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Ski patrollers unionize as housing prices soar at resorts

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Labor unions have won some significant victories this year. Strikes in the auto industry, health care and Hollywood have led to new contracts. Now that energy is making its way to higher elevations. Unionizing is growing among ski patrollers at resorts in the Mountain West. Matt Bloom from Colorado Public Radio has more.

(SOUNDBITE OF SKI LIFT CLUNKING)

MATT BLOOM, BYLINE: The base of the Breckenridge Ski Resort is full of early-season visitors waiting their turn to hop on a gondola and ride up the mountainside.

RYAN DINEEN: Beautiful blue sky.

BLOOM: Ryan Dineen is a longtime ski patroller here. One of his many jobs is to jump into action if the gondola malfunctions.

DINEEN: We would attach ourselves with exactly, like, a zipline kind of wheeled mechanism and lower ourselves down to the cabin with some evacuation gear.

BLOOM: He also detonates explosives to control avalanches and is an emergency medical technician. He says this is his dream job, but it's gotten harder to do it while supporting a family in Breckenridge, where the average home price is over $1 million.

DINEEN: We're being told that we're being paid at the highest end of our industry while we're also being provided with links towards food banks in the community.

BLOOM: In 2021, that disconnect led Dineen to organize a union at Breckenridge, one of 41 resorts owned worldwide by the conglomerate Vail Resorts.

DINEEN: I would hope that a union could potentially raise the bar as to what one can expect to make in a mountain community and create a pathway for a future.

BLOOM: The newly unionized patrollers won a boost in top-level pay, from $27 an hour to 32. There are now ski patrol unions in at least four Vail-owned resorts. United Ski Patrols of America says it's fielding inquiries from workers from California to the East Coast, and one resort in Colorado is holding an election this winter. Erin Hatton is a labor researcher at the University of Buffalo.

ERIN HATTON: They're no longer accepting those old terms of, we'll pay you in fun. We'll pay you in - well, this is just something you would do anyway or that you love.

BLOOM: The national union says their membership has doubled in five years to almost a thousand members at 10 resorts in Colorado, Utah and Montana. Hatton says industries that have historically offered seasonal jobs or haven't been seen as long-term career options, like ski patrolling, are seeing bumps.

HATTON: Those workers are now saying, hang on. We're workers, and we demand more than we're getting. We deserve more than we're getting.

BLOOM: Vail Resorts declined to be interviewed for this story but says the company has invested $175 million in increased wages, benefits and for affordable housing. Patrollers at Colorado's Purgatory Resort organized last year. Dave Rathbun, the resort's general manager, says it initially opposed that. But he admits hiring this year has been easier after union negotiations led to higher pay.

DAVE RATHBUN: It still shows me that people will value this lifestyle, and they're going to try the best they can to make it work.

BLOOM: Back at Breckenridge, patroller Ryan Dineen says the union-negotiated wage increase there is great but still not enough to afford living nearby.

DINEEN: But I live in town-subsidized housing. My children go to subsidized daycare. We live off of subsidies, and that's a part of what I think is a flaw in this entire mountain industry.

BLOOM: Dineen says there's now more dialogue with managers, and he thinks changes will help keep skiers on the mountain safe and workers coming back. For NPR News, I'm Matt Bloom.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOUND REMEDY'S "LIBERATION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Matt is a passionate journalist who loves nothing more than good reporting, music and comedy. At KUNC, he covers breaking news stories and the economy. He’s also reported for KPCC and KCRW in Los Angeles. As NPR’s National Desk intern in Culver City during the summer of 2015, he produced one of the first episodes of Embedded, the NPR podcast hosted by Kelly McEvers where reporters take a story from the headlines and “go deep.”