This article was produced by Capital & Main, an award-winning publication that reports from California on economic, political, and social issues. It is co-published here with permission.
Recently, former President Obama launched a Netflix series celebrating national parks and their breathtaking views. One of the parks he zoomed in on was the 2.2 million acre Yellowstone National Park, describing it as a park that is “fundamental to our national identity.”
But underneath the beauty of Yellowstone lies an ugly history of union-busting and intimidation by government contractors of National Park Service workers, the ones who labor to keep the park beautiful—a legacy that Obama failed to curb as president and one that Joe Biden has yet to address as the current occupant of the White House.
“I never had anyone spit or threaten to beat me up until I tried to unionize at Yellowstone,” says former Yellowstone tour guide Ty Wheeler.
In February of 2020, Wheeler and six of his co-workers were fired when they attempted to organize a group of 80 tour guides at Yellowstone National Park employed by the giant contractor Delaware North. Workers were paid only $12 an hour plus tips with infrequent scheduling, leading some into poverty while trying to get by in an area known for its generally high prices and expensive housing. In addition, Yellowstone had begun reporting cases of COVID, and workers were concerned about what they claim was the lack of training and personal protective equipment.
However, when the workers attempted to unionize, they claim they were not only fired but kicked out of company housing in West Yellowstone, Montana, during the middle of a frigid Yellowstone winter. The next month, the workers filed an unfair labor practice complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, which ruled in a settlement that all of the workers should be rehired and that organizing activities should not be prevented in the park.
But Delaware North broke the agreement and to this day has never rehired the workers, say the former employees, who are currently appealing to the NLRB about the failure to enforce the settlement.
Union organizers are citing their firings and forced eviction from company housing to help build momentum for Biden to take executive action and strip companies like Delaware North of federal contracts for violating the National Labor Relations Act, now that the PRO Act—which would penalize employers for violating workers’ rights, and force employers to disclose how much they spend on union-busting—is stalled in the Senate. Similar rules, including the High Road policy, which would boost labor-friendly companies’ chances of winning federal contracts, and an order that federal contractors disclose two years of political donations, faltered during the Obama administration.
Union organizers are pushing Biden to call out Delaware North’s union-busting activity in the national park, just as he did recently with Kellogg’s and Amazon’s efforts to halt organizing efforts by their workers.
“Biden should get directly involved and do something about this,” says union organizer Wheeler. “These are our national parks, our national treasures, and these private contractors are treating them like company towns.”
A Dream Job for Nature Lovers
Working as a tour guide for Delaware North in a park like Yellowstone is the opportunity of a lifetime for many nature enthusiasts.
“I love, love, love giving tours, having the opportunity to facilitate enjoyment of our public lands for people,” says 28-year-old Sophie Krautmann, who worked as a federally certified seasonal national park ranger prior to getting the job at Yellowstone. “I think it’s really important for people to develop a connection with their public lands. Because if the general public doesn’t care, then we have no reason to protect them.”
Not only were the tour guides concerned about their safety during COVID, but their salaries were hard to live on, forcing some of them to routinely visit food banks. Meanwhile, Delaware North was charging more than $150 per person on tours that can often have up to a dozen people on them. To make ends meet, workers on the tours relied heavily on soliciting tips from wealthy customers, which can range from $10 to $20 per person.
“Their business practices seemed a little slimy in the first place,” says former guide Krautmann. “Our daily pay for running these guides was less than the cost of one seat on the tours that I was giving. And I’m taking 15 people in at a time some days.”
Worse, the guides rarely knew when they were going to work, as demand for them fluctuated based on the number of visitors that signed up each day, making their schedules unpredictable.
“I don’t know when my weekend is so I can’t make those plans,” says Krautmann. “24/7, you’re on call, essentially. And you’re not getting paid like you’re on call by any means or treated like you’re on call.”
Owning the Yosemite Name, Literally
Delaware North is one of the biggest private federal contractors that run many of the stores, restaurants, tours and lodgings in American national parks. The Buffalo, New York-headquartered company—one of the largest private hospitality firms in the world—is so powerful that for decades it owned the name “Yosemite National Park” and names of popular landmarks in the park. Delaware North won $12 million from the government—it had originally claimed $51.2 million—after both sides settled in 2019 over returning the naming rights for the national park to the federal government.
Companies such as Delaware North have always been able to find plenty of young workers to work as tour guides in Yellowstone.
“It’s competitive in nature that it’s so expensive to live there,” says Wheeler. “And people will do anything. Folks will take a job and it’s just the opportunity of a lifetime.”
In the winter of 2019, as tourists were starting to bring COVID with them to Yellowstone, workers began to organize. They met at the Wild West, a Pittsburgh Steelers-themed bar 100 yards from the western entrance to Yellowstone Park.
“This was where we were gonna have the victory party,” says Wheeler of the landmark Yellowstone bar adorned with photos of the skyline of Pittsburgh.
After the meeting, the workers decided to form a new independent union to represent tour guides in the park. Much like workers at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, the Yellowstone guides felt that an independent union would be best at representing them.
“The turnover is just high due to seasonal [work], and the culture so unique, that the only way that you are going to organize these places is with an independent union that workers feel they are truly running,” says Wheeler.
Workers felt enthusiastic. Then, Delaware North stayed true to its reputation as a hardball anti-union player.
Owned by Jeremy Jacobs, the billionaire owner of the Boston Bruins, Delaware North generated $3.7 billion in revenue in 2019, and even during the pandemic in 2020, it earned $1.45 billion. During the 2012-2013 NHL lockout, Jacobs was viewed by players as one of the hard-liners attacking the union—a role he played during the 2004-2005 and 1994-1995 lockouts as well. “Jeremy Jacobs is widely known as being the guy who makes lockouts happen,” wrote sportswriter Ryan Lambert in 2013.
But what Delaware North under Jacobs did to tour guides was far more damaging than any of its anti-union efforts in the NHL, say workers at the park.
Rumors of the unionization at Yellowstone were leaked to management of Delaware North in early 2020. The company, which, according to this National Park Service document, saw gross receipts of $38.5 million in 2019 and $29.1 million in 2020, in Yellowstone, retaliated quickly, spreading fear among workers that they could lose their shifts.
“We are all living on the edge of survivability. So the idea of not even getting one [tour], they wouldn’t be able to eat,” says Wheeler, adding that the organizing drive created tension between his co-workers. “One of the [anti-union] guides said, basically, ‘Yeah, you’re gonna do this. I’ll take you out in the alley and we’ll settle this.”
According to National Labor Relations Board complaints filed by the workers, Delaware North fired two union organizers employed as guides on Feb. 14. On Feb. 17, another four union activists were fired by Delaware North.
Workers say they were invited to a series of meetings in mid-February where they were told that they had to be out of company housing by the end of the week.
“It was definitely emotional. I was at one of the angriest points of my life, honestly,” says 26-year-old tour guide Cody Allinson, who was evicted from company housing. “I had done really good work. I had only received positive five-star reviews [from clients]. I was pretty ticked off because it seemed blatant and unjustified.”
Scrambling to Find a Place to Live
Due to high demand for vacation housing and limited options to build due to federal zoning restrictions for construction, West Yellowstone is an expensive place to live. Without company housing, seasonal workers have to pay an average of $1,675 a month in rent for an apartment in West Yellowstone, or commute well over an hour each way.
With little financial support, many guides were forced to flee the area.
“They had to move out of company housing in minus 16 degree weather. And there’s not cheap housing around,” says Wheeler. “So one of them literally drove immediately to Arizona to live there because it was warm and he could sleep in his car. Other people had to drive for a day straight to go stay with family members.”
In the following weeks, other workers like Krautmann saw their shifts gradually dry up to the point that they quit in order to go seek other work.
For these workers, the firings were humiliating. “Here were these private companies profiting from public national treasures and violating our rights. It just felt so wrong,” says Krautmann.
Delaware North denied that it mistreated the workers.
“Delaware North greatly values the approximately 45 seasonal guides who work for us each season with Yellowstone Vacation Tours. We pay wages that are competitive with other tour operators, offer bonus pay, including for excellent patron reviews, and provide housing at reasonable rents. Our guides also earn tips from patrons,” Delaware North Corporate Communications Director Glen White wrote Capital & Main in an email. “Overall, we have a very strong year-to year return rate for our seasonal guides, most of whom continue to come back to be a part of our operation.”
In March of 2020, the workers filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging that their firings and evictions were illegal. After months of legal negotiations, Delaware North agreed to settle by rehiring the workers, an agreement that workers claim the company breached. The NLRB is currently hearing the case and did not provide a requested comment.
Inaction by the NLRB is not uncommon, notes University of Wyoming labor law professor Mike Duff, who spent a dozen years as an NLRB agent.
“This happens all the time. I’ve seen many cases where an employer blows a settlement agreement,” says Duff. “The NLRB remedies are so weak that most employers think they can get away with violating the law.”
To remedy such situations, Duff would like to see the Biden administration change federal law to debar contractors that violate union rights.
“Until these employers fear that they are going to lose serious money by violating labor law, there is very little liability for them to violate the law,” says Duff.
The Obama administration tried to hold federal contractors accountable. In 2014, the president introduced the “Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces” executive order, which required federal contractors to disclose labor law violations for the previous three years, including violations against rules on collective bargaining.
But in 2017, President Trump and congressional Republicans revoked the rule. Over a year and a half into his presidency, Biden has yet to overturn the Trump ruling. Instead, last year, through an executive order, he set up a labor task force to encourage organizing, which has given nearly 70 recommendations.
Now, the labor victory of Amazon workers in Staten Island may open the door for another independent union to win in Yellowstone.
The Amazon union drive has won popular support, with union leader Chris Smalls featured on late night comedy shows and profiled in the New York Times style section. Using the viral momentum of the union drive, Sen. Bernie Sanders has begun pressuring the Biden administration to issue “high road contractor” regulations.
“President Biden has talked more about his support for unions than any president I can remember. That’s good. But the time for talk is over. Workers need action. Now,” Sanders told Politico in an interview. “What Biden talked about during the campaign … is that if large corporations engage in illegal anti-union activity, they will not be eligible for federal contracts. Well, Amazon is engaged in illegal anti-union activity.”
With many Americans as well as foreign tourists heading to Yellowstone, independent tour guide and ranger union leader Ty Wheeler feels it’s time for Biden to act.
“The purpose of a national park is to inspire, to celebrate a country’s heritage. So if you go to France, if you go to Switzerland, if you go to a lot of these places, they don’t allow private companies to own the narrative of what a national park is—these are all government jobs,” says Wheeler. “But in our country, we allow for private companies to own the narrative and break workers’ rights.”
However, one family won’t be going to Yellowstone National Park this summer: that of University of Wyoming labor law professor Mike Duff.
“When I’m planning a family vacation, I don’t want to go somewhere that union-busting is going on—that’s not my idea of a good time,” says Duff.