Yellowstone rangers, guides seek union

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JACKSON — Interpretive rangers and other workers in Yellowstone National Park want to unionize.

If they’re successful, park workers there would establish the first local chapter of a federal employees’ union, the National Federation of Federal Employees.

In Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, park employees who work in facilities maintenance-type roles (typically road crews, mechanics, carpenters, electricians, and such) have the option to join a union. In both parks, they can be represented by the Casper chapter of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

Interpretive rangers, park guides, fee collectors, researchers, and administrative staff are not, however, organized in either park. 

Now, they’re waiting for a federal agency to determine whether they collected enough signatures to hold an election that will determine whether a union can be formed in the park.

Owen Ellis is Yellowstone’s lead interpretive ranger for the Lake District, which includes Canyon Village, Fishing Bridge, Grant Village and the east and south entrances. He’s one of five or so park employees coordinating the unionization push and said organizers have both short-term and long-term goals.

In the near future, Ellis said he hopes a union will encourage dialogue between field staff and park management, particularly about turnover in seasonal staff. Ellis said over 75% of those workers have left annually. When Ellis was seasonal — he went full-time in June 2022 — he said turnover was closer to 40%.

“I would really like to see some more conversations involving more people who work in the park and all the people higher up in management,” Ellis said. 

He wants questions like “Why are people leaving like this?” and “Why is the park not doing exit interviews for seasonal staff?” answered between staff and management.

In the long-term, Ellis said a union could advocate for higher wages and changes to locality pay, which is bureaucratic speak for policies that adjust employees’ wages based on where they live.

Ellis and other organizers said in a press release that those changes would require lobbying Congress, and they hope to work with Yellowstone management and the union to advocate on a national stage.

Yellowstone spokespeople were not able to return a request for comment before press time Monday.

Organizers told the Jackson Hole Daily that workers will be able to decide whether to join the union — they are not required to — if a vote is held and passes. Seasonal and full-time workers would both be able to join.

They also said the federal union represents National Park Service workers elsewhere, as well as U.S. Forest Service employees and the majority of federal wildland firefighters. 

Organizers credited the national union with securing funding to provide federal firefighters raises and to build federal employee housing.

In their press release, organizers applauded the park for improving career advancement opportunities and employee housing. In 2022, the park showcased two new, completed housing units intended to replace outdated trailers, part of a broader $40 million effort it announced in 2020. The goal is to replace 64 trailers that housed between 80 and 100 employees, improve 150 other housing units, rehabilitate historic housing and build new housing. In 2020, about 50% of Yellowstone’s workers lived in park housing.

So far, Ellis and 84 other Yellowstone employees have affixed their signatures to the unionization petition.

The Federal Labor Relations Authority, which oversees labor-management relations for millions of federal employees, is still counting signatures to ensure that 30% of eligible employees have said they want the election. 

On Monday, Eric Prag, a Federal Labor Relations Authority spokesperson, said the agency had received the workers’ petition. He wasn’t able to give a timeline of when counting would be completed.

“It’s too early to say,” Prag said.

Jerry Payne is the business manager of the Casper-based chapter of the electrical workers union that represents other Grand Teton and Yellowstone employees. Payne said recruitment has been “hard” in both parks, however, because of how dispersed employees are.

Still, Payne said he supports the unionization push.

“I think it’s good to hear a broader view from the workers in an entity like that,” Payne said. “The more members you have, the more voices you’re going to hear.”