Wednesday, June 18, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Maids at Imperial Palace are fed up — and it’s not just because they say they’re being worked a lot harder than other housekeepers on the Strip. They’re angry at the Culinary Union for not coming to the rescue by organizing them.
The Culinary, they say, could protect them from having to clean 18 to 22 rooms a day; maids represented by the union clean an average of 16.
If ever there were easy pickings for a union organizing drive, they would be the housekeepers at Imperial Palace, it seems.
And they hoped help would be coming when they sat down with a Culinary organizer last month, delivering a petition with 100 signatures. They complained of poor work conditions and having to work through their breaks and lunch hours to complete their quotas of cleaned rooms.
The pressure has caused several maids to faint and sent some to the hospital, and supervisors don’t care, they claim.
Maids say they even staged a small walkout to protest the conditions.
Management concedes the maids may have some grounds to complain. A spokeswoman for the owner of Imperial Palace, Harrah’s Entertainment, said that on Sunday, some maids cleaned as many as 20 rooms because many workers had called out. The workload, she said, was an anomaly. Nevertheless, the company is hiring more full-time maids “to bring the ratio back to normal,” spokeswoman Marybel Batjer said.
But that hasn’t stopped the maids’ campaign to bring in the Culinary.
They said they followed the union’s instructions when it asked for more letters about work conditions.
The Culinary then asked them to compile a list of management names, they said.
But the maids feel they’re just being strung along.
“It’s sad when you have people who want their help, willing to pay union dues, and the union doesn’t want to hear anything,” said one maid, who spoke anonymously because of fear of management reprisal.
Indeed, the Culinary is making no noise about organizing the maids, which seems counterintuitive because it represents about 15,000 other workers employed by Harrah’s Entertainment — and could, by contractual right, organize the maids free from company opposition. Moreover, putting the property’s maids in the union column would leave labor foe Sheldon Adelson’s Venetian and Palazzo as the lone nonunion holdouts on the Strip — not to mention give the union a few hundred more dues-paying members.
But the Culinary’s decision is strategic — and not without precedent.
Culinary Secretary-Treasurer D. Taylor said the union has maintained a long-standing policy of avoiding organizing drives at casinos whose fates are uncertain, and that is the case with Imperial Palace.
“It would be somewhat disingenuous to pick up a place and then see it close,” Taylor said. “The workers are there and then there’s not much you can do. Several thousand workers we represent would have no place to go.”
Taylor cited the example of the Boardwalk casino, which MGM Mirage demolished in 2006 to make room for CityCenter. Rumors of the property’s demise persisted almost from the moment it was purchased by casino mogul Steve Wynn in 1998. So the Culinary held back on organizing its workers.
Likewise, the union stayed away from the Aladdin while its owners went through bankruptcy proceedings, Taylor said. Years later, in 2005, the Culinary organized workers there.
As for Imperial Palace, which was purchased by Harrah’s in 2005, casino industry insiders and Wall Street analysts had expected the company to implode the 29-year-old property to capitalize on its prized Strip location.
The 2,600-room hotel was targeted for redevelopment in 2006, but that plan was delayed when two private equity companies purchased Harrah’s last year. Taylor said the new owners have not clarified their intent, so the union is still assuming Imperial Palace will be razed. Batjer said the hotel is still part of a redevelopment plan.
“There’s no shortage of people who call us to organize,” Taylor said. And workers at properties that seem destined for destruction are last in line, he said.
There may also be another factor at work. The Culinary is spending its energy these days lining up its ducks to try to organize a much larger prize, Station Casinos, a nonunion gaming giant that owns and operates 10 major casinos and employs 14,000 people.
An Imperial Palace maid leading the organizing effort said the Culinary told her “our hands are tied because we’re trying to get Station.”
Taylor acknowledges that the Culinary is targeting Station Casinos, but said that’s not the reason the Culinary hasn’t reached out to Imperial Palace maids.
The Imperial Palace situation is reminiscent of when maids at the San Remo walked out in the 1990s over working conditions and pleaded with the Culinary for representation. The walkout occurred just as the union had won a protracted fight to organize the MGM Grand. The company, which had been stridently anti-union, gave the Culinary a year to organize workers, free from retaliation.
The Culinary decided to throw all of its resources into unionizing the MGM Grand, and declined to organize the maids at San Remo.