Employees try to unionize at Heavenly | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Employees try to unionize at Heavenly

Heavenly Ski Resort’s ski patrollers and electricians are trying to unionize. It isn’t the first time union talk has circulated, but it is the first time the workers have established a majority, according to Frank Champlin, a lift electrician.

Champlin said the employees approached the Teamsters union Local 533, and in December, 80 percent of the patrollers and electricians signed blue cards in favor of union representation.

Lou Martino, chief executive officer of Local 533, said on Jan. 28, Heavenly’s management was notified by mail of the majority status, and asked to recognize the Teamsters union as the bargaining unit for those groups. The deadline for a response was Feb. 1.

Heavenly’s attorney John Feldman, of the San Francisco law firm Severson & Werson, said the company is not recognizing the union and believes that there is no majority.

“We believe there are only a handful of employees pursuing representation. We don’t believe he represents a majority of the workers,” Feldman said. “We will not recognize it unless the majority is certified by the National Labor Relations Board after a secret ballot.”

The National Labor Relations Board received a petition calling for an election from Local 533 this week.

“Heavenly doesn’t believe that any of its employees need to be represented by a labor organization. Heavenly believes that its wages and benefits are competitive and that it treats its employees fairly,” Feldman said.

Martino acknowledged that the union was entering virgin territory in relation to the ski industry. He said there are no ski resorts under Teamsters’ contract in the country, and he knows of no other collective bargaining units in the ski industry.

“This is epic,” Champlin said. “There were attempts to unionize at Heavenly in 1970 and ’72, but both failed because they failed to get a majority of the workers.”

A lift electrician of nine years, Champlin said the employees approached the union to gain a voice.

“Heavenly views employees as consumables,” Champlin said. “We want to have a say in our hours and conditions of work. Overtime is a key issue.”

Overtime was the reason behind a lawsuit brought by 10 Heavenly employees, including Champlin, in August 1998. The lawsuit alleges that the resort owes the employees back overtime wages for workweeks longer than 40 hours.

Heavenly contends it is exempt from the 40-hour rule under both state and federal labor law. A U.S. labor code provides an exemption to private business located in a national park or national forest. Under the law, businesses don’t have to pay overtime until after 56 hours in a workweek.

Champlin said their attorney, Dewey Sloan, has decided to withdraw from the case.

“The case in now sitting in front of a U.S. District Court Judge waiting for a decision on where we go from here,” he explained.

Besides petitioning for a secret ballot election from the National Labor Relations Board, Local 533 filed charges Jan. 13 claiming Heavenly violated the National Labor Relations Act. The charges allege that Heavenly failed to reinstate an employee and hindered the union campaign.

Champlin claims that management repeatedly pulled notices of union meetings from employee boards. Martino said the company forced an employee to leave the grounds after he was found handing out union literature on his own time in the parking lot.

Feldman said the charges are untrue, especially in relation to reinstating the employee.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said. “There was an individual who was properly put on worker’s compensation as being temporarily disabled, but all this took place many months before any union organization activity took place.”

The worker is still on disability leave, Feldman acknowledged.

Bruce Friend, the assistant regional director of the National Labor Relations Board, said an investigation of the charges is ongoing and usually takes six to eight weeks. The board will review Local 533’s petition and decide if the union has a 30 percent show of interest from employees. The board will then seek an agreement between Heavenly and the union on who will be in the bargaining unit.

“We need an agreement between the two parties on what group of people are eligible to vote,” Friend explained. “If we can’t reach an agreement, we’ll have a hearing.”

After an agreement is reached, the National Labor Relations Board would conduct an election. The union only needs 50 percent of the actual voters, plus one to pass. Martino said a vote could occur within 40 to 45 days.

Martino said after the election the union’s job will be negotiating a labor contract.

“Upper management works under contract. It’s not uncommon,” he said. “Why do they frown on the employees who want the same thing? With a union at least they’ll have a say in the terms and conditions of employment they’re going to work under.”

Randall Tobey, a ski patroller of 18 years, said he believes a union will make the company recognize the patrollers’ contribution to the mountain.

“As far as upper management is concerned, we’re not a revenue generating department. They want to put as small amount of money into us as possible,” Tobey said. “They ignore the fact that every year we save them millions of dollars either through our exact first aid and documentation, or hill safety. We recognize and alleviate possible hazards on the mountain before they even exist.”

Tobey said because of low pay, qualified patrollers are lost every year to other professions, reducing the safety of the skiing public.

“It’s not our supervisors or our directors that we have a problem with,” he added. “They’re doing the best they can with the money being given to them. It’s upper management saying let’s pay these guys as little as possible and hope they come back.”

Tobey, another party in the lawsuit, also expressed his disagreement with the 56-hour rule.

“Last year I got called up for a missing snowboarder girl,” he said. “We had to track her. By the time everything was all said and done, we had a whole lot of cold, hungry guys working for 16 hours or more. When we’re on avalanche control, we work from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. I’m not complaining. I love my job and take pride in doing it. But, that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be paid for it.”

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