Ski Patrol Unions: Isolated Occurrences or the Latest Trend for Ski Patrol Organizations?

Patrollers at Telluride are the latest to organize a union, bringing the count of unionized “Pro Patrols” at large resorts around the US to eight. Telluride patrollers, in a 47 to 1 vote, joined the ranks of Colorado’s Crested Butte and Steamboat, and Utah’s Canyons Resort in February of 2015. Those resorts are represented by the United Professional Ski Patrols of America (UPSPA), operating as Local 7781 of the AFL-CIO’s Communications Workers of America (COA) union. 2015 Unionized North American Ski Patrols

Patrollers at Aspen SkiCo’s four resorts, Aspen Mountain, Snowmass, Aspen Highlands and Buttermilk, have been separately unionized since 1986 as the Aspen Professional Ski Patrol Association (APSPA). The Steamboat Professional Ski Patrol Association voted in a union in a December 1999, 44 to 12 vote. Canyons patrollers unionized in April of 2000.

The ski patrol at Killington in Vermont, who shared an owner (American Skiing Co.) with the Canyons, voted to form a union in March of 2001. Killington’s union was affiliated with the predecessor entity to the UPSPA, but the Killington patrol decided not to shift over to COA representation in 2002. The Breckenridge Professional Ski Patrol Association had been organized for eighteen years under four different owners, but voted to decertify as a union in January 2004. So clearly, there is movement in both directions with respect to unionization.

The Canyons patrol union was originally formed when American Skiing Company purchased that resort. Vail resorts entered into a long-term lease with Canyons’ owner, Talisker Corporation, for the Canyons resort in May 2013. Talisker also owns most of the land where the nearby Park City resort operates, and Vail has recently emerged as the victorious party in an acrimonious battle for control of Park City. The Canyons Patrol is now in union negotiations with Vail Resorts. Park City and Canyons patrols remain independent entities, however, and the Park City patrol is not currently a part of the Canyons patrol bargaining unit.

Reasons for Organizing
The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) was enacted in 1935 to address three key issues – (1) protect the rights of employees and employers (2) encourage collective bargaining, and (3) curtail certain private sector labor and management practices that tended to harm the general welfare of workers, businesses and the US economy. As one of the most dangerous jobs, and one that is also seasonal and among the lowest paying professions (see our recent article on patroller compensation), “pro” patrolling certainly qualifies as a profession that the NLRA was born to serve.

The formal process of unionization at Telluride took just two months, with patrollers filing a petition with the National Labor Relations Board on January 2nd. The petition was signed by more than the required 30% of the non-management patrol staff, including all regular full-time and part-time patrollers, and patrol dispatchers. A vote was taken before the end of March, with a near unanimous mandate to form the union.Union Representation Vote Statistics

The unionization process at Telluride was quick, so it might be surprising to know that its speed was on the long-side when compared to the average of successful unionization efforts, from petition to vote. For the last year that data is available, 2013, the National Labor Relations Board registered 1,986 petitions that were filed by organizations attempting to certify their unions. Of those, 1,330 made it to a vote and 852 of them voted in favor of unionization.

A simple majority of those voting is required to form a union, and management has a short window to contest the vote. Around 43% of unions that attempt to organize actually succeeded in the most recent period. A total of 478 bargaining units rejected unions in 2013, with 27 petitions dismissed and 607 withdrawn. Union-Decert-Stats-614

Over that same period the National Labor Relations Board registered 472 petitions that were filed by organizations attempting to decertify their unions. Of those, less than half – 202 – ever made it to a vote. Of those that were voted upon, 123 organizations voted to kick the union out. This means that when unionization efforts across all industries are considered, 61% of petitions that attempt to dismantle their unions succeed. (62% average over last 10 years). A total of 79 bargaining units attempting to reject unions in 2013 failed to throw the union out, with 49 petitions dismissed and 181 withdrawn. With nearly 7 times more unions attempting to form than dissolve in 2013, there is clearly strong momentum toward unionization. Unfortunately, there is no break-out of data by industry that would allow further analysis of ski patrol unionization efforts.

Telluride presents an example of what makes a successful effort. The key issues that drove formation of their union included the following:

  1. Create a structure for the patrol to more effectively communicate with resort management;
  2. Negotiate contract that: (a) ensures a safe work environment and equipment, (b) establishes fair and equitable compensation and benefits that patrollers have input on, and (c) is legally binding and offers consistency, predictability and future security;
  3. Establish an environment where every patroller works that is free from fear and where everyone is treated fairly with dignity and respect and where an equitable system exists to resolve conflicts and complaints through arbitration if necessary.

Unionization Process
The vast majority of patrols are not unionized, so a quick background of the largest patroller union might be helpful. The United Professional Ski Patrols of America (UPSPA) operates as Local 7781 within the AFL-CIO’s Communications Workers of America union (CWA). Since the 4 resorts that are currently unionized under CWA are in Colorado and Utah, they report into a CWA representative in Colorado, Lew Ellingson. Since he is based in Colorado, Ellingson is well versed with the challenges patrollers face in their work. He works directly for the COA in a full-time support and organization capacity for a broad array of businesses that are either unionized or are contemplating it. Ellingson also frequently works with his CWA contemporaries throughout the US to help establish contact between patrols that want to speak with someone familiar with the unionization process through the UPSPA at the COA, and direct them to a local rep that would be their contact to help navigate the process.

Union dues for members of each of the four patrols organized under the UPSPA are under $30 per month. While union dues might not seem like it is costly for members, patrollers are among the lowest paid workers, and even $30 per month is substantive. Volunteer patrollers can also join the UPSPA as associate members for around $2 per month. It’s very similar from a rights perspective for NSP associate members, and like NSP associates, associate UPSPA members are not voting members of the union.

The UPSPA is staffed with a leadership group led by a Canyons Patroller, Cody Evans. Evans has patrolled on a full-time basis at the Canyons for around 10 years. UPSPA leadership is uncompensated, with management acting as the liaison between the CWA and each patrol organization. The patrols themselves also form a management team that takes the lead in interfacing with resort management on contract issues and the union. Those positions are largely uncompensated as well, but the Steamboat and Crested Butte patrols have made a decision to compensate their board with a few hundred dollars per year, more as a token of appreciation to help defray expenses associated with their volunteer efforts on the board than compensation per-say.

The Canyons Patrol
The Canyons patrol utilizes both paid and volunteer staff. Pro staff operates under the Canyons’ in-house S&T training program. Volunteers utilize the NSP’s S&T program. All patrollers maintain their first aid credentials to the NSP OEC standard. Wage increases for paid staff occur annually according to the negotiated union contract, typically including an across the board or percentage based increase each year, according to Cody Evans. At the Canyons, promotional wage increases occur when patrollers advance a level or reach an incentive position (lead patroller, dog handler, etc.) There are four levels of patroller with different qualifications for each level, based primarily on years of experience, with level promotions awarded by the patrol director.

The Canyons paid staff is the primary patrol 7 days a week, and is supplemented on weekends by NSP-affiliated volunteers. There are seven management positions on the Canyons patrol, with a separate lead position that is in the union, and those management positions are not eligible for union membership. Canyons has 75 paid patrollers and 40 volunteers currently, with 100% union membership of patrollers eligible to be in the union (volunteers are not eligible). While the Canyons is a four season resort, the union contract only covers winter resort operations.

Cody Evans – Canyons and the UPSPA
There is no “typical” path into ski patrolling, or ski patrol union leadership, and Cody Evans is an excellent example of that. He was born and raised in eastern South Dakota and began skiing in high school at Great Bear, outside of Sioux Falls. He moved to Spearfish South Dakota after high school to attend college at Black Hills State University, and fell hard for the outdoors. While he decided that finishing college at BHSU then was not for him, he moved permanently to the Black Hills and began rock climbing, mountain biking and skiing.

Evans picked up work making snow and “bumping chairs” at Terry Peak Ski Area his first winter and at 19 started ski patrolling there. After a lousy snow year and an early layoff, he packed the car and headed off on a month-long late season ski trip to Colorado, Utah and Wyoming. He took an avalanche level I course on that trip and applied to work at several ski areas he visited along the way. The next fall when he was in an EMT class he received an offer to work at the Canyons, and has been there for 10 years.

In the Canyons’ seniority system, Evans is a level III lead patroller. He also guides part-time with Park City Powder Cats, a backcountry snow-cat operation in the Uinta mountains. Retrospectively, his initial interest in ski patrolling was probably similar to that of many paid and volunteer patrollers – helping skiers and riders stay safe while they do what they love to do, skiing and working outside in the mountains everyday.

Evans has worked for the last two summers for the National Park Service in Yosemite National Park on the Tuolumne Meadows Yosemite Search and Rescue (YOSAR ) team. He has also spent a two summers working on a mountain bike patrol – one at Canyons and one at Whitefish Mountain Resort in Montana, and has spent some summers in Stanley Idaho working for the US Forest Service on a wilderness trail crew and guiding on the Salmon River.

The Local 7781 board, which Evans chairs, has several different functions. It represents the local in the greater CWA organization. It also acts as a coordinating mechanism to communicate with the other union patrols about industry news, issues and standards that affect patrolling. The Local board is comprised of leaders from each of the patrol organizations represented by the USPSA, and provides members with a forum to share ideas and communicate with other patrols that face common leadership issues.

    “I became involved in the Union leadership because I wanted to give back to the patrol and the union”, said Evans. “As a union we have been able to help build a highly trained, skilled, and educated patrol and we are very proud of that. We aren’t your typical labor union, we represent small groups of people that are facing a lot of difficult challenges in a very unique field.”

It’s hard to say if Evans is a typical ski patrol union leader, since there are so few in that role. But he is certainly a typical patroller.

National Ski Patrol Position on Unionization
The NSP was given the opportunity to comment on this article, but did not respond before the deadline. It is clear, however, where the NSP’s interests lie. Since the NSP’s inception, its leaders have nurtured close ties with resort owners. Patrollers were instrumental in the founding of many resorts, and early financing and development of lift systems around the US before resorts as we now know them existed – from Stowe, Cannon and Mad River Glen in the East, to Sun Valley, Aspen, Vail and Alta in the West.

The NSP continues to represent the interests of resorts today. Its officials routinely lobby for legislation at the Federal and State levels, legislation that favors the interests of resorts and the winter sports industry. The NSP has close ties to the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA), who rents the top floor of the NSP’s national headquarters building in Lakewood, Colorado.

The NSP and NSAA also have a Joint Statement of Understanding in-force that is updated every five years, which details the terms of the relationship between the parties (see pages 1 and 2 of the Kelly Canyon ski patrol manual for a 2012 version of the NSP-NSAA JSU). That relationship, by design, puts resort owners in control of the work and related actions of NSP-affiliated patrols and patrollers.

According to the Joint Statement of Understanding:

  1. Patrols are under the direct supervision and control of resort management, and must follow the rules of resort management even if those rules violate NSP policies, procedures or safety protocols;
  2. Ski area management has the right to approve the ski patrol director, and has the right to fire any patroller for any reason, and the NSP is required to confirm that decision;
  3. While incident investigation is a key aspect of patroller duties, the responsibility and authority for incident investigations lies with the resort, including incident documentation, compilation, retention and access to this documentation. No patroller is allowed to make statements to anyone about accidents or investigations without the approval of resort management, unless required to do so by law.
  4. While paid patrollers are considered employees of the resort, the JSU specifically stipulates that there is no employee/employer relationship between resorts and volunteer patrollers, who represent more than 90% of all patrollers, and that all NSP volunteer patrollers agree that they are only agents when acting within the assigned scope of their duties.

So any recommendation NSP might make regarding the issues detailed above in support of the Telluride patrol, or any patrol or patroller, would appear to be in direct violation of that agreement. The latest version of the JSU runs through 7 October 2016.

Patrolling is one of the most dangerous public service jobs. This was demonstrated in the last ten days, when two patrollers affiliated with the UPSPA were critically injured. Steamboat patroller Michael Fosdick, 63, was found unresponsive by a skier on 9 April. It is unknown at this point why he fell, but he was seriously injured in the fall. Also, long-time Telluride Patroller Peter “PI” Inglis, was killed in an Alaska back country accident last week. PI, who was also worked for 20 years for Telluride Mountain Guides, was reportedly instrumental in forming the Telluride patroller union this season.

There is clearly a need to attract the most knowledgeable, brightest and most physically fit people to patrolling – patrollers that are in it for the right reasons. According to the NSP’s Bylaws, Federal Charter and Articles of Incorporation, the purposes for which the National Ski Patrol exists are:

“In any and all ways to promote public safety in skiing, including, without limiting the generality of the foreqoinq, the dissemination of information with respect thereto and the
formation of volunteer local patrols, consisting of competent skiers trained in the administration of first aid, and for the purpose of preventing accidents and rendering speedy assistance to those sustaining accidents; to solicit contributions of money, services and other property for, and generally to encourage and assist in carrying out, the foregoing purposes in every way.”

The NSP/NSAA Joint Statement of Understanding, however, has reduced any real influence the NSP will currently bring to bear on patroller compensation, benefits and hazards in the environment patrollers may face in their work at resorts. It is evident that unions will continue to play an important role in that.

We don’t see broad unionization of small and mid-sized resort patrols on the horizon in the present environment. Volunteer patrollers, who represent more than 90% of all US patrollers, are a much larger relative proportion when compared to paid staff at small and mid-sized resorts around the US. But volunteers are ineligible for union participation, according to the prevailing interpretation of the National Labor Relations Act that limits formal union participation to workers receiving compensation for their work. Large resorts that exploit patrollers with low salaries, meager benefits and unsafe work conditions, however, will continue to fuel successful unionization efforts.

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Captain Harvey Coffin Mackay House, 19 Pleasant Street, Suite 3F, Gloucester, Massachusetts 01930, U.S.A.


One thought on “Ski Patrol Unions: Isolated Occurrences or the Latest Trend for Ski Patrol Organizations?”

  1. Steamboat patroller Michael Fosdick, who was referenced in this article, died at the Denver Health Medical Center on 14 April from injuries sustained to c1 and c2 of his spine in the fall last week. A memorial service will be held for him on Sunday, April 26 at 3 pm, at the Concordia Lutheran Church in Steamboat Springs, followed by a reception. A CaringBridge site is set up in Mike’s honor here:

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