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On a clear day early morning skiers ride the Red Lady chairlift in late February 2022 at Crested Butte Mountain Resort (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.

In it, he covers the industry from the inside out, plus the fun side of being outdoors in our beautiful state.

MOUNT CRESTED BUTTE — There was a moment there in the summer of 2020 when McDonald’s in Gunnison was offering new hires more money — $19 an hour — than Rob Alexander was making in lift operations at Crested Butte Mountain Resort. 

“It’s very difficult up here at the end of the road and everything that has happened in the last few years has made it tougher and tougher. It’s been a real struggle,” Alexander said, detailing the soaring costs of rent and real estate in the Gunnison County town that quickly eclipsed his wage from the Vail Resorts-owned ski hill. 

Alexander is one of 10 lift maintenance workers and electricians at Crested Butte Mountain Resort who unanimously voted this week to form a union, becoming the second resort lift crew to unionize. The resort’s ski patrollers have been unionized since the 1970s.

Since every lift maintenance worker at Crested Butte Mountain Resort signed onto the union, the workers hope resort owner Vail Resorts accepts the union; a voluntary recognition that dismisses the need for an election, which can take up to six weeks. 

A statement from the Communications Workers of America Local 7781, which includes the national ski patrollers’ union, said the lift mechanics and electricians at the Crested Butte ski area “face dangerous working conditions, high turnover and a lack of support for professional development.” A union will help the workers “build a highly professional lift maintenance crew and a safer working environment.”

“This has been a long process to get to 100% and get everyone on board,” Alexander said. “It’s the Crested Butte way. We are all together on this. We are hoping to see Vail do the right thing and hopefully go right to negotiations.”

Tara Schoedinger, the general manager at Crested Butte Mountain Resort, said in a statement emailed to The Sun that she was committed to “the constant improvement of our employee experience” with “significant investment” in worker wages, benefits and housing for the 2022-23 season. 

“I believe in engaging with all employees with respect, accountability, and transparency, and I encourage all staff members to communicate directly with me and our leadership team. My number one priority is working together as one team to ensure a positive employee experience, which includes sharing and addressing concerns together,” she said. “I believe a direct relationship with our team works best rather than through a third party, and at the same time, am dedicated to working closely with our team whichever decision they make.” 

The ski area labor movement has been gaining ground in the past two years, led by ski patrollers forming unions. Earlier this year patrollers at Loveland ski area voted to unionize, joining patrollers at Colorado’s Breckenridge, Crested Butte, Purgatory, Steamboat and Telluride ski areas in the United Professional Ski Patrols of America. Aspen Skiing Co. patrollers are part of a private union. Patrollers at Vail Resorts’ Park City Mountain Resort in Utah and Stevens Pass in Washington are unionized. Last year lift mechanics and electricians at Park City ski area voted to join the patrollers union, marking the first ski area maintenance crew to join a union.

The consolidation of the resort industry, with major players like Broomfield-based Vail Resorts and Denver’s Alterra Mountain Co. gathering ski areas under corporate ownership, has fueled the unionization push that is mirrored in other industries across the country. While union membership has been in decline for decades, the labor movement is growing in Colorado. 

Government employees and teachers in Colorado have expanded collective bargaining rights. Grocery workers are fighting for collective bargaining alongside workers at Swift Beef Co. in Greeley and several Starbucks shops. Smaller employers like Meow Wolf and Trader Joe’s have seen workers voting to join unions. Even World Cup downhill mountain bike athletes are considering an athlete union following the sport’s governing body landing an eight-year broadcasting deal with the Discovery channel. 

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Vail Resorts this week published a job listing for a director of Crested Butte ski area’s lift maintenance and operations team.

The high costs of living in a mountain town have exacerbated a high-country labor crisis, leaving employers scrambling to attract and retain workers. Vail Resorts in 2022 began paying all its workers at least $20 an hour as part of a $175 million investment in its workforce. Other resort operators in 2022 also bumped minimum wages to $20 an hour, setting a new bar for mountain-town employers. 

A statement from the CWA Local 7781 urged Vail Resorts to recognize the union, which has filed a petition for representation with the National Labor Relations Board but will withdraw that petition if Vail Resorts recognizes the new union by next week. 

Since Alexander joined the resort, he’s seen 100% turnover among lift mechanics and electricians. Last winter he got a 10 cents-an-hour raise. Meanwhile home builders and other employers in the valley are paying much more than the resort, he said. He hopes collective bargaining with North America’s largest resort operator will yield more competitive pay and better working conditions. 

“It’s a really good group of people we have up here in mountain operations,” he said. “I hope Vail recognizes that. We all realize that individually we beg, but together we bargain.”

Jason Blevins

The Colorado Sun — Email: Twitter: @jasonblevins