Friends or foes? Culinary Union to meet with MGM, Caesars for contract talks

STEPHEN SYLVANIE / SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Culinary Union members sit in protest on Las Vegas Boulevard in front of the Cosmopolitan as picketers walk along the entrance of the resort demanding unionization after two years of stalled talks between the resort ownership and union negotiators, Wednesday, March 20, 2013.

It’s that time again: Culinary Union leaders are getting ready to sit down with executives from the Strip's two largest companies — MGM Resorts International and Caesars Entertainment — to renegotiate contracts that are set to expire June 1.

The talks, scheduled to begin Friday, come at a particularly contentious and important time for the Culinary Workers Union Local 226 and Bartenders Beverage and Dispensers Union Local 165, which represent more than 20,000 of MGM’s 50,000 employees.

Union members made headlines last month after thousands picketed on the Strip and nearly 100 more blocked Las Vegas Boulevard, letting police arrest them in solidarity for union members who have been working at the Cosmopolitan without a contract for almost two years.

“We’ve went through some nerve-wracking times,” said union member Francis Alipo, a 47-year-old porter at the Monte Carlo. “We’ll be there in full force.”

To Alipo, job security is everything. In a shaky, post-recession job market, Alipo and her husband are helping two daughters, ages 20 and 26, pay for college.

“We just want to keep our benefits … and our 40-hour work week,” Alipo said. “It’s my passion because it benefits my family.”

But leaders on both sides agree that times have changed.

The last time the groups came together to negotiate was in 2007, and it took about four months to ink an agreement. But that contract came before the economy crumbled and the resort industry saw its profits plummet.

Many gaming companies reconciled their leaky revenue streams with layoffs.

“The reality is 2007 was a completely different economic time,” Culinary spokeswoman Yvanna Cancela said.

Back then, MGM had been planning to build a new resort on the north end of the Strip. But the recession forced the company to strike those plans.

“The nature of our business has changed dramatically over the period of the current contract,” MGM spokesman Gordon Absher said. “More accurately, our customers and their spending patterns have changed in ways we must address in order to remain competitive in this new post-recession marketplace.”

Absher said he is aware of “some issues” MGM executives plan to discuss with the union but feels confident they’ll reach an agreement.

Leaders at Caesars agreed.

“We’ve always had a good relationship with the union ... and expect that to continue,” spokesman Gary Thompson said.

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