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Ski patrollers at Breckenridge vote 43-42 to unionize

Summit County resort’s ski patrollers join United Professional Ski Patrols of America alongside first-responders at Vail Resorts’ Crested Butte, Park City in Utah and Stevens Pass in Washington.

Telluride Ski Patrollers Erik Aura and Craig Prohaska prepare to fire "Gun 3” Avalauncher located on the top of Gold Hill toward targets across the basin at Palmyra Peak. Avalanche mitigation at Telluride, one of the steepest ski areas in Colorado, requires the use of many tools, including the Avalauncher. (Brett Schreckengost, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Ski patrollers at Breckenridge have voted to unionize. By one vote. 

The 43-42 vote announced this week on the National Labor Relations Board website adds Breckenridge to a growing list of ski areas with unionized patrollers

Patrollers in Crested Butte, Steamboat, Telluride, Utah’s Park City and Washington’s Stevens Pass are part of the United Professional Ski Patrols of America, a chapter of the Communication Workers of America. Patrollers at the four Aspen Skiing Co. resorts in the Roaring Fork Valley are part of a private union. 

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Patrollers at Montana’s Big Sky resort last month approved unionization in a 69-21 vote. Last month, patrollers at Keystone rejected a unionization effort in a 42-36 vote. 

The increasing cost of living in and around ski towns — coupled with stagnant wages, year-round workloads and the increasingly corporate ski area ownership model in the rapidly consolidating resort industry — has buoyed recent efforts for unionization of ski patrollers. 

“The company says they view us as professionals, and I believe that. But then decisions come around and (when) it’s time to treat us like professionals, our concerns are superseded by other concerns,” said Ryan Anderson, an eight-year patroller at Vail Resorts-owned Breckenridge ski area. “It feels like first responders always end up on the back burner.”

Unions across the country have been in decline for many decades. Last year’s 15.9 million workers represented by unions marked a record low for union membership in the country. That’s about half of what it was in the early 1980s. Unions have not thrived in the resort industry either, with ski instructors at Beaver Creek not qualifying for a union vote in 2016 and patrollers at New Mexico’s Taos ski area rejecting a union in a split 22-22 vote in 2015.

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As mega-corporations such as Amazon grow — including Vail Resorts, which owns 37 ski areas — labor champions point to the power of collective bargaining as a tool for protecting workers. Ski patrol unions in Telluride and Aspen-Snowmass have led to higher wages and better benefits. This year, Vail Resorts riled patrollers when it excluded the unionized workers from an end-of-season bonus program, saying the bonuses would require new contract negotiations. 

The bonus program was opened to patrollers at Crested Butte, Park City and Stevens Pass after they voted to adjust their contracts. And Vail Resorts this spring formed a ski patrol focus group that led the resort operator to almost double the gear allowance it provides to ski patrollers. The company and patrollers are working to improve their wages. 

In Breckenridge, “the vote was closer than we would have liked,” said Anderson, who expressed surprise that 29 of the resort’s 114 ski patrollers eligible to vote chose not to cast their ballot. 

“In the current climate of corporate leadership in this country right now, I do believe it is going to be necessary for moves like this to happen,” he said. “We are a professional patrol, but it has become harder and harder to sustain that. The buying power with our wages has dropped while the stresses of the workload have increased. It’s becoming tough to keep people around. Changes need to be made to keep our departments on the cutting edge while working within the company structure.” 

Vail Resorts, in a statement, said it was “disappointed” with the outcome, noting that only 43 out of 114 patrollers voted for union representation. The company promised to bargain in good faith with union representatives. 

Breckenridge’s patrol director Kevin Ahern said in a statement that unionization “is the wrong choice.” He spent 40 years at Breckenridge, including 20 years as under union representation from the mid 1980s until the resort’s ski patrol union disbanded in 2004.

“What is troubling to me is that only about one-third of our patrollers voted for the union,” said Ahern, who is retiring when Breckenridge closes this season. “It seems that nowhere close to a majority actually wanted union representation, but if the vote is certified, they will now be required to have a third party speak on their behalf. It’s a disappointing process, but I know the leadership at Breck will do everything to support their employees regardless of the outcome.”  

Joe Naunchik, a longtime patroller at Park City who works as a union representative for his fellow patrollers, laughed when he read Vail Resorts’ focus on the narrow margin of victory.

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“You think they would be saying that if they won by one?” he said. 

Naunchik says Vail Resorts upping its all gear allowance for ski patrollers at several resorts “is absolutely a direct result” of unionized patroller negotiations at Stevens Pass, Crested Butte and Park City. 

“That’s what we do, we force the company to raise the working conditions and wages for all their employees when we negotiate a contract that is better than what they currently offer,” said Naunchik, who hopes contracts reached with patrollers at Park City, Stevens Pass, Crested Butte and now Breckenridge will eventually cover all Vail Resorts ski patrollers with increased wages, working conditions and gear allowances. “I hope the company takes this recent vote as a message that they should work with us as partners. That’s what these patrols want to have happen.”


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