Las Vegas Labor Dispute Could Hurt Dems Chances In
The Culinary Union, caught up in a battle to organize
Station Casinos workers, is threatening to sit the
November election out, hurting the party's chances in
By Mark Z. Barabak, Los Angeles Times
5:00 AM PDT, June 7, 2012
LAS VEGAS — The largest, most powerful union in Nevada
has been locked for years in a fierce and bitter battle
with one of Las Vegas' most prominent families. The
skirmish between workers and Station Casinos, owners of
several nonunion slot palaces, is one of the biggest
labor fights in the country.
Now the dispute threatens to spill over into the
presidential campaign, to the detriment of President
Obama, who is set to deliver an education speech
Thursday in Las Vegas, and of fellow Democrats, who are
grappling to gain a U.S. Senate seat to help keep
Nevada's Harry Reid as majority leader.
With 54,000 members, Culinary Union Local 226 is a
potent political force in one of the last bastions of
labor strength. Its voter registration and turnout
operations have contributed much to Democrats' success,
including victories by Obama in 2008 and Reid in 2010.
Democrats are counting on another strong effort as they
build their fall campaign in Nevada, one of 10 or so
battlegrounds that could decide the presidential race.
But the Culinary Union's chief, expressing
disappointment with Democrats and a determination to
focus on other priorities, said the union and its
political organizers may, in effect, sit November out.
"We're in a holding pattern because our first
obligation is our contract," Secretary-Treasurer D.
Taylor said in an interview at Culinary headquarters, a
low-slung industrial building just off the north end of
the Las Vegas Strip. "Then Station. Then politics."
The local is negotiating wages and benefits with the
city's unionized casinos after foregoing a salary hike
during the throes of the recession, which pushed
Nevada's unemployment and foreclosure rates to the
highest in the nation.
"We can't do all three things," Taylor said. "We can
only do two."
Taylor may be bluffing; privately, some Democratic
strategists have suggested as much. He is a famously
tough bargainer and the Culinary Union is known for its
But Taylor's warning, delivered in a customarily bland
monotone, threatens at the least to undermine
Democratic unity and draw state party leaders into a
contentious labor fight they have worked hard to avoid.
Reid, for one, has received tens of thousands of
dollars in campaign contributions from Station Casinos
and its owner, the Fertitta family, giving him friends
and allies on both sides of the fight.
In response, Zac Patkanas, a spokesman for the Nevada
Democratic Party, said: "We are confident that our
allies understand that the road to the White House and
control of the U.S. Senate runs through Nevada, and are
hopeful that they will be able to join us in November
as they have in previous elections."
The Republicans and their presidential nominee, former
Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, have their own
Supporters of TexasRep. Ron Paul, the former White
House hopeful, have taken over the Nevada Republican
Party and gone to war against the national GOP, forcing
Romney to set up his own independent operation.
It is standard procedure for establishment Republicans
used to working around a dysfunctional state party. But
it puts the GOP at a disadvantage, starting from close
to scratch against a Democratic organization, built by
Reid and his team, that is one of the most disciplined
and formidable in the country.
The Culinary Union has been an important cog in that
machine; Local 226, with a membership that is almost
half Latino, has been especially crucial in driving
that key Democratic constituency to the polls.
In 2008, the union had more than 100 people working
full time for three months in the presidential
campaign, helping push Obama to a landslide win in
Nevada. In 2010, when Reid was fighting for his
political life against a tea party challenger, the
union ran shuttle buses from most major casinos
throughout election day, to ensure its members voted.
"They do politics very well," said Brandon Hall, who
managed Reid's campaign.
The fight with Station Casinos follows a long period of
prosperity and labor peace in the heavily unionized
Over the last 40 years, Station has grown from a single
bingo parlor to more than a dozen properties, including
the Red Rock Resort and posh Green Valley Ranch. The
company caters to residents, leaving the high-roller
and tourist trade to the glitzier Strip casinos. It has
been nonunion from the start.
In 2007, Station went private in a leveraged buyout
that loaded the company with debt. Walloped soon after
by the recession, the company declared bankruptcy in
2009. As the company restructured, the Culinary Union
began its aggressive organizing effort.
Starting with marches and rallies, the union's tactics
escalated. It began targeting Station customers and
entertainers who performed at its properties, warning
patrons — intimidating them, from the company's
perspective — that they were wading into a rancorous
Heightening the stakes, the union launched an attack on
the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the Fertittas'
lucrative mixed martial arts franchise, lobbying
lawmakers in Nevada and elsewhere to tighten
The company has responded with a multimillion-dollar
barrage of TV ads, mailers, billboards and even door
hangers — Taylor received one at home — assailing
"union bosses ... trying to kill jobs in Las Vegas."
One television spot, which accuses the union of
undermining the city's lucrative wedding industry, ends
with a Red Rock executive marveling, "Culinary bosses
harassing brides? Wow."
The battling easily overshadowed the February GOP
presidential caucuses, won by Romney, and antagonized
some watching with a mixture of puzzlement and
"It's a rather bizarre thing for the public to
consume," said William Thompson, a University of
Nevada, Las Vegas, expert on the gaming industry.
"People say, 'I don't have a vote, so what the hell are
you wasting my time for?' "
Lately, there has been a cessation of the ad campaign,
if not the hostilities. Still, Taylor insists Democrats
must come to the union's side if they want Culinary's
help in November. In addition to the presidential race,
Nevada has a closely fought U.S. Senate contest between
incumbent Republican Dean Heller and Democratic Rep.
Station said it would accept a secret-ballot election
overseen by the National Labor Relations Board.
Culinary, targeting about 5,000 workers, wants a
process allowing employees to organize if a majority
sign a card requesting union representation. The choice
is up to the company.
"If Democrats viewed [a settlement] as important, they
would really work on it," Taylor said, seated in his
office amid family photos and memorabilia of past
strikes and organizing efforts.
Jeanette Hill, 57, a union member who sweeps up at the
Flamingo hotel-casino, agreed. "At this point, Station
Casinos and our contract fight are more important than
a political campaign," she said. "That's our future
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