Saturday, Dec. 1, 2007 | 6:59 a.m.
'Card-check neutrality' agreements: Culinary has been uniquely successful in getting employers to allow organizing by card check rather than elections.
The problem: Other unions must rely on elections, in which employers often vigorously fight organization. And even when employees win the right to organize, that doesn't guarantee a good contract.
The Democratic presidential candidates purposely nuzzle up to the Culinary Union, not just to court the voting muscle of its 60,000 members but to promote how organized labor is enjoying the American dream.
Its members, the candidates boast, represent a resurgent labor movement, sharing prosperity and enjoying employer-paid health care.
The candidates, on the other hand, are not visiting the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees.
A strike by the union's New York City local, settled Wednesday, had effectively shut down Broadway for 2 1/2 weeks. But the union's Las Vegas affiliate remains locked in an 18-month battle to represent 40-plus workers at the Blue Man Group's show at the Venetian.
The 1,800-member local won an election to represent Blue Man workers in May 2006. But despite the Blue Man Group's promise to abide by the vote, no bargaining has taken place. Instead, the employer refuses to recognize the union and has embarked on a series of appeals, arguing the election wasn't valid.
The union, with the backing of the National Labor Relations Board, awaits a decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington. And it has filed additional federal unfair labor practice charges, contending that Blue Man Group illegally changed the show's work rules and fired a key union supporter.
The success of the Culinary and the struggles of the stage workers illustrate the challenges unions face as they navigate federal labor law.
The only real growth in Las Vegas has come largely as a result of working outside that system, which the Culinary has mastered and others want to emulate: The Culinary organizes exclusively through "card-check neutrality" agreements, which allow employees to form a bargaining unit merely by signing a card, rather than voting in an election. The company agrees not to interfere with the organizing campaign and recognizes the union once a majority of workers sign cards.
The Culinary began using the card-check process in 1989 when organizing at Steve Wynn's new Mirage Resort. Over the years, other operators followed Wynn in agreeing to card checking, tripling the union's membership over the past 20 years. It added 10,000 members from 2002 to 2005 alone - and will add another 6,000 when MGM Mirage's CityCenter opens in 2009.
It's a symbiotic relationship: The union gets generous wage and benefits packages (members do not pay health care premiums), while the gaming industry gets labor peace and a powerful political ally in Carson City and Washington.
If the Culinary had any doubts about the success of card checking, it learned its lesson in 1993 when, believing it had majority support and the cooperation of the owner, it ran a conventional organizing campaign at the Santa Fe and won an election to represent the resort's workers. The owners disputed the results and dragged out the appeals and bargaining process until 1999, when the property was sold to Station Casinos. Station then dismissed the workers in a wholesale firing.
But card checking is not an option for all Las Vegas unions. The agreement is voluntary, and employers reserve the right under federal labor law to demand an NLRB-supervised election. Also, Nevada is a "right-to-work" state, meaning workers can decline to pay union dues but still be represented by a union.
Smaller unions are envious of the Culinary.
"They're big enough, strong enough and smart enough to get the job done," said Rob Rovere, a stage workers organizer involved in the Blue Man effort. "We want to be a partner with the industry, just like the Culinary, as long as the interests of our members are represented. But we're smaller and we just don't have the resources."
The union, however, is working to change that.
Despite the Blue Man delay, the union organized a band of 16 stagehands at three Boyd Gaming casinos this summer. The company fought back, hiring high-priced labor lawyer and self-described "junkyard dog" Mark Garrity. After a bitter monthlong campaign, during which workers said they were intimidated and threatened, employees voted for the union in an election. Both sides are now at the bargaining table.
"Fighting these battles lets people know we're not laying down," Rovere said.
Rovere said the union has since met with other employers to discuss the possibility of card-check campaigns.
The Transport Workers Union is also stepping up its organizing efforts here.
After Wynn Las Vegas introduced a controversial tip-sharing program last year, agitated dealers approached the union. In May the union won an election to represent about 650 dealers and is now at the bargaining table with Wynn management. Emboldened by the move, dealers at Caesars Palace gathered majority support for the Transport Workers Union and await an NLRB election this month.
The efforts have attracted the attention of dealers up and down the Strip, said Harry Lombardo, executive vice president of the Transport Workers Union and lead negotiator in the Wynn talks.
For the Transport Workers, organizing the dealers is a shot at redemption.
In 2001 the union tried to organize dealers at 11 casinos. It won elections at three properties but ended up with a signed contract, which was widely considered ineffectual, only at the New Frontier.
Transport Workers Union leaders say that both the union and the workers are more committed this time around, and that the dealers' efforts are the basis for establishing a new local here. The union represents just a few hundred Las Vegas ground workers and flight attendants at Southwest and American Airlines.
"We are trying to establish a proactive local," Lombardo said. "We're not looking to be a dues-collection agency or an insurance agency. We are looking to grow in Las Vegas and we're looking for the gaming industry to grow with us."
Still, they will be forced to wait - either at the bargaining table or in the courts.
"It's not just about winning an election," said Culinary Secretary-Treasurer D. Taylor. "It's about getting a good contract."
Indeed, although unions win roughly half of all representation elections, labor studies show that a third to half of the workers who achieve collective bargaining rights lack a contract a year after the vote.
While Nevada's organized labor density (15 percent) has bounced back from 2004, when the state matched the national average of 13 percent, most of the recent growth has come through card checking - and the Culinary, said Danny Thompson, executive secretary-treasurer of the Nevada AFL-CIO. "This whole idea of a democratic vote is a joke," Thompson said. "It's just designed to ensure there will never be a union. Fortunately in Las Vegas there are other ways to help that process along."
In September, the NLRB toughened the organizing process by giving workers the right to petition for an election to contest a card-check campaign.
Now more than ever, labor advocates say, unions need a Democrat in the White House to shepherd labor law reform.
And that's why unions put out the welcome mat to presidential candidates.