Monday, Feb. 2, 1998 | 10:02 a.m.
Their goal was simple: to stay on the picket line at the Frontier hotel-casino "one day longer" than the Elardi family owned the Strip resort.
A few minutes past midnight Sunday, after a historic journey that lasted 6 years, 4 months and 10 days, workers from five striking unions at the Frontier kept their word.
As new owner Phil Ruffin took over, the workers laid down their picket signs and marched triumphantly into the New Frontier alongside some of the biggest names in the labor movement.
Leading the way, amid chants of "union, union," was the spiritual father of the strikers, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and Ruffin, the Kansas industrialist who was the hero of the hour.
Jackson, who had walked the picket line and counseled union leaders several times during the epic labor dispute, called the strike's end a "victory for America."
"Tonight we turn our pain to power," Jackson told a cheering crowd of several thousand. "Tonight we move from dark to light -- new ownership, new leadership, a new day and a real frontier."
Gov. Bob Miller and Sens. Harry Reid and Richard Bryan, both D-Nev., and a host of elected officials joined the strikers, as they ended the nation's longest and most talked-about labor dispute with a night of celebration that stretched into the early morning hours.
"I'm excited," Ruffin said inside, amid the crush of people, the likes of which the Frontier had not seen in 6 1/2 years. "I hope they spend a lot of money."
Ruffin received a key to the city and the thanks of the entire labor movement for buying the Frontier for $165 million from Margaret Elardi and her two sons and turning it back into a union hotel. The Elardis had incurred the wrath of unions across the country for refusing to sign a collective bargaining agreement and taking away the benefits of the Frontier workers.
About 280 of the original 550 strikers from the Culinary Union and four other locals -- Bartenders 165, Teamsters 995, Operating Engineers 501 and Carpenters 1780 -- began returning to work at the Frontier over the weekend under a contract described as the best in the industry.
For Jim Arnold, secretary-treasurer of the 40,000-member Culinary Union, the magnitude of the celebration didn't hit home until he went back inside the Frontier after midnight for the first time since the strike began in September 1991.
Arnold recalled being arrested in an act of civil disobedience the last time he stood on the steps of the Frontier.
"It's very strange being back in here and seeing all of this excitement," Arnold said. "People are crying, hugging and kissing each other. I don't know if there are proper words to explain it."
James Boyd, one of the original strikers, could hardly believe his eyes, as he made his way through the casino.
"I'm glad it's finally over," he said, while the crowd rushed to the lounges to toast the strike's end. "This is great."
The celebration began hours earlier at a massive block party outside the Frontier, where national and local labor leaders hailed the strike as a symbol of the resurgence of the American labor movement.
Unions from New York to California and Florida to Vancouver, British Columbia, joined the festivities.
Richard Trumka, secretary-treasurer of the Washington-based AFL-CIO, reminded the workers of a statement the Elardi family made when the strike began Sept. 21, 1991.
"They said if the union wished to start a war in the state of Nevada, the Elardis will make them wish they never started it," said Trumka, the No. 2 man in the 13-million-member AFL-CIO.
"And our brothers and sisters responded simply by pledging to themselves, to their families and to their community to last one day longer.
"Well, after more than 2,300 days on the line and more human suffering than anyone can possibly imagine, the Frontier strikers have made a passionate statement on behalf of workers in our union from Maine to Mexico. And that message is, we don't start wars, we end them."
Gerald McEntee, international president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, thanked the strikers for showing the "kind of solidarity that has been an inspiration to the entire labor movement."
Not one of the 550 strikers crossed the picket line during the protracted labor dispute.
"You fought for and protected the way of life for millions of families across this nation," said McEntee, one of the country's most active labor leaders.
Added Trumka: "Las Vegas is now a beacon of hope for every working family in our labor movement because Las Vegas is a union city. Las Vegas is where workers and employers and unions can build a new model of labor relations for our country -- a place where businessmen like Phil Ruffin can thrive and where the American dream can survive."
McEntee, who once led a rally of 6,000 of his union members outside the Frontier, chided the Elardi family for refusing to settle with the unions.
"Sisters and brothers, look around," he said. "We stand in a city that gambling has built. People come here every day to play the odds. You know and I know that there is one hard and fast rule when it comes to gambling -- sooner or later, the house is going to win.
"The Elardis forgot that rule. They forgot that in this 6 1/2-year gamble that they weren't the house. Because tonight, the house is calling the bet -- the House of Labor.
"So tonight," McEntee concluded, "when you walk up and down the Strip, remember that no matter how much has been won or lost in the casinos today, you are the biggest winners Las Vegas has seen in a long time, and the Elardis are the biggest losers of all."
At the close of the speech-making outside, Frontier strike coordinator Joe Daugherty presented Trumka and John Wilhelm, secretary-treasurer of the international Culinary Union, with special plaques for leading the national campaign against the Elardi family that brought an end to the strike.
Wilhelm, credited with helping Ruffin reach the deal to buy the Frontier in October, praised Daugherty, who never missed a day of work throughout the strike.
"The man who just read this plaque and gave it to me and Rich is my hero," Wilhelm said. "Joe Daugherty, the strike team and all of the Frontier strikers and all of the union members who stood with them ... have performed a service for working people in Las Vegas and working people throughout America."
Earlier in the day, all of the strikers received plaques inscribed with a statement from Trumka.
"To be a striker at the Frontier," the statement read, "is to be able to say that when you had to fight for your kids and your family and your future, you did not back down."