Homegrown unions are rare in the Roaring Fork Valley | AspenTimes.com
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Homegrown unions are rare in the Roaring Fork Valley

BUS DRIVER UNION ELECTION EXTENDED

Aspen’s full-time, year-round public bus drivers must wait another five days to learn if they will join a union.

The Colorado Division of Labor planned to count ballots today. However, some of the ballots were mailed to inaccurate addresses that were provided for the mail-in election, according to Bill Petropulos, labor relations administrator for the Colorado Division of Labor. He estimated the number at “less than 10 percent.”

Those ballots were re-mailed and the recipients will have an extended deadline to vote. Those ballots must be received by Wednesday, March 4. All ballots received over the course of the election will be counted at 3 p.m. Wednesday, Petropulos said.

If Roaring Fork Transportation Authority bus drivers vote to form a union Wednesday (see fact box, page A7), they would be the second high-profile set of workers in Aspen to use collective bargaining.

The Aspen Professional Ski Patrol Association formed in 1986 and initially represented members of the patrol at Aspen Mountain and Buttermilk and Snowmass ski areas. Patrollers from Aspen Highlands joined the ranks when Aspen Skiing Co. bought the then-independent ski area in the early 1990s.

Now, about 165 patrollers from the four mountains are represented, according to Tim Cooney, a patroller at Aspen Mountain who has assisted at times with the association’s bargaining with Skico management.

Some national companies with a presence in the Roaring Fork Valley, such as shipping companies and airlines, have some workers represented by unions, but the ski patrol association is unique in that it is homegrown.

The union got off to a rocky start with Skico at the start of the 1986-87 season, but it’s been smooth sailing since. Efforts to sign the first contract hit an impasse, and some members of the patrol picketed at the base of Aspen Mountain.

Cooney said the association has reached a series of agreements over the past 28 years that range from one to three years. The contracts cover issues such as pay, overtime, benefits and contributions to retirement plans. He credited Skico management and ownership for understanding the value of providing pay and benefits that attract and retain professional patrollers. One classy move by Skico management was to give Aspen Highlands ski patrollers credit for their years of service under Whip Jones, founder of Aspen Highlands, even though they were new hires for Skico. That affected their wage and benefit packages.

Cooney said it behooves Skico and its customers to have a good relationship with the patrollers.

“Management comes and goes but the patrol is always there,” he said.

Thousands of employees work in Aspen’s restaurant and hotel industry but no unions exist to represent them. Bill Petropulos, labor relations administrator with the Colorado Division of Labor, said he was unaware of any unions operating in the state for restaurant and lodging workers.

Unions in the hospitality industry are big in Las Vegas, where they represent tens of thousands of workers. Culinary Workers Union Local 226, for example, claims 60,000 members in hotels, restaurants, casinos and laundries.

RFTA’s 115 full-time, year-round bus drivers are voting by mail on whether to join the Amalgamated Transit Union based in Washington, D.C. The Colorado Division of Labor is overseeing the election.

Drivers on the pro-union organizing committee said they want to work with RFTA management to strengthen the agency. They want collective bargaining on issues such as pay, benefits and affordable housing. Leaders of the effort contend that poor pay contributes to high turnover and occasional lapses in performance, contributing to accident rates. They said turnover runs 35 to 40 percent annually among full-time drivers.

RFTA management contends its pay scale is favorable in the transportation industry and that it pays workers well within the Aspen-Snowmass labor market.

Dan Blankenship, RFTA’s chief executive officer, said turnover was less than half the amount cited by union backers. There were 138 full-time drivers at peak season last year. He said 22 drivers, or about 16 percent, left their positions for a variety of reasons — from medical issues to salary issues with Social Security benefits to better opportunities elsewhere. Blankenship said only nine drivers left RFTA for a different job, according to RFTA’s exit interviews.

Blankenship’s research also indicated that veteran drivers were involved in more accidents this year than those with less than one year of experience. Most of the accidents since early December have been minor incidents, he said.

RFTA management is legally prohibited from lobbying drivers to vote one way or another, but it can, and has, provided information such as wage and benefit comparisons with other agencies. Blankenship said RFTA management would work with union representation if the formation is approved.

scondon@aspentimes.com


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