Opinion | Susan Knopf: Support Keystone ski patrol’s effort to unionize | SummitDaily.com

Opinion | Susan Knopf: Support Keystone ski patrol’s effort to unionize


While you’re reading this, some member of the Keystone Ski Patrol might be casting a ballot to unionize. It wouldn’t be the first time. Maybe it will be the last time.

One thing is for sure: It’s about time. As someone who has worked as a ski instructor for eight years, I say it’s overdue. I echo the sage words of retired Aspen ski patroller Tim Cooney, who wrote a letter to the editor in the Summit Daily News. I support the ski patrol’s efforts and urge our larger community to do the same.

For the record, union workers made nearly 23% more than median nonunion workers in 2019, according the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. I know unions earned a bad reputation in the past, but they succeeded in providing living wages for their members. Since the decline of union membership from its peak in the 1950s, we’ve seen real wages go down. Now, few hardworking folks can afford housing or health care much less put a buck in savings.

I’m really tired of the conservative right objecting to our subsidizing day care and housing. Why do you think we have to do that? Who do you think we’re subsidizing? We’re subsidizing businesses that inadequately compensate workers.

We cannot on the one side laud the nuclear family as the cornerstone of the community and then refuse to pay wages that permit people to live with dignity.

Does anyone doubt the ski industry is making money, even in a COVID-19 world with reduced earnings?

It’s in all of our best interests if the patrol unionizes. Perhaps if they get paid a livable wage, we won’t have to use our tax dollars to subsidize day care and housing!

Everyone knows that no employee making a decent living, who enjoys a good relationship with an employer, would waste money on union membership. So it begs the question about wages and working conditions. Cooney wrote in his letter that “employees affiliate with a national union … because the workplace concerns remain unresolved by resistant management.”

I had the opportunity to speak with Bri Hartzell, who is the Ski Patrol Union president at Vail-owned Steven’s Pass in Washington state. She made a point that should give us all pause: “Vail doesn’t want patrol to be more than a three-year job. The job requires five years to become proficient.”

Amen, sister. If you are coming down the hill in a sled — and that’s a seriously bad day — you want the patroller guiding you down the slope to be a person with experience. Do you really want people setting off avalanche mitigation charges who just learned that skill?

“Patrollers (with) five, six, seven, eight, nine, 20 years (experience) really help bring up new patrollers,” Hartzell said.

You’ve probably heard Vail isn’t taking the unionization of ski patrols at Steven’s Pass and Park City Mountian Resort in Utah all that well. Hartzell said it’s a “slow boat to change, slow boat to steer. … We filed a bad faith bargaining charge (with the National Labor Relations Board) after (Vail) missed two nonconsecutive meetings. Then they came to the table. … I feel like we’re moving in a better direction.”

“We’re not kowtowing on stuff that’s important to our patrol,“ Hartzell said. ”Their voice is important to us.”

Hartzell speaks from the heart like other patrollers I’ve known through the years.

“We’re serving a local community,“ she said. ”We want to work. That’s why we need a contract, so we can be secure in our jobs and protect the public. We care about our guests’ safety. That’s why we need retention.”

The way to retain highly skilled workers is to pay a fair wage for a day’s work and provide benefits that everyone needs. Cooney wrote in his recent letter that Aspen Ski Patrol has been unionized for 35 years. He said the union negotiated better wages and benefits and helped take the guesswork out of management with “clearly outlined” management tools and protocols.

Sounds good to me. We could use that in the Summit County ski industry.

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