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.
Gerry Reese was a wild-haired ski patroller in charge of explosives at Crested Butte Mountain Resort in the 1970s.
There were about 25 patrollers at the resort back then and “we pretty much ran the mountain,” said Reese, who is now 80 and living in Manhattan. In the mid-1970s, as Crested Butte transitioned from an end-of-the-road mining town to a tourist-dependent mountain destination, home prices were climbing. It was hard to pay the bills, Reese said. So those patrollers formed Colorado’s first ski patrol union and negotiated as a unit for better pay and increased money for clothing and gear.
“We were all EMT trained and we did very dangerous avalanche control. We were in the driver’s seat when we negotiated with management. We ran the mountain and management knew that. We told them we would shut the mountain down if they didn’t work with us,” Reese said. “We said if you don’t work with us we will organize the lift operators too and that terrified them because they knew we could do it. They knew we could shut them down.”
As part of a resort labor renaissance underway in the U.S. right now, lift mechanics at Crested Butte are trying to join the ski patrollers at the Gunnison County ski hill in the growing United Professional Ski Patrols of America union. The 10 lift mechanics and electricians last month signed union cards that designated the patroller union to collectively bargain for the crew. The team asked the ski area’s owner, Vail Resorts, to voluntarily recognize the union, which would sidestep the need for a formal National Labor Relations Board election.
Vail Resorts this week told the lift crew the company will not acknowledge the request to form a union, forcing the election process.
The largest resort operator in North America declined the voluntary recognition request and will “participate in a campaign prior to voting,” said company spokeswoman Lindsay Hogan in an email to The Colorado Sun.
If the Crested Butte lift workers vote to approve a union, they would be the second maintenance crew in the nation to organize for collective bargaining. Last year the lift workers at Vail Resorts’ Park City Mountain Resort in Utah unionized, joining the patrollers at the ski area in the United Professional Ski Patrols of America. That union includes patrollers from Big Sky, Breckenridge, Loveland, Purgatory, Steamboat, Stevens Pass and Telluride ski areas. Patrollers at the Roaring Fork Valley’s four Aspen Skiing Co. resorts are in a private union.
Workers in resort regions have endured a doubling of real estate prices in the past two years, which has reduced the number of long-term rental properties and increased the cost of living. Lift workers at Crested Butte say home construction can pay more than resort work and they want their pay to keep pace with the rising costs in their valley.
Vail Resorts in 2021 worked with ski patrollers at Keystone to avoid the formation of a union, which did not happen after a 35-34 vote. The company hopes it can address issues expressed by lift workers at Crested Butte Mountain Resort without the need for a union.
“We want to have the opportunity to talk with our teammates on the lift maintenance team and listen to their concerns,” Hogan said. “Most of the items they shared with their manager when starting this process hadn’t been brought to our attention before, and we’d like the opportunity to come together and have these important conversations.”
The United Professional Ski Patrols of America 7781 posted a statement on Instagram noting that the company had denied the request for voluntary recognition of the proposed union “even with 100% of workers supporting forming this union.”
“We wish Vail Resorts the best of luck in their anti-union captive audience meetings,” reads the union’s statement. “It will not be an easy task to tell someone that you value a direct relationship when you so easily ignore the will of a unanimous vote.”
Union representatives said they are hoping the workers and Vail Resorts can reach an agreement so they don’t have to wait until a June 20 hearing with the National Labor Relations Board to set an election date.
“Any delay is a clear sign that Vail Resorts has no interest in making this an easy, democratic process for the crew. They could be preparing to negotiate the union’s first contract, which is the workers’ preference,” union organizer Isabel Aries said.
Rob Alexander, who has worked at the resort since 2015 and the last several years in lift operations, said the ski area’s managers met with the lift crew in person to tell them the company was not going to voluntarily recognize the union.
“I don’t think anyone is shying away from having these conversations,” he said. “Honestly this is about changing things for the better but also about preserving the good things we have. Everyone wants to see this place succeed.”
Back in the 1970s, Crested Butte patrollers clashed with Army three-star Lt. Gen. Hal Moore, who was the executive vice president of the ski hill, working for owners Ralph Walton and Bo Calloway. Reese said Moore would look at the shaggy patrollers “like we were dirtbag draft-dodgers.” Moore tried to install rules that all employees had trim beards and tidy ’dos.
That didn’t work, Reese said.
“They tried to make us look like military guys. We looked like hell but we were very good at what we were doing and they knew it,” Reese said. “It took a lot of training to do our jobs and we were working in dangerous conditions. We deserved to be paid for that work.”