Instructors defend Skico, slam renegade at meeting
ASPEN, Colorado – A ski instructor who is protesting the Aspen Skiing Co.’s wages for beginning teachers was sharply criticized Sunday night in a meeting that attracted about 30 members of the ski school.
Lee Mulcahy, an instructor since 1996 who is currently under suspension with pay from the Skico, called the meeting to try to build support for his efforts to pressure the Skico to increase the starting wage of $69 per day for beginning instructors.
Instead, roughly 10 instructors spoke out against what they consider a misguided effort, and they condemned Mulcahy for his tactics. Some speakers also criticized Mulcahy for pursuing a personal vendetta against Skico after a falling out with some officials in the ski school.
The discussion got heated at times, with a handful of instructors venting their frustration with Mulcahy, and he once angrily fired back.
There are 1,200 ski instructors for the Skico, so the meeting drew only a fraction of the teachers.
Weems Westfeldt, a longtime Skico instructor, read a statement that said Mulcahy has “betrayed and degraded” his profession through his actions. He read a list of ways that he said Mulcahy has acted “immorally,” including: hinging his protest on a pay grade that affects only 0.2 percent of the hours at the ski school; making it more difficult for management and the ski school members to communicate because of a complaint to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB); and launching “vicious attacks on the owners of the company.”
“I no longer feel you are qualified to be called a colleague,” Westfeldt said. He asked Mulcahy to resign from the ski school.
No members of the Skico management attended the meeting. Westfeldt explained they couldn’t because there is an active investigation by the NLRB of charges by Mulcahy. Westfeldt called himself a “loyal soldier” of the Skico and proud to speak up in its defense.
Several other speakers praised the Skico’s treatment of instructors. “We are so lucky to have the Crown family” as owners, said Scott Kane, a 15-year Skico instructor. He said he’s worked for other ski resorts as an instructor but never has been treated as well as in Aspen-Snowmass.
He criticized Mulcahy for dragging the entire ski school into a fight he has with individuals in the Skico.
Ski instructor Megan Harvey criticized Mulcahy for slanting his information in his criticism of Skico. Beginning instructors might start at $69 per day, but they quickly advance by putting in hours, completing training and successfully completing tests. Before they even finish their first season with the Skico, they are making more than $69 per day, she said.
“No one is at a poverty level,” Harvey said. “You’re not showing a very accurate picture.”
At many other ski areas, instructors are stuck at the same pay rate through the season, she said.
Altering the starting pay for instructors will affect all pay grades and limit the ski school as a revenue source for the company, Harvey warned. If that happens, she said, the Crown family might be forced to sell.
Everyone in the audience was in their 30s and older, and many indicated they worked hard to advance in the Skico ski school. They paid their dues after beginning at the bottom of the pay scale, they said. Every new instructor knows what starting pay will be. They voluntarily take the jobs, speakers said.
A ski instructor who identified himself as “Smiddy” said anyone wanting to get rich shouldn’t work as a ski instructor. “If you want to make money, go to Wall Street,” he said.
But people with a passion for skiing who want to share their skills and have fun are in the right job, he added.
“I think you’re swimming up the wrong stream,” Smiddy told Mulcahy. “I am honored to work for Aspen Skiing Company.”
Kane and other speakers questioned if the issue is even legitimate or if Mulcahy has just taken it upon himself to grandstand. Numerous speakers noted that Skico employees are eligible for numerous benefits, ranging from discounted health insurance to employee housing and subsidized bus passes.
“Where are the people you’re speaking for?” Kane asked.
Mulcahy said the issue doesn’t directly affect him. He was in the Skico’s highest pay scale until he was demoted before this season from the Diamond Club, an exclusive group of high producers. Mulcahy claimed that in his younger days, he was the top producing ski instructor at all four Aspen-Snowmass ski areas.
“I’m paid well; some are not,” he said. He said he is “genuinely” concerned about the pay issue after hearing directly from instructors last season that they felt the beginning wage was unfair.
Mulcahy said he took a greater interest in the Skico’s corporate stances about a year ago, when musician Dan Sheridan was temporarily fired for playing a particular song at a Skico venue. (He was rehired and Skico said it made a mistake.)
Mulcahy wrote a letter to the editor of local newspapers last May that appeared critical of Skico’s occasional corporate mentality. He claimed the company retaliated against him by demoting him and telling him that critical letters by him represented a conflict of interest. The Skico denies any wrongdoing.
Mulcahy filed charges with the NLRB. The federal agency is investigating to determine if any formal complaints are warranted.
Mulcahy stepped up his protests against the Skico recently, writing letters, buying advertisements in the newspapers and distributing flyers during the holiday week on Skico property that criticized the pay for beginning instructors.
Mulcahy told the instructors Sunday night that Aspen has a long history of social protest. “We must be true to our history,” he said.
He asked the instructors to support his effort to improve pay by signing a petition. It didn’t appear that anyone did.
Ski instructor Sally Sparhawk circulated a petition in support of the Skico. She said it was signed by 19 people. Before the meeting she sent an e-mail to ski instructors urging them to attend Mulcahy’s meeting in a show of support for the company.
Sparhawk fiercely defended the Skico and scolded Mulcahy for the ruckus he has created. “He has degraded us as professionals in the newspapers,” she said.
Mulcahy had a pocket of support. One instructor, who declined to give his name, defended Mulcahy’s concern over beginning instructors. He said the lower portion of the Skico’s pay scale hasn’t been raised enough in recent years to keep up with national inflation, let alone Aspen’s cost of living.
“This is not a moot point,” the instructor said.
Another instructor defended Mulcahy’s right to raise issues with the NLRB. That topic was a particularly sore spot with the audience. Mulcahy complained to the agency about the ski school’s organizational set-up. He contended it is designed to prevent instructors from setting up a union.
Westfeldt claimed that Mulcahy single-handedly could “take down” a management system that many instructors worked for years to build and that the vast majority support.
A woman who didn’t give her name said she had experience in labor issues outside of Aspen and warned of the consequences if the ski instructors ever set up a union. It will cause irreparable harm to the relations of the instructors and Skico management, she said.
“They no longer talk to one another like human beings,” the woman said.
Mulcahy countered that people he talked to on the ski patrol at Aspen-Snowmass feel the union has worked well for them. The ski patrol has been unionized for decades. A union for ski instructors was voted down in 1993.
There is no indication at this point that the NLRB is contemplating any action that could alter the ski school structure. A spokeswoman for the agency said before the holidays that it will likely determine by the end of January whether Mulcahy’s charges have merit.
Meanwhile, Mulcahy has been banned from Skico property as a result of his distributing flyers Dec. 30 that were critical of the company and the Crowns. He gave every indication Sunday night that he will continue to press the issue.
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