Thursday, Dec. 11, 2008 | 2 a.m.
The Culinary Union, emboldened by November election victories, is fighting on new ground and trying to punish its enemies.
Its immediate goal: block Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman’s plan to build a new city hall — and dish out some payback to the federation of construction unions that supports Goodman’s efforts.
With the Democratic wave and the union’s role as the most important institution in the Democratic coalition, Culinary leaders are taking on a broader public policy agenda that addresses such concerns of its members as education, health care and — in the case of city hall — use of taxpayer dollars.
D. Taylor, Culinary secretary-treasurer, said as much:
“We are an organization that should not be pigeonholed around contract time. Our members’ children go to the schools here. They want public safety. They want good health care, if they themselves are laid off long enough. There is a general angst. The government should be talking about a safety net and caring for them and not building a quarter of a billion dollar Taj Mahal city hall.”
Taylor suggested the union was stepping up to fill a void of civic and community activism. “In this fiscally-distressed time, we need to worry about the citizens in a way that they expect government to worry about them,” he said.
The mayor and the Southern Nevada Building and Construction Trades Council say building a new city hall will provide jobs during a construction downturn and open up coveted land, triggering private development that would help revitalize downtown. The building trades are led by Steve Ross, a member of the city council and a strong supporter of the city hall project.
Steve Redlinger, a spokesman for the building trades, likened the city’s redevelopment plans to President-elect Barack Obama’s plans to invest heavily in public works. “We think these times call for investing in these types of public works projects, complete with good-paying jobs with benefits,” he said.
The Culinary disagrees and thinks it has the clout to stop the plan.
The union began the year with an embarrassing defeat. Although the union endorsed Obama, the majority of its members crossed over and supported his opponent New York Sen. Hillary Clinton.
Next, a few prominent Democrats took campaign contributions from Venetian owner Sheldon Adelson, one of the most prominent Republican fundraisers in the country, and sworn enemy to the Culinary.
The union has long protected its image as being the institution with more clout than anyone at the ballot box, and, thus, in the Legislature. That meant husbanding power and using it sparingly while avoiding defeat. Following the caucus defeat and the Adelson humiliation, many in the state’s political establishment whispered — prematurely, it seems — of Culinary’s decline.
But the union helped Democrat state Sen. Steven Horsford, who also heads up the Culinary Training Academy, take the upper chamber with two victories over Republican incumbents. Democratic operatives say they were instrumental. Plus, in Obama, they have a friend in the White House.
So now it’s time to settle some unfinished business. First up, the building trades, a federation of unions said to represent 20,000 workers.
This fight is merely the most public in an emerging feud.
“Mostly this is the growing divide between the Culinary and the construction trades,” said a lobbyist with ties to the Strip who asked to remain anonymous to discuss sensitive union business. “It’s been growing, and the chasm has grown wider and deeper than ever the last few months.”
The lobbyist said the Culinary believes it has backed the building trades, but has received nothing in return. He cited the trades’ decision to remain neutral when the teachers union sued the state Democratic Party to shut down Democratic presidential caucus sites on the Strip in January. That was seen as a direct attack on the Culinary, whose members were the ones using the sites to caucus in large numbers.
In its battles with Adelson and the nonunion Station Casinos, the building trades have declined to back the Culinary.
Now the Culinary has filed papers to ensure the city hall plan — pushed hard by Goodman and approved unanimously by the City Council — for the $250 million city hall must be approved by the voters.
Another initiative would cut down the city redevelopment arm, which the union claims is nothing more than a gift bag for developers that fails to give voters enough return for schools, parks, police or guarantees that new jobs be union.
Redlinger disputed any broader conflict with the Culinary.
“The reality is you’ve got a union and a group of unions that frankly represent different industries and different interests,” he said. “The Culinary has to stick up for their interests. We have to stick up for ours.”
He said the split with the Culinary was rare, and should not be read by management as a sign that labor can be split. “When push comes to shove we stick up for each other,” he said. “There are times, unfortunately, when our interests diverge, and this is one of those cases.”
In fact, he said, the trades hope to work with the Culinary in the upcoming legislative session.
Despite both sides claiming otherwise, there is little doubt of a widening rift. The Culinary this year withdrew from the political program of the AFL-CIO, which, without the casino workers union, is dominated by the building trades.
Taylor “decided he found a place where he could send a message to the trades, and he’s sending that message,” the lobbyist said.
The Culinary has money and organization, as well as a compelling message in a recession — that now is no time to build an expensive city hall while schools and other city services suffer.
By most accounts, the Culinary probably wouldn’t have taken on a fight with the building trades if it wasn’t fairly certain of victory.