Wednesday, March 19, 2008 | 2 a.m.
After a bitter organizing campaign last year, 10 stagehands based at the Orleans voted for union representation at three Boyd Gaming casinos.
They sought better wages and benefits, approaching those enjoyed by their brethren on the Strip. But nine months later, the stagehands have seen the realities of the modern labor movement when a small band of workers takes on a large company intent on keeping the union out.
Contract negotiations have flat-lined, the workers’ hours have been reduced and they have been excluded from company policies, including the granting of overtime to anyone who works more than eight hours in a single shift.
Worse, the union, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 720, is doing little on their behalf, workers say. They feel abandoned. Some members are so frustrated they are talking about decertifying.
“We don’t know who to blame — is it Boyd Gaming or is it IATSE or is it both?” said Chris Minkema, a stagehand who sits on the union’s negotiating committee. “We feel like we’re stuck in this void, this weird place where no one is on our side and we can’t get answers from anybody. We’ve been left out to dry.”
According to members of the bargaining unit, working conditions began to deteriorate in June, after the union won the election 10-6.
Days before the vote, the company had issued a memo on overtime, promising employees extra compensation if they worked more than eight hours in a single shift. But the lawyer Boyd hired to stave off the union, Mark Garrity, warned the stagehands that if the union won the election, the policy would not apply to them because overtime would become a subject of negotiations.
The company followed through, employees now say.
Overtime pay had been a major reason for the organizing drive, chiefly because stagehands often work double shifts in the run-up to a show or a stage production.
After the company changed its overtime policy for other workers, the stagehands sought explanations but say they ran into a bureaucratic maze. Inquiries were bounced back and forth between supervisors and human resources, they said.
“People are pointing fingers in different directions and no one is taking responsibility for it,” stagehand Chris Martini said.
Then came the cutbacks in work schedules, which was a surprise, workers said, given that Boyd had emphasized the importance of entertainment in its business plan during the union campaign. Some members, they said, saw their hours drop below the 32 a week required to maintain health benefits.
The company blamed the reductions on the sagging economy, stagehands said. The workers said Boyd hired an outside employee and paid him as a consultant to do some of the work the stagehands had performed.
“Guys are at the end of their rope,” said Paul Bordenkircher, a stagehand and a member of the union’s negotiating committee. “Guys are going broke. They’re missing house payments. Everyone is looking for other work.”
On top of it all, they said they were excluded from companywide cost-of-living increases this year. At the same time, management has stepped up on-the-job pressure, something Martini referred to as “micromanaging.”
So where was the union? Stagehands said they haven’t seen a union representative on-site in the nine months since the vote, with the exception of a single discipline incident. The local canceled meetings, sometimes without notice, workers said.
The local’s leaders spurned the notion that they had somehow abandoned the stagehands.
The local did file an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board in October, protesting the change in hours and other working conditions. That case will go before a judge next month.
Union officials say they have opened their hiring hall to the stagehands and referred them to other jobs to supplement their income. Also, negotiators say they are drafting another labor complaint and continue to challenge Boyd at the bargaining table but are largely constrained by a process that favors employers.
“It’s frustrating for us too,” said Dan’l Cook, president of IATSE Local 720, which has won contracts for stagehands at 10 Strip properties. “We’d like to see some action taken. Boyd is doing the bare minimum to satisfy what’s required under the (National Labor Relations Act). And unfortunately, we don’t have the bargaining leverage we had 30 years ago.”
Indeed, the union won an election to represent workers at the Blue Man Group’s show at the Venetian in 2006 and employees still lack a contract. The show’s owner challenged the results in court. The union, with the support of the national labor board, now awaits a decision on the case from the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C.
Gordon Lafer, a professor at the University of Oregon’s Labor Education and Research Center, said labor studies have shown that between 30 percent and 40 percent of unions that win elections never attain a first contract.
Federal labor law is fraught with legal delays and loopholes that often kill organizing campaigns.
(Boyd’s actions on pay policies, for instance, are protected under labor law, because pay is now a topic of negotiation, Lafer said.)
“The more the employer plays hardball the more resources it takes from the union’s side,” he said. “It’s not enough for the union rep to come around and sit at the negotiating committee.”
As a result, many unions have turned to political pressure when talks at the bargaining table stall. But the 1,800-member stagehands local has little political muscle compared with, say, the 60,000-member Culinary Union.
Boyd spokesman Rob Stillwell declined to comment on the stagehands’ complaints, but said pay was a central component of collective bargaining.
“We don’t negotiate any aspect of the contract in the press,” he said. “Obviously this being the first contract makes it complex, but we’re actively negotiating.”