Labor Smackdown!

In an old-school unionization battle, the gloves come off. Why Station Casinos and the Culinary Union are fighting as if their lives depend on it.

Perhaps you’ve seen the TV ads, the ones in which casino employees stare straight into a camera focused a little too tightly on their faces and recite lines in unnervingly robotic tones regarding how thankful they are not only to be working, but working for Station Casinos. If you find the ads more puzzling, or creepy, than informative, don’t blame the messengers. As spokespeople these folks may not be polished, but they’re probably sincere.

Instead, blame the message. The Station Casinos ads aren’t pushing a product or a service, and they’re not burnishing the company’s name, at least not in the sense of a traditional image campaign. They’re asking you to take sides in a nasty labor battle between Station and the Culinary Union Local 226, which wants desperately to organize at the non-union Station properties.

It’s a fight that’s been on a low boil for years, erupting periodically in protests and media coverage, then fading away. But in the last few months, the war of words has escalated and moved to the court of public opinion. Both sides want to win your heart and mind, even if you have no personal connection to the dispute. Each side wants to convince you that the other is an example of what’s wrong with our economy.

Station’s strategy is to flood the market with ads aimed at fomenting anger and ill will toward the union for being a union, and acting like one (i.e., yelling about things like affordable health care, guaranteed hours and job security) in times when people are lucky to be working at all. Culinary has adopted the tactic of painting Station owners and management as greedy, Wall Street-like fat cats who grew even richer by running a troubled company nearly into the ground. If the Culinary Union seems a little desperate, it’s probably because unions haven’t won many battles lately. Losing a high-profile fight in a heavily unionized town would be another reminder that the very notion of organized labor is considered quaint by a growing percentage of the American public, so Culinary is digging in.

This isn’t your father’s labor battle.

“The game changed this year,” says Lori Nelson, Station’s director of corporate communications.

• • •

That the fight would get ugly was probably inevitable. Station, which traces its roots to 1976 with the opening of the property that would become Palace Station, now employs 13,000. It is the player in the locals casino market, and it’s run by the sons of the Las Vegan who founded it. It’s never been a union shop.

The Culinary Union, with 60,000 members, is the largest union in the state and a political Goliath that traces its rise to 1989, when Steve Wynn agreed to recognize it at The Mirage. He continued to do so at his subsequent properties, other companies followed his lead, and today every hotel-casino on the Strip, with the exception of the Venetian and the Palazzo, has a collective bargaining agreement with the union.

Station employees have never wanted, or needed, union representation, Nelson says. Competitive pay and benefits such as English classes for non-native speakers and subsidized day care have kept employees happy; Station was listed among Fortune magazine’s top 100 places to work from 2005 to 2008. “The union has always been knocking on our door,” she says. “Time and time again our employees have said, ‘Thanks, but we’re not interested.’”

Station Casinos became a publicly held company in 1993, but went back into private hands in 2007 when brothers Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, along with investors, put together a leveraged buyout that left the company saddled with debt and vulnerable to the economic downturn. The company declared bankruptcy in 2009, seeking time to reorganize and reduce its debt.

Nelson thinks bankruptcy was the opening Culinary had been waiting for. “They made their play during restructuring,” she says. “Right after that, they increased the pressure to what we call a campaign of corporate harassment.”

The union’s version of the story is that it ramped up the pressure on Station not because of the bankruptcy, but because of the way the company dealt with it: cutting employees’ hours, eliminating matching 401(k) contributions and increasing health-care costs. Culinary officially launched its public campaign in early 2010 in response to the moves, says Mario Medina, a former Station employee at Fiesta Henderson, now a Culinary organizer. “That’s when people got the courage to start talking about the union.”

At first, Culinary took the proven route: marches and rallies in front of Palace Station last summer and fall that drew hundreds of union supporters, some of whom got arrested for blocking streets, and extensive coverage.

“Media stunts,” Nelson says.

Next Culinary went covert, sending letters and making phone calls to people planning events at Station facilities, everything from conventions to weddings, warning them that they would be in the middle of an acrimonious fight. “We want to make sure your client ends up on the right side of this dispute,” Culinary execs wrote in a letter sent to the manager of a well-known country music act. (Nelson provided Vegas Seven a copy of the letter on the condition that the recipient not be named.)

“They were basically telling our customers they will be disruptive of events and they should take their business elsewhere,” Nelson says. “They were waging guerilla warfare on our customers.”

Then Culinary broadened its attack last fall to the Fertitta-owned Ultimate Fighting Championship—which sanctions mixed-martial arts fights and is headed by the Dana White—by launching The site purports outrage at White’s potty-mouth antics and the frat-boy behavior of some UFC fighters, but it doesn’t mention that Culinary is an affiliate of Unite Here, the national labor organization that has spearheaded opposition to legalizing MMA fighting in New York state.

Culinary’s latest salvo was a demonstration at Station’s Red Rock Resort on March 22 that coincided with a fundraiser for Bishop Gorman High School. The Fertittas are longtime supporters of the private Catholic school. Culinary officials said the timing was a coincidence.

Medina characterizes the union’s campaign as a service to those who might not understand what’s going on in Las Vegas. “We are reaching out to whoever is bringing their business to Station Casinos,” Medina says. “We are just giving them the facts.”

Culinary, meanwhile, has enlisted the national AFL-CIO. Speaking before the Red Rock rally, president Richard Trumka pledged his support, but stopped short of calling for a national boycott of Station Casinos.

• • •

Last fall, Station went on the offensive. In the beginning, the ads were soft, playing for allegiance to the locally grown company and sympathy for its workers. In one, an employee praises the Fertitta brothers for sticking with Las Vegas when they “could have just walked away.”

“But that’s not what their dad would have done,” the worker says. “And it’s not their style. They’re fighters.” There’s no mention of the Culinary Union to spoil the homage to the brave capitalism that kept Station’s doors open and the Fertittas in the driver’s seat.

Now the ads are much more direct, poking the Culinary Union in the eye with a sharp stick. “Who would harass a bride planning her wedding?” asks a Red Rock Resort employee in one of the new spots, a reference to one of Culinary’s letters warning event planners that they are stepping into a turf war. “Culinary bosses harassing brides? Wow.”

Station is also turning the tables on Culinary, portraying those old bogeymen—“union bosses”—as power-hungry, greedy, corrupt barons taking advantage of hardworking Las Vegans by spending their union dues on lavish salaries and political campaigns. Station is, in essence, doubling down on the waning influence of unions nationwide, hoping that anti-union sentiment will reverberate in Las Vegas.

As of February, Culinary is in the ad game, too, with a TV spot in English and Spanish depicting the Fertittas as corporate misers who pocketed huge gains at the expense of their troubled company. “For some people, enough is never enough,” the announcer says over a montage of playing cards and roulette wheels. “Because after Station’s insiders took $660 million for themselves, it still wasn’t enough.” (The reference is to the amount some Station executives, including the Fertitta brothers, were paid for their stock when the company went private in 2007.)

Culinary thinks the message will play on Main Street. “These ads are targeted to people who don’t know the fight,” Medina says. “Somebody who is smart has to know that every story has two sides.”

Station won’t say how much it’s spending on the ad campaign, but whatever the amount, it’s more than the Culinary Union can spend. “This is not a competition to see who has the most ads,” Medina says. “We will never have as much money as Station Casinos.”

Instead, Culinary will keep up its strategy of surgically timed protests and informing Station customers about the conflict. It’s an effective game plan, says Jeff Waddoups, a UNLV economics professor who studies labor issues. “There are quite a few people out there who are sympathetic to organized labor and workers’ rights,” Waddoups says. “They connect with the unions, and they will not patronize a company having a fight with the union.”

Las Vegas is no stranger to lengthy labor battles—one of the longest successful strikes in American history happened right in front of the now-demolished New Frontier from 1991 to 1998. And now we’re in the midst of a fight that could set a new course for other companies to follow.

“I haven’t seen this scale of advertising before here in Las Vegas,” Waddoups says. “Of course, companies are always fighting back against unionization attempts, but this is pretty unprecedented in scale.”