Aspen Skiing Co. officially scraps system with ski pros
September 30, 2011
ASPEN – The Aspen Skiing Co. has officially ended the “Team Leader” system that was created 18 years ago to improve communication between its ski instructors and management and prevent formation of a union.
Scores of ski instructors who were elected by their peers as Team Leaders at the end of last winter were informed Tuesday that their positions as representatives have been eliminated in an overhaul of the ski school’s internal structure.
The overhaul is being undertaken because the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that the company’s advisory board structure doesn’t comply with labor regulations.
“So that it is in compliance with the NLRB, we have chosen to disestablish the Team Leader structure and position as it exists, and develop a new system that will encourage the continued culture of collaboration and communication,” Katie Ertl, managing director of the ski school, wrote Tuesday in the email to ski instructors. A copy was obtained by The Aspen Times.
Skico employs 1,200 instructors. It has held two open meetings with instructors so far as part of the process to figure out how to restructure the ski school. The next meeting is Monday at Bumps. The meeting last Monday focused on restructuring the Team Leader system, according to Ertl’s email.
“This unfortunately means that the job of Team Leader has to be eliminated as we develop the changes that will take its place,” Ertl wrote in her email. “Therefore, as it stands, there is currently no Team Leader job designation in our school. We are all very grateful for the efforts and contributions you have made (some of you for many years) in this role, and our school is better for it.”
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The Team Leader system was adopted in 1993 when there were hair-trigger tensions among ski instructors over the actions being taken by some Skico executives. Former Skico executive John Norton was appointed to take over operations of the ski school.
Norton has since left the company, but he was the guest speaker at a Team Leader training session in December 2006. He talked about the history of the system. Norton said it was a period of “unrest” among Skico workers. The company was adopting strict new personal grooming standards and starting drug testing. Ski lesson prices were rising 10 percent that winter, but instructors were only receiving raises of 2 to 3 percent.
There was an overwhelming sense that many Skico managers were more concerned about how they treated their guests than how they treated their fellow workers and neighbors, according to Norton.
A New Jersey union sent a “missionary” to Aspen in that stormy climate to see if it could establish a union, according to Norton’s speech, a copy of which is available through Skico’s website.
Norton said that when former Skico President Bob Maynard approached him to take over the ski school, Norton balked and explained that he wasn’t anti-union. Norton said he felt there were steps Skico could – and should – take to address ski instructors’ concerns.
“He said, ‘That’s fine. I’m sure you’ll do well. Stop the union. Oh, and while you’re at it, make the school the best school anywhere,'” Norton said.
What resulted after long hours of meetings was the Team Leader system, where ski instructors elected peers they felt would best represent their views to supervisors. Team Leaders were elected to represent different divisions – such as private and group lessons – at Snowmass, Buttermilk and Aspen Highlands. Aspen Mountain elected general leaders.
The instructors elected as leaders were also appointed to various advisory boards, such as family and guest services, and safety and risk awareness. A Pro Council was established to hear grievances within the ski school.
In his 2006 speech, Norton said the system worked because it wasn’t about instructors or management controlling the ski school. It was about building the best ski school possible through listening and cooperation.
Others haven’t been as complimentary of the system. Some current and former ski instructors claim the Team Leader system isn’t truly effective because representatives of management attend meetings. They contend that approach has a chilling effect on ski instructors. They are reluctant to speak on issues for fear of retribution.
The NLRB examined the system as part of its review of complaints made by former ski instructor Lee Mulcahy, who claimed he was fired for trying to start a union. The NLRB didn’t find that Mulcahy was unjustly fired, but a settlement agreement brokered by the agency said Skico needs to make changes to its ski school structure so it doesn’t “dominate, assist or otherwise support” the advisory boards. In short, the NLRB rules are set up to guard against any chilling effort of employee boards by management.
Skico officials have downplayed the significance of the restructuring. They have declined to comment on the restructuring process until it is completed.