The outdoor industry and unions

A $374 billion industry not immune from labor trends
May 12, 2022 at 5:05 a.m.

CDN Contributor

In the last 12 months, 18 Starbucks locations have voted to unionize. Last month, a Staten Island Amazon warehouse voted to unionize. And after that, an Apple store in Atlanta filed a petition to unionize. These were seen as important moments in union efforts due to the size of these companies and the long-term impact on the larger corporate unionization effort.

But these efforts don’t stand alone. Petitions filed to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to create unions increased 57% during the first six months of the 2022 fiscal year.

In a world where employees often feel helpless to negotiate with the corporations they work for, this makes sense. Unionization allows employees to work together as a group to collectively bargain with their management over a myriad of things. Most commonly unions negotiate wages, but they also help to negotiate things like worksite safety, vacation time and health insurance.

But what about the outdoor industry? 

This is an industry that is famous for offering “lifestyle jobs.” In other words, employment in the industry is considered fun, and as such, there’s an often unstated belief that those who work in the industry shouldn’t make that much money because they’re compensated by their lifestyle.

But, of course, one’s lifestyle doesn’t put food on the table or pay the mortgage. And so, the outdoor industry hasn’t been immune from recent unionization efforts. 

Early this year, 15 members of the Outside magazine editorial staff unionized. They felt that it was the only way to protect employees at the magazine from budget cuts and pay stagnation. Similarly, in March, workers at an REI store in Manhattan voted to unionize. Employees argued that they had no choice due to ongoing issues with workplace safety, training, scheduling and vacation time.

And though it might be new to the outdoor industry, writers and retail workers have engaged in union activity in the past. What is unique to this new union movement are efforts in more niche parts of the industry. Movement Crystal City in Arlington, Virginia just became the first indoor climbing gym to unionize. And there’s a fledgling movement for outdoor sales reps to unionize.

Ski patrollers have a longer history with unions. Park City, Crested Butte, Steamboat and Telluride all have union representation, and several other resorts have seen union movement amongst their patrollers. Colorado’s Breckenridge and Montana’s Big Sky recently developed ski patrol unions. And locally, patrollers just voted on a union contract at Steven’s Pass.

It’s within the ski patrol unions that we can really see the power of labor organization. The Park City Professional Ski Patrol Association negotiated a bump to a starting rate of $15 an hour last year. And this year, they were able to increase the average hourly rate for patrollers from $15.38 to $19 an hour. This was seen as a major win, but they had to threaten Vail Resorts with a strike during the high season to get there.

Building a union from scratch is tough. Most companies don’t want them and will do whatever they can to deter unionization. In addition to that, low wages and the transient nature of some workers in the outdoor industry can make it even harder. Employees may feel that a union isn’t worth their dues. Such a message can be amplified by managers that prefer to deal directly with employees and want to avoid the headache of union negotiations.

There is a bill in congress right now that could make it easier for those in the outdoor industry to unionize. The Protecting the Right to Organize Act (PRO) Act would make it harder for companies to “union bust” by expanding penalties to companies that engage in this behavior. It would close loopholes often used to exploit labor and it would make it easier to organize.

Though it would be good for those that would like to join unions, the PRO Act is struggling. In our deeply partisan environment, it’s unlikely to become law in the near future.

I’ve repeatedly noted that the outdoor industry is a $374 billion industry. There is a lot of money in outdoor recreation, but far too much of it stays at the top. 

Of course, people do choose career paths in the industry because they find the work rewarding and they enjoy the lifestyle that comes with it. But a lifestyle simply isn’t equivalent to wages. Those of us in the industry are often told that we have the coolest job in the world. But shouldn’t the coolest job in the world allow one to live at a level somewhere above the poverty line?

Broad-spectrum unionization efforts throughout the outdoor industry could change that.

Jason Martin's outdoors column appears monthly. Email: jason@alpineinstitute.com. Twitter: @OutdoorPolitics.

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