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Yellowstone Guides File Complaint For Union Busting

Picketers wave from the corner of Canyon St and Yellowstone Ave in West Yellowstone, Montana on Feb. 29, 2020.
Charles Bolte
Yellowstone Public Radio
Picketers wave from the corner of Canyon St and Yellowstone Ave in West Yellowstone, Montana on Feb. 29, 2020.

A group of winter tour guides in West Yellowstone say they were laid off after trying to unionize this winter. They’ve filed unfair labor practice charges against one of Yellowstone National Park’s leading concessionaires, which will be heard later this year. The case signals a rare but possibly growing interest among seasonal workers to organize.

Lines of snowmobiles whirred past a small group of picketers in late February in West Yellowstone, Montana. The picketers turned out to protest Delaware North, a Yellowstone National Park concessionaire.

"We have signs that are just this. Parks for people not profit."

Led by Ty Wheeler, the group stood on street corners and cheerfully waved bright-colored signs just outside the west gate to the park.

"We have another sign, living wage for working people," Wheeler says. "So we're out here today to stand in solidarity with our other guide friends, uh, that were laid off and fired for standing up for a living wage and equal rights for working conditions and also for the park service to look at this and say, should we be allowing these companies to come in and do this?"

Wheeler, a U.S. Air Force veteran and experienced international guide, was laid off on Feb. 17, half an hour after leading the first of three protests held that month. He said he and others were trying to start a union to bargain for higher wages, a consistent work schedule, and better housing conditions. Wheeler said that he and those pushing to organize were fired.

Delaware North said the guides were let go due to decreased international bookings, and that the company offers competitive wages, tips, cancellation pay, and affordable housing.

Wheeler and four others filed charges under the National Labor Relations Act against Delaware North in February and March.

Last Thursday, the NLRB consolidated the charges and set a hearing date for August 18.

It’s a situation that could hold implications for seasonal employees elsewhere in Montana’s outdoor recreation industry.

"It doesn't matter if you're temporary. It doesn’t matter if you’re full time. It doesn't matter if you're seasonal. You have the same rights under federal law to organize and to have a contract," says Al Ekblad executive secretary of the Montana AFL-CIO.

Ekblad said guides in unions are uncommon, but could be trending. Eklbad’s evidence is anecdotal, as the U.S Bureau of Labor and Statistics doesn’t specifically track union density among commercial guides.

Ekblad pointed to unionized summertime tour bus drivers in Denali National Park as a bellwether. He says he’s seen increased union interest in recent years among seasonal ski resort workers in Montana, Utah, and Colorado.

"So, I think what you're seeing is workers, whether they are in, in temporary employment, contract employment, are organizing in order to make their lives and their family lives better," Ekblad said. 

The winter guiding season runs from mid-December to mid-March in Yellowstone. Guides lead snowmobile or snow coach tours over snow packed roads into the park. They point out wildlife and geothermal features on their way to destinations like Old Faithful.

Guide Ty Wheeler says he and others drafted a proposed collective bargaining agreement that outlined benefits like seniority, a regularly posted schedule, minimum guaranteed work hours, retirement benefits, sick leave, and a higher minimum wage of $16.73 an hour plus built-in tips. This would be an increase over the $12 an hour plus tips offered at Yellowstone Vacation Tours to first year guides with the company like Wheeler.

Wheeler says, "We were working on this collective bargaining agreement to just start the conversation of what should be a fair wage and what looks like a fair living condition. And those of us that are definitely in favor of it are gone. And those of us that led the whole, um, movement are gone."

Delaware North wrote in a March statement, “we experienced a decrease in our anticipated international tour business this winter season, and as a result, we unfortunately had to lay off four of our 50 seasonal guides in mid-February."

The Buffalo, New York based corporation acquired Yellowstone Vacation Tours in 2016. Last year, the company also purchased Two Top Yellowstone Tours, adding in their statement, "we hired 50 seasonal guides — a larger number of guides than in the past — to ensure we had enough for both the existing and new businesses."

If Wheeler’s group settles or wins its complaint later this year, they’ll likely receive back pay for the remainder of the guiding season, which ended in mid-March. But, Wheeler’s mission is more than getting back pay. It’s about developing a positive guide culture at Yellowstone National Park and spreading a message.

"And we can look at it, start having intelligent conversations about how other parks do it, how other countries do it and take care of the people that provide that experience," he says.