WILMINGTON - A small group of unionized workers employed at the state Olympic Regional Development Authority gathered at the entrance to Whiteface Mountain last week to rally support for contract negotiations.
Union officials say ORDA needs to grant raises for its blue collar workers, who are responsible for the day-to-day operations at the Olympic venues in and around Lake Placid.
Last Friday's rally was scheduled to coincide with Whiteface Mountain's opening day.
Kathy Garrison is regional president for the Civil Service Employees Association. She says ORDA's board of trustees has been unwilling to negotiate any kind of contract package for its unionized workers.
"Our people make very little money here," Garrison said. "Many of them earn just slightly more than minimum wage. Many of them are eligibly for public assistance, and many of them work two or three jobs. It's a bunch of millionaires who sit on the board and they won't even come back and bring 50 cents to them. They have the ability to do that and we think it's time they be fair to the people who do the work here. They're bragging about how much money they're bringing into the area and how much money they're making, well it's time to give these workers their fair share."
Garrison noted that ORDA workers do get health insurance through their jobs, but with many employees earning less than nine dollars an hour, the union is looking for wage increases.
She noted lift operators and ski patrol make just over eight dollars an hour on average, while some of the more skilled workers - like mechanics - as well as long-term employees make slightly more.
But Garrison said they still deserve more.
"There's people that work here that can't afford to go home because they can't live in the area, and they don't make enough money to pay for the gas to go home," she said. "Some of these people sleep in their cars after work because they can't afford to go home."
Garrison says ORDA was told in advance about Friday's rally, but the board didn't indicate it was ready to discuss contract talks. She adds that the contract situation has been dragging on for some two years now.
New York's ongoing fiscal crisis has many taxpayers calling for unions to make concessions, while service workers at North Country Community College were recently denied four percent raises by county leaders in Franklin and Essex.
Whiteface Mountain has enjoyed some good press this year, having been named the east's top resort by readers of SKI Magazine. It was also dubbed the east's favorite resort by SnowEast Magazine. And Garrison said without its lift operators, maintenance crews and ski patrol, those glowing reviews wouldn't be possible.
"They certainly deserve a raise - they are the reason Whiteface is so successful," she said. "They have very important jobs - and if you want to talk about safety issues, you want a skilled workforce doing these jobs. You don't want just anybody."
Garrison says she understand the tough fiscal realities faced by New Yorkers, noting that for the most part, CSEA isn't demanding raises.
But in this instance, she says it's taking too long for the state and ORDA to come to the table, and if it takes showing up at major events at Olympic venues, CSEA is willing to schedule rallies throughout the winter season.
ORDA spokesman Jon Lundin said the agency was aware of last week's rally.
Lundin said a mediator has been called in on the contract talks, so his hands are tied in regards to commenting on the situation with the union.
"To be perfectly honest, we do have great workers," he said. "And we're really appreciative of what our workers do, not only at Whiteface but at all of our Olympic venues. They're talented and they're hard working. What we're trying to do is provide employees with a realistic contract while offering the public and our visitors the great services we offer."
The theme of Friday's rally revolved around Dr. Seuss's famed Christmas story, the Grinch Who Stole Christmas, as one unidentified union worker sported a Grinch costume while cruising the slopes of Whiteface.