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April 17, 2014

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Station Casinos workers seek refuge with Culinary Union

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Leila Navidi

Culinary Union staff member Mickey Ituarte chants during a rally and picket line organized by the Culinary Union Local 226 to condemn Station Casinos’ anti-union campaigns in front of Palace Station in Las Vegas Thursday, March 11, 2010.

Culinary Rally at Palace Station

Culinary Union Secretary-Treasurer D. Taylor leads a chant during a  rally and picket line organized by the Culinary Union Local 226 to condemn Station Casinos' anti-union campaigns in front of Palace Station in Las Vegas Thursday, March 11, 2010. Launch slideshow »

For more than a decade, Station Casinos has dismissed the Culinary Union’s efforts to organize its employees as a waste of time, a fruitless search for more dues-paying members. And with no visible support for the Culinary campaign, the company said the message was clear: Station workers simply aren’t interested in the union.

If that was the case, worker attitudes appear to be changing.

For the first time, employees are going public, wearing Culinary buttons on the job, talking to co-workers about the labor organization and circulating union cards throughout Station’s 10 largest casinos. Workers say their support is the result of a number of cost-cutting moves Station has undertaken as it navigates bankruptcy, including the suspension of 401(k) matching and increases in health care premiums.

Most disturbing, they say, is the expansion of subcontracted restaurants, which has resulted in the firing of longtime employees.

“Every day we come in in fear,” said Wayne Brasher, a bartender at Boulder Station. “What happened to the kitchen worker? What happened to the uniform attendant? Are we next? Everybody feels like they’re next.”

Organizers say management has responded by threatening, intimidating and firing union supporters. The Culinary has filed charges against the company with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging more than 100 instances of unfair labor practices. Labor leaders say Station supervisors are targeting union supporters, changing or withholding shifts, offering extra pay and threatening termination to kill the campaign.

The federal labor board is investigating the allegations.

Station declined to comment on the charges.

On Thursday, Station workers joined hundreds of Culinary members in a picket at Palace Station, one of the company’s largest properties, calling on the locals casino giant to recognize and respect workers’ organizing rights. Maria Jessica Corona, a buffet cook at Aliante Station, said organizers like herself face an uphill battle.

“Most people want the union, but they are scared of losing their job,” she said.

Not surprisingly, the rhetoric is hot on both sides.

D. Taylor, secretary-treasurer of the Culinary, said the company is engaged in a “reign of terror,” predicting that by campaign’s end, “Station will be the most egregious violator of labor law in the hotel and casino industry in modern times.”

Station spokeswoman Lori Nelson fired back, suggesting the union support at Station was artificial, the picket “a continuation of the Culinary Union’s 13-year campaign of harassment against our company.” The company, she said, has “always treated our employees with dignity, fairness and respect” and recognizes workers’ rights to join a union.

Nelson highlighted Station’s distinction as one of Fortune Magazine’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” four years in a row, through 2008. She also noted the company’s on-site child care and its in-house programs to help employees purchase homes and become citizens.

“We’re not anti-union,” she said. “We’re pro-employee.”

Of the allegations that restaurant workers have been fired, Nelson said Station closed 10 casino-operated restaurants over the past 18 months, leasing the spaces to Denny’s and Coco’s.

She said the company struck a deal with the chain operators at the time to retain a majority of Station workers at equal pay and hours. Nelson said she was unaware of any subsequent changes the chain restaurants made.

Station’s bankruptcy seems to be driving the intensity of both parties.

For the Culinary, the reorganization presents a strategic opening. The union has used bankruptcy proceedings in the past to outmaneuver hostile employers.

In 2000, the Aladdin opened nonunion and fought the Culinary’s organizing efforts. But when the debt-laden company filed for Chapter 11, its expenditures, including those for management-labor lawyers, became subject to court approval. The union then stepped up its campaign, staging protests and filing complaints of unfair labor practices.

Likewise, as Station battled with its lenders in court last year, the Culinary effectively aligned itself with a group of aggrieved creditors, blaming a management-led buyout for the company’s bankruptcy filing. The union issued a detailed report on Station’s financial woes, arguing that the company could have avoided bankruptcy had it not pursued a $5.7 billion deal to take the company private in 2007.

It concluded with a call for creditors to demand that Station’s owners reinvest a significant portion of the profits from the deal to help the company recover.

Station dismissed the report as “silly” and maintained that its reorganization is the result of the recession, not the terms of its leveraged buyout.

But the union’s campaign seems to be having an effect.

After months of legal wrangling, Station announced last month that it had reached a deal with key lenders that could clear the way out of bankruptcy this summer. The announcement came on the same day the Culinary went public with its organizing campaign, led by hundreds of Station employees companywide.

Under the deal, Station Chairman and CEO Frank Fertitta III and his brother Lorenzo Fertitta, would make a substantial but undisclosed equity investment, and the current management team would continue to lead the company.

Indeed, Nelson cited a union mailer with the heading “Now or Never,” saying “they recognize we will be even stronger when we emerge from bankruptcy.”

The Culinary hopes to capitalize on public outrage over the bank bailouts, pitching its organizing campaign in populist terms. Taylor said company insiders, led by the Fertitta family, nearly tripled Station’s long-term debt to take the company private, netting more than $660 million in the process.

“It’s exactly why people are angry in this country,” Taylor said. “The very few ran off with a ton of money and we’re all having to pay for it. Now, the people who made off with the money are saying they shouldn’t have to pay it back. Station went into bankruptcy and the creditors and the workers have been left with the bag. Workers are fighting back.”

Station, meanwhile, is using the Great Recession against the Culinary, noting that it has lost thousands of members through layoffs and hour reductions.

“We’re surprised that the Culinary Union’s leadership continues to spend its members’ dues on stunts like this instead of using their resources to find jobs for thousands of unemployed Culinary members,” Nelson said.

“It’s disingenuous to tell our team members they can provide job security for them when the facts demonstrate that the Culinary cannot provide job security for its own members.”

The union acknowledges the limits of its job protections. But Taylor emphasized an important distinction: Laid-off Culinary members retain their seniority and have the benefit of recall rights in the event a company starts hiring again.

Contracts, he said, also ensure union representation at most subcontracted operations.

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