Friday, June 16, 2000 | 11:14 a.m.
The Culinary Union declared a partial victory in its eight-year organizing battle at the Santa Fe hotel-casino Thursday, but called on new owner Station Casinos Inc. to "do the right thing" and negotiate a contract with the property's 700-800 union-eligible workers.
Station is acquiring the northwest Las Vegas property for $205 million from Santa Fe Gaming Corp., a company controlled by Paul and Sue Lowden. Since winning a National Labor Relations Board election at the Santa Fe in 1993, the Culinary Union has waged a high-profile, often vicious feud with the Lowdens, and the two sides were never able to negotiate a contract.
If Station does negotiate a contract with the union after closing on the sale later this year, it would become the first Station property to have large-scale union organization.
Union officials, accompanied by national AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, said the sale was a victory similar to the end of the six-year strike at the Frontier, which ended in January 1998 with the sale of the north Strip property from the Elardi family to Phil Ruffin.
"I think we're all encouraged by the news that the Santa Fe casino is coming under new ownership, and we're very hopeful the new owner will sit down and begin bargaining with the workers," Sweeney said. "These workers are going to win eventually. These people (Station) will have to bargain at some point."
Glenn Christenson, chief financial officer of Station, said the decision is ultimately up to the employees of the Santa Fe.
"We don't decide whether the employees at Santa Fe will be represented," Christenson said. "That's the employees' decision, not ours. If a majority of the employees want a union, of course we'll negotiate with them, because we're a law-abiding company and we're required by law to do that."
D. Taylor, staff director at the Culinary, said Station will be obligated to honor the 1993 election results if it retains a majority of the Santa Fe employees. Christenson said that's his understanding of labor law as well.
Sweeney compared the protracted battle at the Santa Fe to a national struggle by labor organizations across the country. His voice growing to a near-shout, Sweeney called on Las Vegas city and business officials to stop tolerating "corporate criminals" and "greedy CEOs who pay their workers the lowest wages in the industry and themselves the highest wages in their industry."
"This is a situation that is morally indefensible," Sweeney said. "This happens to be a very ugly example of everything that's wrong with this country. It's unbelievable after seven years that we don't have a union contract at the Santa Fe.
"The disease that infected Santa Fe Gaming ... is growing like a cancer across this country."
Janie Turney, a Santa Fe cocktail waitress who serves on the Santa Fe's organizing committee, said employees at the property were upbeat about their chances at success under Station.
"Regardless of the ownership, our needs have not changed," Turney said. "All of the people (at Santa Fe) were very excited about the change in ownership, and plan to be with this company for many years to come. We feel very good that we'll be able to negotiate in good faith with (Station)."
For the Culinary, Station remains a big question mark. While the Culinary has representation at most Strip properties, notably excluding the Venetian, it has made no inroads into organizing the booming locals casino market since winning the election at the Santa Fe.
Station is the largest player in the locals market, and the only union employees working within the company are a handful of warehouse workers at the Palace Station represented by the Teamsters.
Christenson said the union question was one issue that would be examined by a transition team that will oversee the integration of the Santa Fe into Station.
"They're going to evaluate the operations ... and certainly one of the things they'll have to evaluate is the staffing of Santa Fe Station," Christenson said. "Once they finish their report, they'll give recommendations to senior management on how we get Santa Fe into the Station brand in the most efficient, cost-effective way. Then when we've developed a strategy, we'll articulate it to all interested parties."
Taylor declined to say whether the Santa Fe sale could potentially open the door for organization at other Station properties.
"I don't want to make this (battle) any bigger or smaller than it is already," Taylor said. "We ultimately have to do that ... but we have to finish business here.
"There's no way we can avoid Station, but right now we're focused on getting a contract at Santa Fe."
Christenson also said that his company is focusing on Santa Fe, rather than possible organization at its other properties.
"Right now, we're not focusing on anything but the Santa Fe," Christenson said. "It doesn't do any good to speculate."
Limited resources, Taylor said, mean that the union can't focus on every non-union property at once. Now, the Santa Fe and the Venetian are at the top of the Culinary's list, though Taylor said other organizing efforts are being planned. He declined to say which properties would be targeted next.
"The places on the Strip have fought us viciously," Taylor said. "Every time we try to establish a union in a non-union environment, it's a vicious struggle.
"Our goal in Las Vegas is to organize every non-union casino, regardless of ownership. We ultimately will do that, but on our timeline."