Culinary Union letters aim to secure better contracts but could backfire and cost jobs

The Culinary Union’s sit-down strike on the Strip attracted the attention of hundreds of news outlets.

When Las Vegas' largest labor union sits down every five years to hash out new contracts with the city's major resorts, it's often a cordial affair.

Insiders have compared negotiations between the Culinary Union and its two biggest partners, MGM Resorts International and Caesars Entertainment, to a Thanksgiving dinner or a friendly waltz.

But despite the overt coziness, the Culinary — which represents about 60,000 bartenders, maids and food servers — pulls no punches. The union has a track record of using guerrilla tactics to pressure resorts into inking contracts that increase worker wages, subsidize health care benefits and guarantee full-time workweeks.

The union has long been known to send letters to convention and event planners and patrons warning them about possible labor strikes that could affect their events.

But a recent round of letters, sent by the Culinary around the time casino contracts were set to expire, took a different approach. This time, the union offered third-party event companies legal advice about how to "protect themselves" from labor disputes.

"If you wish to take additional measures now to protect your organization and event, we can provide you with sample protective language you may be able to add to your contract with Las Vegas casino-resorts," a May 30 letter sent by the Culinary to an event planner read.

Union members say they are providing a public service. Critics say they are trying to hurt the casinos to increase their own negotiating power.

The language the Culinary is pushing for is similar to that added into contracts to protect event planners from acts of God, such as natural disasters, wars and terrorist attacks.

If planners were to inject the Culinary's suggested language into contracts, they could cancel events without penalty at the first sign of a strike. Resorts would have to refund the planners' deposits for hotel rooms and other services.

Culinary officials say the logic behind their tactic is simple.

"Our union has a long history of communicating with customers in the hotel and gaming industry about relevant issues that may affect them," union members said in a prepared statement.

""We view it as a service," said Ian Collins, the Culinary's outreach coordinator.

Resort officials, however, say the letters are merely a ploy to secure favorable contracts for Culinary members.

"This is a pressure tactic," said Gordon Absher, MGM's vice president of public affairs.

Both MGM and Caesars signed extensions in June that maintain the terms of the Culinary's expiring contracts until officials carve out new ones.

"It is unfortunate these letters do not distinguish between resorts like ours, which have signed extension agreements, and those that have not," Absher said. "That's an important piece of information these convention customers are not receiving."

A website set up by the union, VegasTravelAlerts.com, does acknowledge the contract extensions. But it also lists MGM and Caesars properties as "at-risk" for a strike. The site allows Las Vegas visitors to sign up for email alerts about potential strikes.

Every Station Casinos property appears on an active disputes list. The Culinary has been trying and has failed to organize its workers for years.

"We have found that many convention planners appreciate being made aware of the status of labor relations at the hotels they are planning to use," Culinary officials said. "We also want to ensure that our members' struggle to negotiate fair contracts is known to visitors to Las Vegas."

Representatives of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority declined to comment.

The Culinary has no way of gauging the success of its letter-writing campaign. A few event planners have asked the Culinary for sample language, but the union hasn't followed up on whether that language was included in contracts, union officials said.

MGM and Caesars officials say the letters have had no significant impact on their business.

"It's kind of a gimmick. … It's counterproductive," said Mark Ricciardi, a labor lawyer who is managing partner at Fisher & Phillips LLP. "The union uses it to scare groups from coming to town."

But the tactic can backfire.

Ricciardi, who has practiced labor law in Las Vegas for a quarter of a century, said the Culinary's letters could cause planners to cancel events or conventions, which would take work away from union members.

"(The Culinary) wants the town to make money," Ricciardi said. "But the fact that this gimmick could scare people from coming to the city is not helping this city."

Plus, the unions' clause could be tricky to add to contracts, said Andy Goldberg, a partner with the Detroit-based Kemp Klein Law Firm.

Since the language cites the "unforeseeable" future, it's unlikely casino operators would allow it into a contract, Goldberg said.

"Strikes are common knowledge in Las Vegas," he said. "This is how Las Vegas works. ... If I were Caesars or MGM and I saw that in a contract, I'd say, 'Wait a minute. You know this might happen.'"

Like Florida hurricanes, Culinary strikes typically are predictable, Goldberg said.

Because the Culinary represents more than 30,000 workers at MGM and Caesars, Ricciardi suspects the casino companies will avoid stoking the union's campaign with any complaints.

And going forward, both sides sound positive about the progress of negotiations.

"We're working hard toward an agreement and don't anticipate disruptions at any of our properties," Absher said.

"Both parties know how important it is for the Las Vegas economy and its workers to have more, not less, convention and meeting business," Caesars spokesman Gary Thompson said. "And we see no realistic possibility of any work stoppage at this time."

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