Snow school instructors lead push to unionize at Whistler

A group of ski and snowboard instructors at Whistler Blackcomb is leading a campaign to unionize the resort's workforce, saying they are not being fairly compensated for their work.

Instructors want higher salaries, paid sick days and more negotiation

A group of organizers holding up union membership applications. (Whistler Workers’ Alliance)

A group of ski and snowboard instructors at Whistler Blackcomb is leading a campaign to unionize the resort's workforce, saying they are not being fairly compensated for their work.

One instructor, who has been teaching on the slopes for more than a decade, says it is becoming increasingly difficult to continue to do his job and survive in Whistler amid rising living costs and stagnant wages.

He has been involved in the union discussions from the beginning and asked for his name not to be published out of fear for his job. 

"I'm scared because they don't have to hire me back. I'm a seasonal worker," he said. 

He says that by forming a union, the hope is employees will have more bargaining power for better pay and benefits.

"The conversation has finally started with our Facebook group, online chats, in the locker rooms," he said. "Before it was whispers, because you didn't want anyone to hear."

He estimated that hundreds of employees have shown support for the idea. 

Whistler Blackcomb is owned by the Colorado-based company Vail Resorts. (Whistler Blackcomb)

'We are not asking for amazing things'

Instructors at Whistler Blackcomb earn between approximately $11 and $35 an hour, depending on levels of certifications and experience. 

"We are not asking for amazing things. I don't want millions of dollars. I just want to feel like I'm doing a job and the money that I'm getting, the benefits that I'm getting, are something relative to the danger," the instructor said.

And it is a dangerous job, he emphasized.

While working, he's sustained injuries from broken bones to torn ligaments and spent hundreds of hours in physiotherapy as a result.

Every year, he says, he goes to work sick, because he can't afford to take the day off as there are no paid sick days — something he says is desperately needed in a physically-strenuous job.

In an emailed statement, chief operating officer Pete Sonntag said that Whistler Blackcomb "respect[s] 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."

'Tipping point'

Keith Murdoch, an organizer with the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union local 1518, is working with the employees at the ski resort to support and grow the Whistler Workers' Alliance. 

"We are at the tipping point now where folks are saying enough is enough. There are too many operating costs that are being shifted over to the workforce," Murdoch told Stephen Quinn, the host of CBC's The Early Edition.  

Certifications, needed to move up the salary scale, are paid for by the employee and often require taking time off work. 

Instructors also buy their own gear, including helmets, bindings and skis to use for work, although they get a discount at the resort's outlets.   

Murdoch says it is no longer just instructors who are involved now but employees from different departments at the resort.

A group of ski and snowboard instructors at Whistler Blackcomb is leading a campaign to unionize the resort's workforce. 9:16

Not an easy move

Mark Thompson, a professor emeritus at UBC's Sauder School of Business, said he is not optimistic about the union's chances.

Whistler doesn't have a union-based history, he said, and there have been a number of unsuccessful attempts to form a union on the mountain in the past.

The workforce of seasonal employees may also make it difficult to build a strong support base, Thompson added. 

"I would expect they are going to have a fight," he said.

The high cost of living could turn the tide, he said, especially if there are enough workers who want to have a longer-term career at Whistler and who are willing to rock the boat.

With files from The Early Edition.