Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore |

Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore

Tony Vagneur
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

As an Aspen Mountain ski patrolman in 1971, the issues were never crystal clear as to why anyone in Aspen needed a union to represent them. Particularly, why would they pick a national group with a tarnished name?

It was something about losing perquisites, such as being able to get ski pants cleaned at Aspen Laundry and Cleaners on a company charge; a beef about the trail crew being eliminated; and the equipment allowance being lowered from, hell, I don’t remember. I was getting paid to ski six days a week, and who really gave a damn, anyway?

There’s a big flap in the papers lately about the Aspen Skiing Co. and how much they pay their starting level ski pros (instructors). Kinda like 40 years ago, is this really something we should be allowing to take up our time?

If you think 1971 was a long time ago, be advised that the first tail feather of true discontent in the patrol ranks hit the fan in 1959 over a requested 40 percent pay hike. In addition, some of the men wanted an optional two days a month off (out of their seven-day-a-week schedules), without pay. The bottom line was that the crew wanted a “minimum living wage.” That was, undoubtedly, the season all employees learned that D. R. C. Brown, elected Aspen Ski Corp. president in 1958, was no one’s patsy.

Maybe that’s why the pro-union patrollers in 1971 wanted the Teamsters Local 961 to represent us. Burly, truck-driving, dock-clearing, jail-serving red-necks who wouldn’t take crap off of nobody, right? Plus, they claimed a lot of experience in the field of labor relations.

A still-shiny degree in business administration from the University of Colorado told me that labor unions were about as necessary as vestigial appendages and should be avoided at all costs. During college, I’d bumped heads with powerful unions at part-time jobs and it wasn’t pretty.

Don’t get me wrong, there were men with families pushing for better representation with the Ski Corp., and it was out of respect that I listened to their arguments. Unlike other employee groups on the mountain, ski patrollers trust their lives to each other with a daily certitude that makes them an extremely close-knit group. There was a choice – stand on principle and betray the men who covered my back all day, or join the cause.

Doubtfully, a better screenplay could not have been written. Just as Teamster President Jimmy Hoffa was emerging from prison for misuse of union funds, the Aspen Professional Ski Patrol, under the auspices of the Teamsters, went on strike. It was the first day of the busy Christmas season, and the legal admonition to respect private property stung our style.

Our picket line crowded the sidewalk in front of Little Nell (now Gondola Plaza), and the scores of people who crossed it were sympathetic, with a smile. Their comments were predictable: “Sorry boys, the skiing is too good to pass up.”

We’d been fired and replaced before the sun came up that day, and it took me about two seconds to realize we’d been led down the primrose path. We kept up appearances for a while, having black wind breakers made with the familiar ski patrol cross over the wording, “You fall, we haul.” Every Friday, we got ten dollars (cash!) per person for manning the picket line. The Red Onion got most of that before midnight.

We partially won our beef with the Ski Corp. It, on its own and under the tutelage of Tom Richardson, made some changes in the working conditions.

The NLRB (National Labor Relations Board) was very clear in its ruling. Those of us who went on strike had to be offered our jobs back as vacancies arose, in order of seniority.

For some, it took years to get back to what we loved. In the end, the reality remained, but the myth had been destroyed.

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