Look for the union label
December 18, 2015
So we now have a union ski patrol at Park City. The vote was close, a margin of just a handful of votes, so it’s not like the decision to organize was as popular as powder skiing. Management fought it, but the patrol at Canyons has been unionized for many years without any real complications. I’ve got friends on all sides of this one. The patrollers’ explanation of the situation sounds absolutely reasonable. They realized that the job they planned on doing for a couple of years instead became a career they’ve invested 20 years in. They have mortgages and obligations, and are not so far from retirement that it can be ignored. Suddenly the security of knowing that they will be hired back next season, and the season after that, begins to matter. Back when Canyons was frequently changing ownership and management, and finances were in constant turmoil, it’s easy to see why long-term employees felt insecure.
If their job ended, they have 20 or 30 years of very detailed, highly specialized knowledge and experience that isn’t readily transferrable to another line of work. Not a lot of demand for guys to throw bombs at the produce department at the grocery store. Until recently, there was the comfort of knowing that there were three resorts in town, and if there were conditions that made working for one unpleasant, there were opportunities down the street. Those options got reduced with the merger. So for the career patrollers, issues of job security matter. The ability to address wages through collective bargaining helps level the playing field between the seasonal employees and the biggest player in the ski industry. There is a real negotiation involved. It makes sense to me.
It’s not without precedent. Back when the mining company ran the resort, most of the employees were members of the steelworkers union. So maybe it’s come full circle.
Unions earned a bad reputation in the years when the U.S. deindustrialized. As jobs moved to foreign countries, unions often went to ridiculous lengths to preserve jobs that were no longer necessary. The father of one of my childhood friends was a "fireman" for the D&RG Railroad. His job was to stoke the coal-fired boiler in the steam locomotive — except that it that ran on diesel. Nobody had the foggiest idea what he did at work, but they lived quite comfortably. You need a bolt tightened? Well, under the union rules, I can only tighten 7/16th. That one is a 9/16th, so I guess you need to get the guy standing around waiting for a 9/16th bolt. Unreasonable demands from the unions, all agreed to by management, were part of what put the U.S. auto industry in the dumps back in the 1980s. That, and management designing some unbelievably crappy cars.
When you think of unions now, the image that comes to mind is French railroad workers on strike because it’s Tuesday. Somehow, the ski patroller out there before daylight, throwing bombs at avalanche chutes, isn’t the first thing that comes up. But when you are skiing underneath one of those avalanche chutes, there is a real comfort that comes from knowing that somebody with many years of experience on that exact location, who has seen it under all kinds of conditions, did the control work instead of the first-year rookie who trained on the rugged landscape of Minnesota. Still, personality-wise, ski patrollers seem as unlikely to unionize as cowboys.
From an operations standpoint, I don’t think anybody will know the difference that the patrol is unionized. There are benefits to having experienced people, union or not. The union didn’t make any observable difference to customers at Canyons through the years. They take their jobs seriously, and it’s inconceivable that there would be the sort of arbitrary work rules that limit certain patrollers to working on broken arms, and others to knees. That isn’t what it was all about. For the career patrollers, it’s about respect, security, and making a profession out of a seasonal job.
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There’s a lot of discussion in the political realm about income inequality. There probably isn’t a place where the inequality is more pronounced than a resort town, where the very rich are cared for by the very poor. The service industry is unionized in Las Vegas, and hotel and restaurant workers can make an acceptable living. What if local hotel housekeepers got paid well enough to have health insurance, and got vacations and so on? They won’t be buying castles in The Colony, but some of the modest condos might be in range. Low wages shift costs from the employer to the community in the form of subsidized housing, health care, food stamps, transportation and so on.
Look for the union label.
Tom Clyde practiced law in Park City for many years. He lives on a working ranch in Woodland and has been writing this column since 1986.
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