Call of the Wild


Unity is Second Nature to Teamster Drivers at Denali National Park

There once was a man named Ken Wilbert who lived in a log cabin on the side of a mountain. He drove a bus through the Alaskan wilderness, giving visitors from around the world a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience the stark beauty that is Denali National Park and Preserve.

The other drivers looked up to him and his leadership, and as the working conditions at the park they loved so much began to deteriorate, they found themselves climbing up the side of that mountain, to the log cabin, where they would all meet.

They may not have realized it at the time, but they were at the beginning of a journey that would change their lives and the lives of future generations of workers at the park.

“Ken is legendary at the park for what he and the original team started,” said Rick Boyles, Secretary-Treasurer of Local 959 in Anchorage, Alaska. “This group is one of the most amazing I’ve seen in my 43-year Teamster career; they’re super strong and always looking out for each other. It’s a group effort, and we give them the best representation we can.”

Those meetings involved conversations about what needed to change, and as a result, in 1995, the drivers formed the Denali National Park Professional Drivers Association.

Aramark had already won the contract for the park when the association was formed and first-year driver wages had been cut by as much as $10 per hour.

The association worked tirelessly to secure improvements to wages and working conditions over the years, and eventually built further strength by affiliating with Local 959. As Teamsters, they negotiated contracts with higher wages and better benefits, while working toward an eventual win in 2007 that ensured all park concession employees were covered under a prevailing wage law from which they were formerly excluded.

The legal case brought on by Local 959 ensured that drivers in the park would be covered by the McNamara-O’Hara Service Contract Act (SCA), guaranteeing not only the prevailing wage but resulting in over $1 million in back pay.

Today, the 140 drivers and Local 959 have a positive working relationship with the company and the National Park Service.

Persistence Pays Off

Ken Wilbert no longer drives at the park due to health, but his friends are grateful for the union effort he started years ago.

“He was tireless, organized and never intimidated. He could tell you to go to hell in a way that made you look forward to the trip,” said Terry Grabow, a 33-year driver at the park. Grabow is one of the original core group that also includes Scott Johnson and Jeralyn Hath, who have 25 years and 40 years at the park, respectively.

Grabow’s laugh echoes at the end of his sentence, reflecting a positivity and lightness of spirit that is shared by this tight-knit community of adventurers who love their jobs and lives. While this is not a group that takes themselves seriously, these drivers did apply an intense focus to the task of organizing at the park.

Grabow detailed the complex, protracted and ultimately rewarding history of the efforts to organize, negotiate strong contracts and win the prevailing wage designation under the SCA.

“We decided our goals, signed a petition, passed out cards, kept going back to the company, sent letters, documented everything, and since we were Bambi’s at the legal process, we contacted the Teamsters,” Grabow said.

“When I started in 1976, the shuttle bus drivers got $4 an hour and the tour bus drivers got $6 an hour,” Hath said, referencing the thick binders in which the team meticulously documented wage rates and working conditions, as well as all of their struggles and successes over the years.

Now the starting rate is $29 an hour, with overtime and a wage rate based on weeks of service. There is also holiday pay, a year-end bonus, a Teamster pension plan, seniority and the protections that come with a strong union contract.

The drivers work seasonally, from around May to September, when the park road is open. Their Teamster contract provides for a stable job that the drivers can come back to year after year.

“At 23 years, I’m halfway on the seniority list. That’s a great sign,” Peter Berman said.

Twenty-three years ago, Berman had just finished a year of law school, when he saw an ad in the paper for a summer job in Alaska.

“I didn’t know it would turn out to be one of the best driving jobs in the world. It’s stunningly beautiful, you never know what you’re going to see and we work with very interesting people.”

Berman and his co-workers drive either tour buses that give narrated wildlife tours or shuttle buses which provide low-key bus access to the park for backpackers and individuals.

Bear Pressure

Denali National Park is 6 million acres of sprawling wilderness that attracts about 600,000 visitors annually. The park celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. The main feature of the park is Denali, which at 20,310 feet is the highest peak in North America. From Polychrome Pass, elevation 3,695, the view of Denali is that of a postage stamp come to life—instantly recognizable, it dwarfs the surrounding brown and red-hued mountains glazed with snow.

On a tour of the park in which Berman navigates the single gravel road which stretches for 90 miles, he jokes about a challenge unique to the job—“bear pressure.” Unlike run-of-the-mill office job pressures, bear pressure is the desire to provide visitors with the full experience of seeing a grizzly or black bear.

The park is home to not only bears, but moose, wolves, caribou, sheep and many other animals.

“That’s a marmot,” Berman said, pointing to a cute, large squirrel-like rodent. “Right over there, a caribou once came out of the water with a wolf on its back—out of nowhere—that’s one of the cool things about this job, you never know what’s going to happen.”

Teamsters at Denali not only receive training every year on driving, they also receive 40 hours of instruction in wildlife education. The drivers are Certified Interpretive Guides, through a program offered by the National Association of Interpretation.

“We keep coming back because we feel we are really giving people an education,” said Sarah Clyce, a 17-year driver who gives seven-to-eight-hour tours at the park and is a driver trainer. “The first tour is between 4 and 5 a.m., and the last bus comes in around midnight, so we’re nearly a 24-hour operation.”

“It’s one of those places that grabs hold of you, and bottom line, we love the Teamsters!” said Cindy Muller, a former school bus dispatch worker.

Muller points out that every day is unpredictable at Denali.

“Today it’s in the 70s and just the other day we suddenly got eight inches of snow,” said Muller, who owns a home outside the park.

Just One More Summer

Some drivers live in their own log cabins outside Denali, while others live in park-provided shared housing, but they all appear to live in the present.

In wintertime, Denali drivers can be found working in Antarctica, Costa Rica or any number of locales throughout the United States. Every summer, they are reunited at the park.

They chose this life, and they not only chose to be Teamsters, but choose to be Teamsters every day, through their continual commitment to the park and to each other.

No Going Back

“I came here as a visitor on a cruise ship. I already had a CDL and thought I could do this for the summer. I came back just one more summer, just one more summer, just one more summer,” Johnson said.

Hath and Grabow laugh, knowingly. Johnson, seated across from Hath in a coffee shop where Wilbert, a craftsman, built all the furniture, recalls the day Hath knocked on his door to discuss the union organizing drive. From there, he said, “there was no going back.”

Johnson has worked at Denali for 25 years and met his wife at the park.

Evan Knouse, a shuttle driver from California, met his Kansan bride-to-be at Denali in 2013, where she worked in the coffee shop.

Anna Hinckley was making $8 an hour at the coffee shop, where she first learned about the union. She said when the drivers won the SCA lawsuit, not only bus drivers, but all people in the park under that concessions contract saw their wages go up, and suddenly she was making $17 an hour. Now she’s a driver.

“People like Anna, that’s our future,” Johnson said. “We need to be the guardians of the park and carry that forward.”

Hinckley, 33, also thought she’d spend “just one summer” at Denali. She’s been at Denali for 10 years and met her husband there.

“This is the family that I love and it’s what I call home,” Hinckley said.

While in union vernacular, a “steward” is understood to refer to a “shop steward,” these Teamsters view themselves additionally as stewards of the park.

“When people come here, we get to be their stewards,” said Hinckley, full of energy and enthusiasm. “We are their connection with the park, and maybe we inspire them to find a local park at home, or to grow a garden—find something to connect with and pass on to their kids or grandkids. They get to talk with us and we get to share our connection with the park and the natural environment.”

“Everyone here is trying to achieve the same goal of taking care of the park, showing people the park and giving them an appreciation for something we all love,” Johnson said.

Humbling Experience

While Alaska is a huge state, Denali is a small town. The nearest urban center is Fairbanks, about two-and-a-half hours away.

“When you live in a community like this, you get to know your neighbors, co-workers and friends. When you go to town, you pick up the phone and ask your neighbors, what can I get for you?” Johnson said.

“It’s a very diverse group with this shared passion. We live together during the summer, we eat together, and in the winter wherever you’re traveling, you’ve got friends to stay with,” Grabow said.

Eileen Whitmer, business agent with Local 959, couldn’t be happier to work with the members at Denali.

“They’re very welcoming and they’ve always been great at communicating,” Whitmer said. “More recently, they’ve broken into communication network groups, so that the Board and Associate Field Representatives [shop stewards] can individually talk with every driver about the union, answer questions, and explain the history, to keep them informed and active.”

Communication is critical for a local like 959, which represents about 5,000 members spread throughout the nation’s largest state, including pipeline workers, Air Force and military base workers, Alaska Railroad workers, coal miners, workers who build the ice roads on the North Slope and more. On a recent weekend, Local 959, in conjunction with the International Union, hosted a training for nearly 100 shop stewards from across the state, including Kat Krueger, who works at Denali.

“I was a shop steward at First Student, and now at Denali,” Krueger said. “I have the world’s greatest job!”

After the training she returned to Denali, where she was mentored by Wilbert, who Gary Borenstein recalls fondly. Borenstein has spent 20 winters at Denali and worked at the park for 39 summers. The camper bus driver originally from Bronx, N.Y., pointed out that Hillary Clinton worked at Denali washing dishes many summers ago.

Bigger Than Driving

There are many stories at Denali. While growing up, Jen Harris heard stories about the park from family friends. She’s worked at Denali for 27 years—14 years as a driver, and prior to that, 13 years in foodservice, predominantly baking.

Harris has a master’s degree in mental health counseling and said “there is nothing more rewarding than seeing what’s valuable in life. I see that here when I see visitors weeping at the beauty of Polychrome Pass.”

It’s 10:30 p.m., summer in Alaska, and dusk has yet to settle over the mountains behind Harris.

“It’s bigger than just driving a bus,” Harris said. She pauses for a moment. “Being here is a humbling experience.”