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August 21, 2014

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In executive suites, some see split in caucus as sign of union’s weakness

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Leila Navidi

Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama speaks during a pre-canvassing pep talk at the Culinary Union Local 226 headquarters in Las Vegas on Jan. 13. Hillary Clinton won over many Culinary members despite the union’s endorsement of Obama 10 days before the caucuses.

The Culinary Union’s failure to deliver for Sen. Barack Obama in the Nevada Democratic presidential caucus revealed a weakness in the union’s solidarity that has not escaped the notice of Strip casino executives smarting from the union’s tough negotiations.

The support Culinary workers defiantly gave to Sen. Hillary Clinton despite the union’s endorsement of Obama suggests to some executives that the union can be divided against itself in future negotiations, said a source close to major companies on the Strip.

The source, who wished to remain anonymous because of the explosive nature of the discussions, said some Strip executives have mused about an advertising campaign that would seek to create divisions between the union and its leadership, or pit some workers against others.

On its face, it sounds a little absurd. Las Vegas has long projected an image of itself as a model of labor-management collaboration.

The reality is more complicated. Executives have no love lost over some of Culinary’s tactics. One mailer titled “Monsters on the Strip” last year depicted casino giant MGM Mirage — and its CityCenter project and future developments — as a Godzilla-like lizard, rampaging through Las Vegas, surrounded by flames.

The companies are also actively working to prevent the Transport Workers Union of America from organizing table game dealers.

In quiet conversations, according to the source with knowledge of them, executives are saying Clinton’s ability to split the union showed Culinary vulnerability and made manifest to executives what they always suspected: Union ranks are divided.

But other gaming executives, as well as gaming lobbyists and labor experts, said inferring union division from the Culinary’s presidential caucus failure is deeply mistaken.

Pilar Weiss, the union’s political director, said any move against the union would be “shocking.” The union and the industry, despite differences of opinion during contract talks, have a long-standing relationship and work together closely, she said. For instance, they’ll likely collaborate to try to defeat a teachers union effort to raise the gaming tax for more money for schools.

Still, the union’s clout is bound up with perceptions of its own strength, which means whispers of weakness are its nightmare.

An advertising campaign, which would have to be secretly financed and likely run through an out-of-town anti-union firm found on Washington, D.C.’s, fabled K Street, could show workers without families the degree to which they subsidize health care costs for workers with dependents. Or a campaign might remind workers that Nevada is a right-to-work state, meaning they needn’t be union members to have jobs. If members began dropping from the rolls and taking their dues with them, the effect could be crippling.

Weiss said Culinary members are savvy and know that their strength — and with it, good wages and benefits — is derived from their solidarity.

There is general agreement that the union is feeling politically weakened and will find a target to punish. But many gaming industry officials also dispute the idea of a Culinary demise.

Billy Vassiliadis, a gaming lobbyist who is close to senior management and the union, said he doubted discussions to drive a wedge into union membership are occurring because it would be a terrible mistake. “Don’t mess in someone else’s house,” he advised.

Besides, he said, the Culinary’s performance, strength and relationship with management need to be viewed over 20 years, not from a recent snapshot that could lead to a false conclusion.

A gaming executive who also didn’t want to be quoted talking about the union said he understood the notion of exploiting Culinary divisions, but said it was unthinkable as a practical matter because the risks are too great. Any attempt to divide the union could result in costly and embarrassing work actions.

Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said anti-union activists often wrongly assume that because a labor union defies its leadership over a political endorsement, the members will turn on leadership over contract negotiations and other, more fundamental issues.

“From the point of view of workers in a union, a political endorsement is an order of magnitude less important than wages and health care,” he said.

Lichtenstein cited a classic example. In 1940 John Lewis, the head of United Mine Workers, endorsed Wendell Willkie. Lewis was repudiated by workers, who supported the beloved president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Still, the workers hung together during a series of contentious wartime strikes after that.

Turmoil over the union’s endorsement can be explained in part by circumstances.

The union didn’t endorse until just 10 days before the caucus, which frustrated members eager to line up behind a candidate.

Culinary Secretary-Treasurer D. Taylor said the delay hampered the union’s ability to fully inform its members about Obama’s strengths.

All the while, the Clinton campaign was quietly appealing directly to Culinary members, distributing signs and T-shirts that read: “I Support My Union. I Support Hillary.” Many members had already signed on to support Clinton, who won more support on caucus day by dispatching former President Clinton into hotel work areas to shake hands.

The results were overwhelming, energizing Clinton’s supporters within the Culinary, so much so that they openly taunted fellow members and Obama supporters in the caucus rooms.

The verbal back-and-forth shocked casino executives, one of whom equated the revolt to crossing a picket line.

The executive said he never could have imagined such a sight.

Any executives fantasizing too much about dividing the union, however, should return to reality by considering the Tropicana, the only Strip company without a union contract.

The union has filed a series of complaints with gaming regulators about safety and payroll problems, and is expected to prevail, either with favorable contract terms or by crushing the company’s public image.

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