Ski patrol workers in Park City, Utah, are currently struggling for fair wages. In a whopping 47 bargaining sessions over 15 months, the workers have been struggling for a contract that raises wages, offers higher starting pay to help retain workers and addresses wage compression. Wage compression is when more senior workers with more education and experience have pay that is only a little higher than new workers.
The 160 ski patrollers at the Park City Mountain Resort who are members of Park City Professional Ski Patrol Association are energized from the wave of recent union victories in the ski industry, as well as across the labor movement. In an interview with Liberation News, PCPSPA union representatives noted that, “last winter, Big Sky [Montana], Breckenridge [Colorado], and Steven’s Pass [Washington] patrols voted to unionize, pushing the larger ski industry to make patrol a viable career.”
PCPSPA is currently in what has been a long struggle with ski conglomerate Vail Resorts, who have made repeated attempts to weaken union membership and deny the ski patrol workers adequate working conditions. Workers have been fighting for a new contract since the previous contract expired more than a year ago in November 2020.
Despite hoarding profits during the pandemic and entering last summer with 1.3 billion dollars of cash on hand, Vail Ski Resort executives denied unionized workers a needed bonus, offering it instead to all non-unionized workers exclusively in spring 2021. Shortly afterward, Vail refused to give the unionized workers a livable wage, and instead offered them $1.25/hour less than the standard wage offered to all non-unionized workers.
The attempt to split Park City Mountain Resort employees between union ski patrollers and non-union lift operators, resort staff, parking attendants, and other workers with a selective raise is an attempt to pit union and non-union workers against each other and an attempt to discredit worker organizing. However, if ski patrollers in Park City effectively organize in their union for a better contract and a raise, experts say that this will lead to a permanently better-paid workforce at the ski area. It could also increase interest and membership in the union or spark other union drives.
PCPSPA’s resolve to keep fighting for a liveable wage has continued despite hardship. Liberation News reached out to union representatives who explained that as of Jan. 5, workers had proposed: “$17/hour starting pay and meaningful increases to address wage compression. The company came back with a proposal that had slight increases to incentive pay for various positions, but did nothing to address the starting wages and wage compression. Because this proposal falls far short of the needs and concerns voiced by the membership after our ‘no’ vote, we are beginning to look at the next steps we can take.”
The dramatically increasing cost of living and housing, especially in Utah, have left workers with no choice but to demand higher wages. Without providing livable wages, the ski resort is unable to maintain adequate retention of experienced ski patrollers which is critical for resort safety. Ski patrollers are vital to keeping these areas safe, as they work triple-duty as first responders, on-mountain/adverse terrain medical care experts and avalanche danger mitigators. One PCPSPA union member explained, “We love our job and want it to be a sustainable career because that makes the resort safer. It takes years to develop the entire skillset necessary to do this job well. Higher retention directly translates to better patient care, fewer workplace injuries, and the ability to mitigate avalanche risks in order to safely open more terrain.”
Another worker in Breckenridge, Colorado, who spoke anonymously due to company policy on speaking to the media, echoed the struggles of Park City ski workers. “It’s not that there are not enough talented people. There is a shortage of people who will get duped into working for $15 an hour. This is about communities running out of cheap labor. People are realizing they are worth more and their quality of life is worth more than an extra dime an hour.”
While negotiations have been ongoing for over a year now, Vail executives have continued to stall negotiations by refusing to meet workers’ basic needs. This refusal to pay liveable wages is particularly egregious considering Vail has oversold ski passes leading to record profits and significant overcrowding at the resorts on weekends. The overcrowding combined with inadequate retention of experienced ski patrollers exacerbates the safety risks at the resort. This is all the more true during the pandemic when the ski areas are experiencing severe understaffing due to large numbers of ski workers quarantining combined with poor worker retention due to low pay.
Despite Vail executives’ ongoing stonewalling of union negotiations, Park City ski patrollers are undeterred in their fight. They also have received community support, which they have depended on as they continue to fight until they win fair wages from Vail. “While we are still hoping to reach a deal with the company that makes sense for us, we have begun a Solidarity Fund to be used in the event that more significant action has to be taken, and we are not receiving paychecks,” said one union member after the most recent rejection of a fair wage offer.
The fund description reads: “The bargaining process has been ongoing for 16 months and we have seen our ski community show up again and again for us throughout this long process.” The strength of this community support is demonstrated in the fund’s accumulation of over $50,000 in just over a week. In addition, coalitions are developing between the union and local community groups, like the PSL, who are ready to support any future escalation needed to win this fight.
This ongoing ski workers struggle and the labor victories across the nation demonstrate that when workers recognize our collective power, we can stand strong against corporate greed. In the past two months, workers across the nation won critical victories including the establishment of the first union at Starbucks, graduate student workers’ healthcare at the University of South Carolina, historic strikes and contracts for both the Kellogg’s and John Deere workers, and a contract victory for nurses after the longest nurses strike in Massachusetts history. During this labor movement uptick, ski patrol workers are joining the fight for fair wages.
Photo: A ski patroller and union member. Credit: Willie Maahs