Sunday, Jan. 22, 2012 | 2 a.m.
An escalating conflict between the city’s dominant, homegrown casino company and the state’s most aggressive, successful labor organization has emerged from the shadows of resorts to the brightness of the public square, threatening to force politicians to take sides and to inflict collateral damage on others inside and outside Nevada.
The Culinary Union’s cutthroat, guerilla tactics, used for years against casinos with Strip ZIP codes, have been deployed for months now against locals goliath Station. But the previously sub rosa effort, which has included complaints with federal authorities and letters to potential Station customers, now has sparked a multimedia counterattack unlike any the union — or Las Vegas — has ever seen.
(Go to my blog at lasvegassun.com/ralston to see samples of the Station and Culinary campaigns. You can also see Thursday’s Station vs. Culinary on “Face to Face With Jon Ralston.”)
The stakes here are enormous, especially for the union, and are much broader than whether this conflagration allows the Culinary in the door at Station properties after decades of trying. After a year in which other vaunted unions — especially the firefighters — saw a public backlash as the economy worsened and government tanked, the Culinary is vulnerable during a time in which other working folks are thankful just to have a job or angry about not having one.
For years, Local 226 has been seen as perhaps the most potent grassroots political force in Nevada, able to singlehandedly sway elections, mostly in local and legislative contests. But the union suffered a blow in 2008 when it went out on a limb for Barack Obama only to see Hillary Clinton, aided by her husband and others, win the state by 5 percentage points.
Now, on the cusp of another presidential year, and with critical races for the U.S. Senate, the Legislature and Clark County Commission, the Culinary is taking on a political player that has only become more influential, pouring money into elected official coffers from Carson City to Grand Central Parkway.
The Station ad campaign is motivated both by frustration and anger at the Culinary tactics, which have included websites to pillory board members and companies deemed too friendly to Station (Zappos) as well as those letters to potential guests and performers. The union has been relentless, as it always is, writing to entertainers and convention organizers, outlining the National Labor Relations Board complaint that has yielded a preliminary victory on 87 counts — that is, they were not dismissed. In one missive to an agent of a performer at Red Rock Resort, the union wrote, “Station Casinos is mired in an ugly, contentious labor dispute that is creating growing ill will in the Las Vegas community.”
The Station response has been to try to create some ill will of its own in the community toward the Culinary, with a series of ads portraying the union as a job-killer, not job-creator. And the Fertittas are a different strain from others the Culinary has run its marathon campaigns against, integrated into the community and power structure in a way few Culinary foes ever have been. They may engender sympathy that the union does not anticipate.
Some who have been here awhile will feel a sense of déjà vu, with the argument of the union insisting on employees simply signing a card to embrace the union vs. Station saying a secret-ballot election is allowed and welcomed. Both sides are disingenuous on this, with the union knowing how much easier a card check process is — and casinos have submitted in the past — and the employer having many advantages to dissuade, even intimidate, if a secret ballot were to occur.
Station, ironically, seems to have Culinary-like resolve, buttressed by the Ferttitas’ pride and deep pockets as well as the reality that no other locals company has been unionized, so it’s a competitive imperative, too. This is an endurance test the company seems prepared to win, going so far as to hire former union ally Mike Sloan to help plot strategy.
The Culinary, too, shows no signs of relenting and last year expanded its assault to the jewel in the Fertitta crown, the Ultimate Fighting Championship, sending boss Dana White into rhetorical paroxysms of fury caught on camera. Maybe White will be featured in the next round of anti-Culinary ads?
I also wonder if the Culinary can count on the support it has enjoyed in the past from the Democratic political elite. Many Democrats, warned by the union about having events on Station properties, are raking in the company’s cash as the year begins.
And therein lies the real collateral damage that may occur as, sooner or later, folks in the political and business worlds are going to be asked to take sides in a labor-management war that could make the ones since the 1984 Strip strike look tame.