The company towns of Greater Yellowstone
by Jim Macdonald
I don't know how many people noticed the January 13 story out of Big Sky in the Billings Gazette entitled Couple objects to Big Sky Resort's plan to house employees. The gist of the story is that the Big Sky Resort has purchased a motel in which it intends to house the resort's employees as well as sell rooms to tourists. Many in Big Sky object, and a local couple has filed a formal complaint. Here is the rationale for the complaint, according to the article:
Using the motel as employee housing "will decrease our property values, increase crime and decrease quality of life," [Patrick and Susan] Collins said.
I can only hope that that is true.
Many workers in Greater Yellowstone, whether you are talking about Yellowstone or Grand Teton National Parks, or the various businesses in the gateway communities and other towns like Big Sky, are not able to afford housing. In order to attract workers, many of the businesses and concessions provide employee housing and sometimes also the food and other goods at a fee that workers can afford. Such dependence on one employer for all these particular services can be dangerous, but in truth, it is not nearly as dangerous as it was for miners and other workers in the era of company towns -- like Andrew Carnegie's Homestead -- because most workers in Greater Yellowstone probably could have found work elsewhere. Thus, for the vast majority of workers, even perhaps the foreign workers who often spend upwards of $2,000 to an agent just to get to the United States in order to start work, we are not talking about oppression against labor in the same way that we see in the sweatshops throughout the world.
Nevertheless, workers in parts of Greater Yellowstone are intended to be kept fully separate from the visitors, both wealthy and middle class, that they serve. In my five summers in Grant Village during the 1990s, I lived in employee dorms provided by my employer, ate in an employee dining room provided by the same employer, and spent my money mostly in the store in which I worked. Grant Village is set up so that each concession's housing is kept separate. Some live in dormitories and cabins while others live in employee campgrounds. Concessions employees are separated from National Park Service employees. The only place all might come together is in the employee pub.
So, there is a whole physical and social world that most visitors never see, and there is a visitor world that many employees never see. I have never been to the Park Service employee area or inside a Grant Village cabin, and for the most part I've been to the campground when I stayed there as a visitor. The rules are often set up to discourage a lot of interaction between visitors and employees. My time at Hamilton Stores came with rules regulating the length of my hair, prohibiting facial hair, and telling us who we were allowed to let into the dorms, including how we may interact with workers from the other concessions. Given that most employees hated the tourist class, it was not a burdensome segregation. While there was acknowledgment that without the tourists there were no jobs, there was generally a wide cultural separation between the workers -- whether young or old -- and the tourists -- whether young or old. Many workers assumed tourists to be stupid -- giving them the name tourons -- and assumed they were more concerned with shopping for souvenirs than with the magical wonders all around them. I knew of many workers who would cheer when a tourist was gored by a bison or hurt by thermal features, happy that there was some sort of "justice" for the arrogance of most of the tourists whose money paid their wages.
Many workers, separated from each other, developed suspicions of other workers. I remember that among waiters and waitresses in the Village Grill, there were several who claimed that Park Rangers were notorious for not tipping and hated what they called their big self-important egos. There was a divide in Grant Village between the Xanterra and the Yellowstone Park Service Station employees -- who sometimes socialized because they ate in the same Employee Dining Rooms -- and those who worked for Hamilton's (now Delaware North), often based on age (Xanterra and YPSS employees tended to be younger than the general store employees) but sometimes based on class (the assumption was that Xanterra employees tended to be poorer). In any job, younger and older employees often squabbled over noise and were often separated into different parts of the dormitories. Many older employees were married and/or lived in campgrounds and so lived separately from the single employees. Married workers had nicer dormitories. Most workers were friendly with their immediate store management, but there was suspicion of the management in headquarters. At Ham's, rumors about the wealth of the Povah's (owners of Hamilton Stores) spread, and there was a general assumption that they were cheapskates who could and should pay their workers better. If a worker defended the Povah's, it was often by comparing themselves against the workers at the other concessions. On my August 2006 visit to Yellowstone, workers at Delaware North told me how disgruntled they were with the owners and at least missed the consistency of the previous regime.
Outside of Yellowstone, the story is certainly more diverse but not as drastically different as you might expect. Not all businesses provide housing, and most don't have the "company town" feel of the concessions of Yellowstone. Nevertheless, the price of housing is absolutely outrageous. Land for sale is not only scarce, it is highly desired by some of the richest people in the United States. Many of them move to the region for views of the Tetons or to live in the luxurious Big Sky area, where they can be members of the Yellowstone Club. In fact, the environmental benefit that comes from restricting private land access has been an incredible boon to the super rich. Yet, as a result, housing remains scarce for those who "clean the toilets." Many places like the Big Sky resort must provide housing for their employees, and the rights of workers in such situations is scarce to none. The only protection is the labor shortage, but in an environmet where you can't otherwise afford to live, it is small comfort to be able to work if you cannot provide for your own shelter. In some cases, workers who have lost jobs with one employer cannot find work with another. During my first summer in Yellowstone, a worker lost his job with Hamilton Stores after his former boss at TW (the predecessor of Xanterra) had talked to my boss about him. He had been hired and was doing good work for Hamilton's, but his past run-in with his employer had now cost him a chance to finish a summer in Yellowstone.
Without workers, there is no tourism in Greater Yellowstone. They should not be subjected to the humiliation and class treatment that they inevitably suffer from in the area due to various prejudices and class differences that exist in the society at large. It is a remarkable privilege that anyone at all can afford property in the paradise of Greater Yellowstone, and it is sickening that people in Big Sky would use the value of their property as a reason to keep workers from living in the motel that has been provided for them. The property values in the region are already far too high as it is, and the workers are already forced into a situation where they are at the mercy of their employers. Because workers may be more prone to certain types of crime (a stereotype that by itself deserves a column) and may as a result drive property values down is sour grapes. Why should the workers that are depended on to raise the value of the property be separated in order to raise the property value further? Class hierarchy already comes with a price, as I have already argued in my essay, Yellowstone and class. Raising property values on the backs of workers comes hand-in-hand in Greater Yellowstone with the appreciation of animals, wildlife, and features for their own sake. The value of seeing a nature that rises above human artifice is inconsistent with de-valuing the workers who make this illusion possible.
In fact, one should hope that the complaint of these Big Sky residents is essentially correct and that the value of the property in Big Sky decreases as a result of the motel being occupied by workers. Any leveling of the property value can only have the tendency to bring to the surface the obvious class prejudices that exist between members of all social classes. Instead of workers being hidden away in the employee dormitories or the wealthy in expensive hotel rooms, or the middle class in the lodges and campgrounds, all stewing in the perceptions that exist from being segregated, it is far better in my mind that the differences be allowed to blossom. In a wild area like Yellowstone, in places like the Lamar Valley, wildlife engage each other in a battle for their own survival. Like people who enjoy gladiator battles, many come out with their cameras and spotting scopes for a peek at the battles of the natural kingdom, as though because of our civilization we are immune from it. Instead, we have tucked it away and let it build beneath the surface. In our cities, in the Homesteads and company towns of the past, these situations have exploded like powder kegs. There have been horrible riots, and many people have died in situations that only could rise in a world of class oppression. The rich of Big Sky, the rich and middle class tourists of Yellowstone, and the rich of Jackson believe they have all escaped the pollution of the cities for their own privileged wonderland, one they further convince themselves is a privilege shared by all humans. Yet, we can see that there is no escaping the fact that we all eat and urinate, get dirty, and therefore still have the remotest relationship to our animal nature no matter where we are. Even then, we hide it in sewage, in laundromats,in meatpacking plants, and on ranches and farms. In Greater Yellowstone, it takes a working class to perpetuate the illusion that we are totally separated from the National Geographic moments in the Lamar Valley. Thus, there is always a working class living in close proximity to a wealthy class. One can only hope that by bringing that relationship out in the open that the truth is exposed.
Yet, the thought that the workers of Greater Yellowstone will actually contribute to decreasing the property value for the rich in places like Big Sky, of course, is a very unlikely scenario. In fact, the workers have made the property owners of Big Sky just that much wealthier. Visitors, no matter their attitudes toward workers or vice versa, continue to flock to Yellowstone (even if workers are not always quite so eager to do the same despite the obvious benefits of such work), and the class gulf that continues to widen will most likely still only flare up where it is most acute, in the large cities.
This is very sad to me because I don't understand why a place as beautiful and as special as Greater Yellowstone must exist as a sickening and bizarre microcosm of the abuses of the larger society. Why are buffalo, wolves, and grizzlies essentially treated either as nuissance animals or as heroic curiosities? I sometimes feel the same about the Yellowstone worker, although the "heroic curiosity" label is reserved only for the rangers. You cannot imagine the sense of disappointment people get when I tell them I wasn't a ranger in Yellowstone but rather worked for a concessionaire. Just as buffalo shouldn't be penned and just as they at the same time shouldn't be put on a pedestal at the expense of other wild animals, the workers of Greater Yellowstone shouldn't be banished to the netherworlds, certainly not on the basis of someone else's property value; they are already penned enough. Much can said for the argument that the parceling of land into private property has been an extreme detriment to all that makes the area beautiful and special. So, anything that works against such a system is welcome to me.
Some argue that the tourist economy is the only thing that has protected it from mineral and agricultural development. If that is true, how pathetic. That is only a greater blight on civilized society at large and should only encourage a greater resistance against it. It suggests that we are all beholden to the company town, the one run by the tourist industry, and how we should thank our lucky stars that we are not stuck in the mining towns of old. Why should we assume that one form of oppression must exist? We have no reason to make such assumptions. And, if we did have reason, why should we feel happy with such a world? For crying out loud, let the workers in Big Sky stay at the motel; it's already ugly enough for workers as it is without this insult.
At some point, we have to challenge the right to property, the rationale on which it stands, and the million abuses that are the consequence of this prejudice. It is a prejudice that goes far beyond Greater Yellowstone and its workers. Nevertheless, in Yellowstone, we can see plainly why the prejudice is so disgusting. If you destroy the class system among people, it will be easier to see the ways in which we continue to perpetrate systems of oppression throughout existence, to plants, animals, the water, and the land. In places like Yellowstone, we still see that enlightening hope even if the picture we see is largely an illusion built on the same systems of oppression. It is time we see the irony of it and begin to do something about it. One can only hope that we can stand with workers, with the land, and with the animals against the absurdities that arise in the Yellowstone that's hidden from view. In the short term, let us hope that the workers in Big Sky are not forced to be segregated more than they already are.
For more on Jim and his relationship with Yellowstone, see the The Magic of Yellowstone. Similar themes have also been developed in his essays: Yellowstone and class and Anarchy in Yellowstone: A people’s history of Yellowstone National Park?
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