For the second time in six years, the National Labor Relations Board has issued a ruling against Grouse Mountain Lodge, determining that the owners and management of the 145-room resort and convention in Whitefish engaged in “serious unfair labor practices” and violated the rights of its workers on 12 separate instances.
The ruling, delivered last month by an NLRB administrative law judge in Washington, D.C., comes as only the latest salvo in an ongoing war of attrition that has pitted the Hotel Employees/Restaurant Employees union (HERE) against one of western Montana’s premier vacation resorts—and one of the Flathead Valley’s largest service-sector employers.
Among other things, the Labor Board has ordered Grouse Mountain Lodge not to interrogate its employees about their union activities or sympathies, not to threaten employees with the loss of hours or benefits (or delay implementing new benefits) because of union activities, not to make “veiled threats” about terminating union supporters, not to promise incentives in order to dissuade employees from joining the union, and not to “interfere, restrain or coerce” employees in exercising their legal right to organize.
“This has gone way beyond whether or not Grouse Mountain Lodge is union,” says Jacquie Helt, HERE organizer in Missoula. “This is about whether or not people had a choice free of coercion, threats and intimidation.”
But management at Grouse Mountain Lodge say that this latest ruling comes as no surprise and simply reflects the Labor Board’s historic sympathy for union causes. In a written statement issued shortly after the ruling, Toby Slatter, director of operations for Grouse Mountain Lodge, writes, “We never expected the NLRB to do much more than rubber stamp the Administrative Judge’s decision. We look forward finally to moving this matter into the federal judicial system.”
Slatter tells the Independent that bringing this complaint before the NLRB was just one more tactic used by HERE to try to force a union upon his employees who have already indicated that they don’t want or need one. Slatter points to the large number of staff who have been with the company for more than five years who have risen through the ranks to become managers themselves as evidence that Grouse Mountain employees are content without union representation.
“[The union] is not going to go away. I understand that they have a right to help out if people are being mistreated in any way, but I clearly don’t believe that’s the case with Grouse Mountain Lodge,” says Slatter. “We’re pretty much the premiere property in the Valley, which is probably why we’re in their sights.”
Needless to say, union activists interpret the history of this dispute differently. As Helt points out, it was back in 1996 when a committee of 23 Grouse Mountain employees from every department in the hotel first approached the union asking for help in bringing their grievances to management. Those grievances were later put into a formal complaint that was filed with the NLRB in September 1996, and in 1998 an administrative law judge ruled that Grouse Mountain management had, in fact, engaged in unfair labor practices against its workers. Much of this latest ruling reads almost identically to the wording of the 1998 ruling.
This is not the only labor dispute to rankle management at the Grouse Mountain Lodge in recent years. In October 1996, Pam Driscoll, an eight-year employee who worked in Grouse Mountain’s dining room, was “de-scheduled,” or effectively removed from her job, ostensibly because she had developed a physical disability that prevented her from working full-time. Driscoll, who was one of the original 23 employees who had approached the union for help, filed a discrimination complaint with the Montana Human Rights Commission, which ruled in her favor in 1999. Grouse Mountain has appealed that ruling.
HERE has organized a boycott of Grouse Mountain Lodge, which has been sanctioned by the Montana Community Labor Alliance and the Montana AFL-CIO. Helt says that since last summer the union has upped the ante, printing about 10,000 pamphlets explaining to businesses why they should avoid Grouse Mountain Lodge. HERE has also contacted national unions like the Screen Actors Guild and overseas tour operators to urge them to spend their money at other union-friendly Montana resorts instead.
It should be noted that Grouse Mountain employees are not unionized, and in the six years of this battle, the union has never received dues or other compensation from Grouse Mountain employees for their time or efforts. Moreover, Helt says that the low pay and high rate of turnover has made it difficult to keep employees informed and involved in the issue.
“The bottom line is, we may never represent the workers at Grouse Mountain Lodge. That isn’t the issue,” says Helt. “It really is about folks having a choice and being able to make that choice. And now twice it’s been determined that they were not given that choice.”