patrollers and lift mechanics, represented by a union has nearly doubled since 2021. Most are represented by the United Professional Ski Patrols of America (UPSPA) CWA Local 7781, which counts among its members more than 700 ski patrollers and lift maintenance staff at 10 resorts in four states including Colorado, Montana, Utah, and Washington. 

Lift mechanics and electricians at Colorado’s Crested Butte Mountain Resort (CBMR) became the most recent to unionize in May, when they voted 7-to-3 to form the Crested Butte Lift Maintenance Professional Union, the second U.S. ski area lift maintenance crew to take such action. In 2022, Park City Mountain Resort, Utah, lift maintenance employees voted 35-to-6 in favor of formalizing the Park City Lift Maintenance Professional Union. While each union has its own name, they all fall under the auspices of the UPSPA. 

What drove the move at CMBR? “Lift mechanics and electricians at Crested Butte decided to unionize so they can have a direct say in solving the issues they face at work: dangerous working conditions, high turnover, and a lack of support for professional development,” CBMR lift mechanic Thomas Pearman said in a statement. 

There’s plenty to indicate that the trend of unionizing among ski area employees may continue—and resorts are hoping to address the issues pushing them in that direction before they do. 

Why Now?

Employee unions are not new to the ski industry—specifically in the West. Patrollers at Aspen, Colo., have been in a private union (not repped by UPSPA) since 1986. In 2001, patrollers at Killington, Vt., formed a union, though it disbanded a year later. The year 2021 saw successful ski patrol unionizations at Breckenridge, Colo., and Big Sky, Mont., and patrol unions also exist at Park City, Stevens Pass, Wash., and Purgatory, Steamboat, and Telluride, Colo., as well as Loveland, Colo., which voted to unionize in April. Prior to the CWA 7781, some 400 ski patrollers at several resorts in Colorado had been represented by a different union until it disbanded in 2002.

National trend. What’s happening in the ski industry speaks to a national trend, where there is a notable downturn in union membership—only 10 percent of U.S. workers currently belong to a union, down from nearly 30 percent in the 1950s heyday—but an apparent uptrend among unions in recreation and other businesses not previously associated with them. Recently, employees at more than 250 Starbucks stores voted to unionize, and similar efforts either happened or are underway at companies like REI, Amazon, Waffle House, and Trader Joe’s.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that unionization rates in the arts, entertainment, and recreation industries collectively increased by 2.1 percentage points in two years, from 5.5 percent in 2020 to 7.6 percent in 2022. 

“We have entered a new era of employee-employer relations, and you can see it across the spectrum of industries,” says Purgatory, Colo., general manager Dave Rathbun, where patrollers voted 35-3 in favor of unionizing in 2022. “Had there been better, more open dialogue earlier,” he acknowledges, “maybe we could have convinced the patrol leaders that there were ways to make improvements without unionizing.”

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Tough Times

In Durango, home to Purgatory, the median home price has jumped by 30 percent since 2020, and Rathbun sees the pressure his employees are under. Purgatory has recently instituted significant wage increases and added new benefits, including larger personal protection and equipment (PPE) allowances and mortgage down payment assistance for qualifying employees, with the hope of providing at least some relief.

Other ski areas are following suit, taking extra actions to improve wages, working conditions, communication, and even to help foster solutions to challenges like local housing shortages, limited daycare space, and more—issues coming to a head in resort towns in the aftermath of the pandemic. 

Vail Resorts, owner of CBMR, last year alone invested $175 million in its employees in the form of increased wages, expanded benefits, and support for affordable housing projects. Though, ultimately, it didn’t sway the May vote, Crested Butte vice president and GM Tara Schoedinger implied that the investment was the result of a direct relationship with employees—“a better route than unionization.”

The trend is prevalent enough among ski resorts that in May, the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) held an education session titled “Unions and the Rapidly Evolving Labor Landscape” moderated by Dave Byrd, the association’s director of risk and regulatory affairs. 

Byrd says some of the conversation focused on investing more in the employee, as seen with the efforts at Vail Resorts and Purgatory. “That makes a lot of sense for a variety of reasons,” says Byrd. “Employee safety, mental health, engagement, and giving them a seat at the table—my recommendation is that resorts make that part of their story, because that’s the landscape we’re in right now.”

Wages going up. Resorts are trying, and there has been significant wage growth in the ski industry—especially in key positions—over the last five years. According to NSAA’s 2022-23 Annual Wage & Salary Survey, which represents 161 resorts, overall wage growth across all ski resort jobs is up 18 percent over last year, compared to a roughly 5 percent growth in overall wages across all U.S. industries. 

Furthermore, over the past five years, the survey shows a 51 percent growth in wages for entry-level ski patrol jobs (up 20 percent since 2022) and a 36 percent growth for experienced patrollers (up 18 percent from 2022). Lift mechanic jobs fare similarly—wages for lift mechanics are up 41 percent over five years (up 13 percent from 2022) and 34 percent for experienced mechanics (up 11 percent from 2022). 

Of course, presumably, notable wage bumps for ski patrol and other staff at bigger players like Vail Resorts are averaged into these numbers.

Union POV

Even so, resort workers say unions give them the negotiating power they need. Employees voting to unionize share common concerns and are looking for solutions to the housing squeeze and cost-of-living increases in their towns. 

“I’m of the personal viewpoint that anyone can empower themselves with a union,” says Ryan Dineen, an 11-year patroller and president of the Breckenridge Professional Ski Patrol union.

Covid, says Dineen, did a lot to highlight disparities in mountain communities. “It took stress fractures in our industry and broke them,” he says. “Many employees don’t have the stability of year-round employment, so we’re always, in a way, subsidizing our work in one industry by working in a different one. There is fear that’s generated with this, and that fear and precarity are an unfortunate part of the outdoor industry that we’re looking to kind of insulate ourselves [from] as much as possible.”

Contract improvements. Kate Lips is the newly elected president of the Park City Professional Ski Patrol Association that formed in 2015 with Vail Resorts’ acquisition of The Canyons and Park City. The 200-member union renegotiated its contract in 2022 after 18 months and 50 bargaining sessions with Vail Resorts.

Lips says with the new contract, the average patroller wage increased almost 25 percent, incentives are in place for patrollers with higher level training and skill sets, and they received significant increases in their gear allowance.

The updated contract also includes a new article detailing the arbitration process, a “formalized road map” for how the union and the company deal with disagreements as they come up, adds Lips. 

“This is driven not out of a desire to create tension,” says Lips. “It’s a desire to improve these jobs we all love and make them sustainable careers. Unionizing can be a huge first step in trying to find some solutions.”

Specialized skills. There are many components to ski patrolling, she points out. “And it takes a long time to get good at it, so retention is very important to us. And in order to have retention, you need to have compensation that allows people to afford to live where they work.” 

Rathbun agrees: patrol and lift maintenance are complex career paths that require specialized skill sets that must be maintained through certifications and training. He acknowledges that Purgatory patrollers’ pro-union vote was an eye-opener. “It showed me there are better ways to work with all employees—that’s my greatest learning from the recent union efforts by our ski and bike patrollers,” he says. 

“People love these jobs and want to fight to make them better,” adds Lips, “and I think that is what is at the core of being a union member for me—I love my job, and I want to be able to do it long term. I also want to own a house one day.” 

Communication is Key

“My advice is to make a concerted effort to get together with the leaders and influencers within your potentially vulnerable teams and have an honest and sincere dialogue about their feelings and perspective,” says Rathbun. “Give yourself and your resort a chance to uncover and address any issues before you are collective bargaining and likely spending tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees.”

CBMR’s Schoedinger echoes the sentiment. “We sincerely believe that a direct relationship between our company and our team members creates the strongest connection and allows every employee’s voice to be heard.”

Schoedinger points out that 30 percent of the CBMR lift maintenance team voted against the union, again hinting that there may be opportunities for resorts to turn the tide through fostering relationships—which also remains key once a union has been established. 

Relationships. “I like to think that we have good relations with our local management, and those positive relationships help to make the contract beneficial to both parties,” says Breckenridge’s Dineen, “whether that’s a safer work environment or quality retention and promoting that retention through realistic pay that allows employees to live in these mountain communities.”

“Democracy takes time,” he adds. “It’s more efficient if one person just makes all the decisions for everybody, but it’s a whole lot more equitable to have democracy. But that takes engagement, listening, speaking with honesty, telling the truth, building relationships, having unity. Those things take effort, and time, and commitment, but what you get out of it can be incredible.”  

No Silver Bullet

Clearly, the pandemic, resulting labor shortage, and cost-of-living hikes have helped fuel a micro-trend that’s emboldened workers to act for higher wages and increased benefits. If the economy turns around, ski area employees may become more inclined to work out their grievances and issues directly with their employer before casting their vote to unionize. Or, perhaps the 2024 election will have an impact. 

Still, Lips anticipates this trajectory will continue among ski areas. “I’m not going to say that unionizing is a silver bullet that fixes every aspect of a workplace,” she says, “but I do think that there are a lot of people out there starting to realize how important it is to have a seat at that table. The issues that are facing us are not unique to ski patrol, and people are realizing that. I don’t see any reason to expect [unionization] to slow down.”