A group of ski instructors is leading the push to organize workers at Whistler Blackcomb (WB) — and it has the support of one of the Lower Mainland's largest unions behind it.
For the past year, a small cadre of Snow School instructors have been working with the United Food & Commercial Workers Union 1518 (UFCW), based out of New Westminster. Its initial focus has been on WB's 4,000-plus workforce, with plans to extend its efforts into other sectors across the resort.
The contract workers, who wished to remain anonymous in order to discuss their employer freely, claim they approached UFCW after talks with WB about improved compensation and benefits led nowhere.
"We are under an American-based, international corporation," said one employee, referring to WB's Colorado-based owners, ski conglomerate Vail Resorts.
"We're scared about our job positions, we're scared about our wages, we're scared about the future."
The driving force behind the unionization effort stems from the workers' belief that they are not being fairly compensated for leading ski lessons, some of which can fetch WB hundreds of dollars a day. As it stands, WB instructors are paid an hourly rate, with additional monetary incentives available dependent on the type of private lesson, and also for repeat clients.
"With an hourly wage, it makes no difference if you've got five clients who are all paying $600," explained one worker. "We would like to see, if possible, 10 to 30 per cent of the revenue."
Ski-instructor compensation has been a hot-button issue in recent years at ski resorts around the globe. According to U.K.-based SnowSkool, which has offered ski and snowboard instructor courses since 2003, Canada ranks ahead of only the U.K. in terms of wages, averaging $12 an hour for Level 1 instructors and $17 for Level 2 instructors. Compare that to Switzerland near the top of the list, which pays, on average, between $30 and $40/hr for rookie instructors, and between $55 and $65 for experienced ones (although European resorts don't have the same tipping culture as in North America).
Several years ago a group of Vail Resorts employees formed the Fair Wages for Ski Instructors Facebook group, criticizing several major American ski resorts for failing to raise wages while the cost of private lessons has escalated. The group now counts over 600 members.
"It is time that other resorts recognize the value that Instructors are adding to the company by paying Snow Pros a fair and reasonable wage relative to the revenue they are generating for resorts," the page reads.
The local employees are also taking issue with WB's company-wide pay cap for seasonal workers, questioning why there isn't more opportunity to move up the pay scale.
"Maybe you worked hard all year, working extra hours... and just because you're making that $22 or $22.50 an hour, you're never entitled to another raise again," said one instructor. (WB said it is currently working on lifting the pay cap for staff that has already hit that threshold.)
The instructors Pique spoke with are also pushing for paid sick days, which, as seasonal contractors, they are not offered at WB. Given the injury-prone nature of their work, the employees feel it only fair to have some form of paid medical leave.
"People are scared to get sick or injured, and they come to work sick because they don't have a choice — they need to make money to pay the rent," relayed one employee.
Allowances for ski gear was another sticking point for the workers, who said WB should cover the cost of ski equipment in its entirety. Staff is entitled to a 20-per-cent discount at all WB retail outlets, as well as 45-per-cent off "essentials." Skis are not considered essentials. WB also confirmed it has a new program in place this year offering free helmets to staff.
"We need gear, and they're not listening," one of the instructors said. "We ride hard and (equipment) should definitely be paid for."
In an emailed statement, Chief Operating Officer Pete Sonntag said WB is "committed to providing an environment where employees feel passionate, engaged and empowered. We strive to create a culture where people choose to work for us and we encourage open dialogue, through direct personal relationships, to ensure we are continuously improving all parts of the employee experience. We respect the right of our employees to make their own informed choices on representation and we will always conduct ourselves in accordance with the applicable labour and employment laws."
The group of employees, dubbed the Whistler Workers Alliance, is now leveraging the experience and deep pockets of UFCW 1518, with paid Facebook ads and union literature circulating in recent weeks. Union organizer Keith Murdoch stressed that the efforts stem first and foremost from the grassroots movement sparked by WB employees. Nevertheless, he said the union, which represents over 20,000 members in a variety of industries, is prepared to throw its full weight behind the organization.
"I can't give you the financials in terms of what we're spending on this campaign, but we are prepared to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on this project, and we understand that, when you're going against a billion-dollar corporation, you need to have a budget and you need to have resources behind you to ensure workers' rights are upheld. And we're 100-per-cent prepared to do that," he said.
Murdoch acknowledged the potential challenge of organizing a largely seasonal workforce that is as transient as Whistler's is. But, given the increasing pressures on workers caused by the resort's housing shortage and rising costs of living, he believes the time to act is now — and he's hoping the resort's other frontline staff will join the efforts.
"The real focus right now is Whistler Blackcomb, but there are other industries that we are working with," he explained. "For some of the other industries that we have contacts in, they're more of the year-round businesses, so we're going to shift gears over to them once this season is over.
"This is a long-term project, so we're not looking to go away anytime soon."
For more information, visit the Whistler Workers Alliance page on Facebook.