Cover Story

Where Is Justice for
the Working People?

by Erica Olsen

ll we wanted was something fair," says Jeremy
Morris, a waiter employed at the Four Queens Hotel Casino in Las Vegas. "If they [the unions] are so good, why do they have to use the tactics they use?"

Morris is not the only worker lining up against the Culinary Union’s current organizing drive. Union representatives have been accused of unprincipled tactics, including intimidation, misrepresentation and threats by many employees from several Strip casinos.

"…We as a union fight for justice for working people," wrote AFL-CIO President John Sweeny when he was head of Service Employees International Union [SEIU].

But in Las Vegas it appears that "justice for working people" is one of the last things union representatives are concerned about.

The Culinary Union’s biggest feather in its cap is the MGM Grand Hotel Casino. Staunchly nonunion since its opening, culinary representatives organized it last year. A two and a half year organizing campaign, beginning in 1994, was unsuccessful.

Unfortunately for the union, though, the MGM Grand was not a good symbol to kick off its $6 million AFL-CIO organization campaign slated to make Las Vegas the example for union organizing drives across the country. As a non-union hotel, the MGM offered higher wages, a better retirement package, flex time vs. pay and a more comprehensive medical package than any of the unionized hotels in Las Vegas.

"As of today, MGM Grand wages are at least 30 cents an hour higher than the comparable classifications in the Strip contracts, and in some cases substantially more than that," testified John Wilhelm, secretary-treasurer of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union [HEREIU], the parent organization of the Culinary Union. "I think it is inconceivable that the Strip wage in the Union’s other contacts will catch up with the overall MGM Grand wages."

But if the union can’t offer employees a better deal than they already have, then what is the union offering "working people"?

A frustrating workplace, suggested Sandy Restori, cocktail server at the MGM, about the recent organization effort.

"It was just very hostile," Restori said. "If you did not agree with the other side, people no longer spoke. A wonderful place to work has turned into a frenzy—splitting up people, making enemies out of friends."

Restori, originally from Pittsburgh, used to be a strong supporter of unions. Her husband was a member of the Steelworkers Union before they moved to Las Vegas. An employee of the MGM since its opening, Restori helped the Culinary Union Local 226 in its first effort to organize the hotel-resort until she realized it was taking advantage of people.

"Unions are good but not this one," she said. "My feeling is that the Culinary Union has targeted—I will say—foreign people. They manipulated, tricked and fooled them and took advantage of their lack of knowledge of labor laws, their rights.

"They were saying, for instance, ‘Sign this card, you’ll get a free turkey. If you don’t sign, we’re going to send you back to Mexico.’ "

The Card Check

Asking employees to sign a "card" is the newest union organizing strategy. Instead of holding an official election regulated by the National Labor Relations Board [NLRB], the usual practice in the past, organizers now simply collect signatures from a majority of workers and ask management to voluntarily recognize the union. This practice sounds harmless, but, as Restori explained, union representatives fooled non-English speaking MGM employees by not explaining that a signature constitutes a vote and authorization for dues withdrawal.

Jeremy Morris tells of a similar scenario at the Four Queens.

"I heard two of them [union organizers] say to him [busboy], ‘Is your name on this list?’ The organizer has a whole long list of everyone who originally signed up to give out their information. Then I heard them say, ‘Well, you need to sign this [card].’ And the kid signed it!"

"Joan," a cashier at the Four Queens’ Pastinas restaurant who wishes to remain anonymous, tells of a different tactic.

"They were having everybody sign a paper saying it was just a vote to have the union come in and represent us," Joan said. "And they got a lot of people to sign the thing. They would tell you a little bit, ‘Oh, you’re going to get a raise. We’re going to protect you, but we need your vote first.’

"And the next thing you know, it wasn’t a vote and they’re pulling money out of everybody’s checks that signed that ‘vote’. That’s basically wrong—to lie to us."

Intimidation and Violence

Refusing to sign an organizing card can bring the heavy hand of the union down on the dissident employee. The well known and well documented incidents of union violence and intimidation are not alien to many Las Vegas workers. Four Queens server Morris dealt with harassment and threats on a daily basis for several months.

"The first time he threatened me, he said, ‘…be a real man and tell me you’re going to join the union,’" reports Morris of one ugly confrontation. "That pushed the right button in me and we started arguing and throwing things back at each other. He told me one of these days I’m going to be ‘taken care of,’ not knowing when or where. It was a general statement but I took it as a physical threat."

Morris filed two complaints with the NLRB. Both were dismissed.

During the first organizing effort at the MGM, Restori said walking from the hotel to the parking lot became unsafe for non-members.

"If you were known as a non-union person, you may go to your car and find your tires slashed," she said. "You may not even get to your car. People were being physically assaulted and all kinds of other insanity."

Bruce Esgar, a porter at the MGM Grand, says the union representatives were constantly pressuring workers in the latest unionizing drive.

"They would sit at your table while you are trying to eat or they would go into the bathrooms and dressing rooms where they are not supposed to be, when you are half naked and trying to get dressed for work," says Esgar. "They intimidate you."

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$390 is the amont of money Culinary Union members pay
per year.

About 30 affidavits from a number of MGM employees who say they were tricked and recounting alleged intimidation and other unethical tactics were submitted to the NLRB last April.

"A lady told me that if I did not sign for the union that my wife, who works at Caesars Palace, would be fired," according to one affidavit. "That is why I signed."

The affidavits accompanied the first decertification petition filed by Esgar and several of his coworkers who are fighting to throw the union out. They also collected between 1,700 and 1,900 signatures from disgruntled employees demanding a vote on union representation. These signatures were included in the last of a series of four decertification petitions filed with the regional NLRB.

The first petition was filed in April but was dismissed because "a reasonable period of time has not elapsed for the parties to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement," according to Regional Director Cornell Overstreet. The two other petitions filed in July and September were also dismissed on the same grounds.

Greg Smith, the attorney representing Esgar, is challenging the amount of time negotiations took on grounds it was unusually long and is requesting that the Board require a vote. Three of the four petitions are on appeal to the national Board. At the time this issue of Nevada Journal went to press, decision had not been reached.

"We’ve had problems with the Labor Board," says Esgar. "They are very, very pro-union."

Smith says the Board appears largely indifferent to the rights of workers, when opposed by unions.

"Dealing with an agency charged with enforcing the employee’s rights to elections, under a law that is designed to protect those rights, this Petitioner [Esgar], with four petitions so far, has gone through utter hell in his quest for that right. All the employees want is an election.

"It is time for the NLRB to live up to its duty and enforce the rights of the employees, not those power mongers who have demonstrated utter disdain for both employees they purport to represent and the Board’s processes."

Secretary-Treasurer of HEREIU John Wilhelm was intimately involved in the MGM negotiations. He says elections are unfair because an employer has several weeks to lobby workers against the union. This, however, is exactly what the union does with the card count.

"A labor board election is the most un-American thing you can imagine," Wilhelm said. "If you follow the labor board election process, you’re supposed to engage in a death struggle."

In Las Vegas and nationally, unions are steering away from elections because card checks are a much easier way to win. In a speech last September in Pittsburgh, Vice-President Al Gore cited MGM Grand as one of two "exemplary" businesses because it did not insist on a formal election.

The MGM and Detroit

Under NLRB rules, before union representatives can begin the card check process, the company has to give the union permission to solicit its employees. Until 1996, the MGM Grand had a no solicitation policy. But on May 16, 1996, MGM management switched course and signed a "Memorandum of Agreement," allowing only the Culinary Union to perform a card check. That agreement was very restrictive, allowing the union to only hold organizing activities in certain areas and requiring the union’s promise it would not threaten or coerce the employees. In return, management had to promise not to comment in any way about the organizing effort.

"If the union is so great, why shut people up?" asks MGM employee Esgar. "Wouldn’t you want them talking?"

From May to November the union "collected" 1,500 plus signatures out of a then-total of 2,840 MGM employees eligible to be Culinary members, which the union claimed was the slim majority needed to win. On November 15, 1996 the Culinary Union was voluntarily recognized by the MGM as the collective bargaining unit for all MGM employees despite the wishes of most workers, says Esgar.

"Let’s face it, today down at the MGM the majority of people went there to get away from the union," says Esgar. "They had already been members. They’ve had experience [with the union] and they know they don’t want it."

It took the union and management 11 days short of a year after recognition to hammer out a three-year contract.Contract negotiations must be completed within a year of recognition or the union is subject to decertification by the NLRB. After all this effort and the unusually long negotiation period, all the union has to show—over existing employee benefits—was a management promise to discuss a day care center, a change from the MGM 401K plan to the union plan and a "living contract" from the MGM. [A living contract provides a discussion structure for training and problem solving.] Wages and benefits remained the same.

The status quo contract—approved by a vote of 730 to 103—binds all 2,800 plus employees even if they did not want to be represented by the union. With less than 25 percent of the bargaining unit voting on the new contract, some workers are wondering why management even recognized the union.

"MGM takes such good care of its employees that by joining the union here we would have gotten less and paid more for it," says Resorti who is not a union member and did not vote on the binding contract. "The union didn’t even offer what the hotel was already giving us, which seems totally illogical to me and a lot of other people. But it really is just a big business, the union here."

Many observers speculate that MGM management’s voluntary union recognition may have been just a business deal in light of the fact that MGM Grand was awarded one of three gaming licenses recently approved for heavily-unionized Detroit.

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Decided by Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer on November 21, 1997, MGM Grand, Circus Circus and Greektown, a Detroit casino group, were selected out of seven bidders. MGM Grand was in fierce competition against Las Vegas’ Mirage Resorts, Rio Hotel and Casino and Detroit’s chosen Don Barden, a local casino owner.

MGM met three important criteria that the city was looking for: financial standing, local connections and local investors. But it did not met a fourth, less obvious criteria.

"MGM has a history of hostility toward organized labor and of anti-union activity," wrote Thomas Brennan, president of the Teamsters Joint Council No. 43, in a letter to the Detroit mayor dated October 30, 1997.

Similarly, in a November 2 Detroit News article, the MGM was listed as "not one of the preferred candidates."

"A two year battle between the company and the country’s largest private union may have scarred its reputation with the pro-union City Council," said the News.

But on November 5, HEREIU President Edward Hanley and Secretary-Treasurer Wilhelm sent a letter disagreeing with Brennan. "We vigorously disagree with any opposition to them based on labor relations or on any other grounds."

Three days later MGM finally announced a tenative agreement with the Culinary Union.

Union support is crucial in Detroit, says The Detroit News business columnist Jon Pepper.

"Union politics dominates this town, probably like no other city in America at the moment," he says. "There is a real vise grip of the unions on the apparatus of government and politicians. It was pretty much taken for granted that they [casinos] would be union affiliated. It’s just the way things are."

What About the Employees?

"Unions are a business like plastics, retailing or farming," says Pepper. "Their trade—like that of lawyers and sports agents—is human beings. The difference is that, unlike other businesses, they don’t have to make their case to each customer before demanding payment."

To keep their business running, unions must recruit 300,000 new members each year just to maintain their 15 percent share of the workforce. The job of recruiting members in Nevada is tougher than other states because, as a right-to-work state, Nevada bars unions from forcing non-union employees to pay dues even if the company is under a union contract.

Dissident workers say misrepresentation was an effective union tactic at the Four Queens and the MGM. At the Luxor, potential employees are told they must join Teamsters Local 999 before submitting job applications—a violation of the state’s right-to-work law.

Across Las Vegas, most of the new casinos have been opened by companies which already had existing collective bargaining agreements with employees at other local properties. Thus organizing of the new properties has often been "grandfathered" in, and does not stem from worker discontent.

When Venetian developer Sheldon Adelson refused to sign a Culinary Union contract for workers he hasn’t yet hired, the union targeted the developer’s religon, standing outside the Venetian design center and shouting, "This is Sheldon’s Wailing Wall and we’re going to wail all night long."

Subsequently someone broke into Adleson’s home property and scrawled "Dead Jews" in soap across a mirror.

If unions exist, as they claim, to represent and empower workers, then why are they resorting to the low-life tactics that so many workers are reporting?

And if employees don’t want to be represented, such as at the MGM, why does a union disregard their stance and intimidate and deceive them into a contract?

The Culinary Union was strong at the Four Queens several years ago, but the union was ineffective, according to "Joan."

"They don’t do nothing," she says. "The only thing they are doing for us is taking our money each paycheck. That comes to $65 a month between my husband and me. We ain’t getting any raises, so we depend on that money.

"So that’s why we say, ‘Wait a minute, we haven’t seen anything in years and all of a sudden you guys [union representatives] come in here and take more money away from us and walk back in your hole and sit there?’ I don’t think so."

Bound by a year contract, "Joan" has been waiting to resign since last April. She has a 15-day window in which to submit a resignation letter. Otherwise the union automatically deducts dues for another year. Any other time during the year, the letter is invalid.

"I will make sure I put my note in with my employer and in my union and tell them, ‘My year is up, lady. Stop. And I mean now.’"

Conclusion

Workers like Joan, Esgar and Morris who are taking a stand against the union are growing in numbers. Employees from different hotels are uniting behind the slogan "390"—the amount of yearly dues paid—to hopefully provoke others to look more closely at what union representation really means, especially in light of ongoing contract negotiations at most union Strip hotels.

Are union representatives looking out for their own salaries, which are usually triple those of most casino workers, or are they really fighting for "justice for the working people?" u

Erica Olsen is Managing Editor of Nevada Journal.


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