Opinion | Paul Olson: Will labor unions change the winter resort business? | SummitDaily.com

Opinion | Paul Olson: Will labor unions change the winter resort business?

Labor unions have been in the news lately. About 50,000 railroad workers called off their strike in September after reaching an agreement with federal government officials. Seattle teachers recently ended their weeklong strike allowing the city’s 49,000 students to get started with classes. For three days last week, 15,000 Minnesota nurses went on strike. Most people are not happy when a rail strike causes supply chain problems or a local teachers strike keeps their children out of school or a lack of nurses means they cannot get proper care at a hospital, but nevertheless, unions are enjoying their highest level of public approval since 1965.

A 2022 Gallup poll found that 71% of Americans approved of labor unions. I am guessing that the current high approval level for unions is due to public empathy with hard-working, low wage workers at some of the most visible companies in America. Employees at over 230 Starbucks stores have voted in favor of forming unions in the past 10 months. Amazon workers are forming a union at one warehouse. There are also unionizing efforts at Apple stores, Chipotle and Google.

Unions have actually been on a long, gradual decline in the U.S. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the percentage of workers in a union has dropped from almost 35% in 1954 to only 10.6% in 2021. It is only in the public sector where unions are fairly strong, with 40.2% of local government workers in labor unions, largely because of substantial membership in teacher and police unions. 

In May 2021, the ski patrollers at Breckenridge Ski Resort voted to form a union. The 43-42 vote didn’t indicate overwhelming support for the change. Vail Resorts also works with a ski patrol union at Park City Resort. A strike by the Park City patrollers was avoided at the last minute in January when an agreement was reached between Vail Resorts and the union after 18 months of negotiations. Patrollers at Keystone Resort voted 42-36 against forming a union in 2021. There are also ski patrol unions at Aspen, Purgatory, Crested Butte, Steamboat, Telluride, Big Sky and Stevens Pass.

In March, 2022, Vail Resorts announced they would increase the starting wage for all employees at its 37 North American resorts to $20 per hour for the 2022-23 ski season. Some might suggest that this increase was made to discourage any further efforts toward unionization, but I think it was just a smart business decision based on supply and demand for labor. The shortage of workers we are experiencing in Summit County is also a challenge at many other resort areas where Vail Resorts is operating. A shortage of ski instructors and other personnel for Vail means lost revenue and a less-than-ideal customer experience. The increase in wages is a step toward sufficient staffing and happier employees and customers this winter.

Businesses tend to strongly fight unionization because of the loss of autonomy over employment decisions and potential decrease in profitability. Unions raise wages through collective bargaining, not from improvements in productivity. Unions can be a hinderance to communications where the third-party union officials are put in between workers and management. Successful businesses instill a sense that management and employees are on the same team instead of having an adversarial relationship, as is often the case when a labor union represents workers.

Unions tend to be effective in raising wages for their members. A report by the Economic Policy Institute found that wages for union members were 11.2% higher than for their nonunion counterparts. Unfortunately, the union voting process can put pressure on workers to support wage and pension hikes without consideration for the long-term health of the company.

When I went to college in Milwaukee in the late 1970s, Schlitz beer was the locals’ choice and one of the nation’s top beers. In 1981, 700 Schlitz brewery workers went on strike for higher wages for almost four months, apparently unconcerned that the Milwaukee brewery was outdated and the company was struggling against stiff competition. The strike led to the permanent closing of the brewery and the sale of the company. In cheerier news, Schlitz beer is being made once again, but you will need to travel to the Midwest to quench your thirst.

The increase in starting pay at Vail Resorts will put added financial pressure on Summit County businesses which have had to increase wages during the past two years to deal with the shortage of workers. Local businesses will need to make an extra effort to attract and retain employees. In news reports about the Breckenridge Resort unionization efforts, patrollers emphasized how they wanted to be respected as professional first responders and compensated sufficiently so they can make a career of patrolling and afford to stay in the community. Hopefully the changes at our ski resorts and higher wages throughout Summit County will lead to a happier, more stable workforce as well as success for local businesses.

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