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April 24, 2019

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Arguing against card check, Ensign cites election that never was

National Labor Relations Board backs Culinary’s version of how it organized MGM Grand

Nevada Sen. John Ensign revised Las Vegas labor history this week when talking on a cable television public affairs show about the dangers of the card-check bill pending in Congress.

Ensign said MGM Grand employees held a secret ballot election more than a decade ago in which they rejected the Culinary Union’s attempt to organize. Later, after the Culinary cut a deal with management, the union strong-armed workers into organizing even though 70 percent of them had voted “no” in the election, he said.

The story, Ensign said, is an example of “how powerful getting rid of the secret ballot is, and how much intimidation and how fast it can happen.”

In fact, no election was ever held at the MGM Grand, according to the National Labor Relations Board, thus the Culinary cannot also be accused of muscling workers to change their votes. From the outset, the union requested a card check, but the company refused. MGM demanded a secret ballot election, setting off a years-long organizing battle, which the union ultimately won in 1997.

Ensign could not be reached for comment.

The comments came last month during a taping of “Eye on Washington with Marilee Joyce” on Las Vegas ONE. The show aired this week.

“You have 70 percent of employees vote against the union and all of a sudden you have the right to a secret ballot taken away and instantly the union is able to come in,” Ensign said. “That doesn’t tell you what people really want in their workplace.”

Ensign’s remarks track closely with the words of his fellow Republicans and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has launched a multimillion-dollar campaign painting the bill as anti-democratic. “It’s un-American,” Ensign said. “People have been choosing not to be members of unions. And they shouldn’t have intimidation in the workplace just to falsely prop up union membership rolls so union bosses can have more dues to spend on political campaigns.”

On Wednesday, as union leaders staged a rally of hundreds on Capitol Hill, delivering what they said were 1.5 million signatures in support of card check, more than 50 members of the National Association of Manufacturers met with lawmakers to lobby against the bill.

Meanwhile, Republican senators have held up the nomination of Obama’s pick for labor secretary, Rep. Hilda Solis, after she declined to fully explain her position on the bill, saying she had yet to discuss the legislation with Obama, even though she had voted for it in Congress.

The stakes are high for both sides.

In the interview, Ensign called card check a “do-or-die” issue for Republicans. He said the bill’s passage would condemn his party to minority status for decades.

The legislation would make it easier for workers to organize. Unions could gain recognition as soon as a majority of workers signed cards, instead of winning a secret-ballot election, a process that labor has long derided as favoring employers. Labor advocates say companies use mandatory informational meetings, among other tools, to threaten and intimidate workers in the run-up to an election.

If anything, the MGM Grand story highlights labor’s arguments.

As policy, the Culinary organizes exclusively through card checks, in part because of its experience with the Santa Fe resort in 1993. Believing it had majority support and the cooperation of the owner, the union ran a conventional organizing campaign and won an election to represent the resort’s workers. The owners disputed the result and dragged out the appeals and bargaining process until 1999, when the property was sold to Station Casinos. Station then dismissed the workers in a wholesale firing.

In fact, by the time the MGM Grand opened in December 1993, the Culinary had set a card-check precedent on the Strip. Four years earlier, it won the right from casino mogul Steve Wynn at the Mirage and incorporated a succession clause into its contracts with operators, subjecting each new resort to immediate card check. Among the operators who signed such agreements was Mike Ensign, the senator’s father, who ran Mandalay Resort Group. The irony isn’t lost on Culinary leader D. Taylor, who dismissed Sen. Ensign’s remarks as “complete fiction.”

“His father was party to many card checks, and we commended him for it,” Taylor said. “We never had a problem.”

MGM, however, was a fierce opponent, opening nonunion and demanding that the union go through the election process if it wanted recognition. The union refused, instead picketing the property and running a public-relations campaign. It also conducted opposition research on members of the parent company’s board of directors. The union created bad publicity for the directors, who often sat on other corporate boards. The union attacked those other companies as well. Soon enough, sitting on the MGM board became more trouble than it was worth, and MGM was forced to deal.

According to federal labor board documents, the Culinary won nearly 53 percent support in its card check. As contract negotiations dragged on, though, more than half the bargaining unit (about 1,900 out of 3,100 employees) signed a petition for an election to decertify the union, saying they had been cut out of the process. The federal labor board, however, dismissed the petition, and workers ratified their first contract in 1997.

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