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Best of Howard Stutz

Gaming Guru

Howard Stutz

Culinary's futile push against Cosmo

11 November 2013

LAS VEGAS -- The only Sin City video getting more hits on the Internet than the Culinary union’s recent taunting and name-calling of people entering The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas was the 2011 clip of Batman getting body-slammed on the Strip by a drunken tourist.

Then again, Culinary workers aren’t costumed characters asking for a couple of bucks to pose for a picture, unless you consider a hotel bellman dressed in a red T-shirt waiving a sign proclaiming “No Justice, No Peace” a Transformer.

Culinary Local 226 — the state’s largest labor organization — and Bartenders Local 165 are waging war against The Cosmopolitan. The hotel-casino, owned by Deutsche Bank, has not signed a contract with the union almost three years after opening.

Union contracts expired in June for some 20 properties along the Strip operated by MGM Resorts International and Caesars Entertainment Corp. Contracts also expired for a few independent Strip casinos, such as the LVH, Riviera and Treasure Island, and several downtown locations.

When you add the union’s never-ending quest to organize employees at Station Casinos, the labor group has too many irons in the fire.

Which is why the effort against The Cosmopolitan — to paraphrase a line from the film “Animal House” — “is a really futile and stupid gesture on somebody’s part.”

How stupid?

On a busy Friday evening, some 3,000 Culinary members — which included Cosmopolitan employees — marched on the sidewalk in front of the hotel-casino and blocked three lanes of Strip traffic. According to the Metropolitan Police Department, 103 protesters were cited for trespassing when they staged a sit-down in the hotel-casino’s lobby.

The Culinary was being disingenuous about the activity.

While the script on the red T-shirts proclaimed, “I’m getting arrested to provide for my family,” the union workers were not arrested. The incident was akin to receiving a traffic ticket.

“They were marched outside, but they were not taken to the jail and booked,” Metropolitan Police spokesman Bill Castle said. “They were handed a citation for trespassing.”

The Culinary told the police ahead of time how many workers would be cited. The union also paid the overtime for the police officers, who were forced to maintain a much larger presence than normal on a Friday night.

The Culinary’s effort at The Cosmopolitan is absolutely futile.

Deutsche Bank spent $3.9 billion to finish construction of the hotel-casino after the previous owners defaulted on the property.

Meanwhile, the hotel-casino, while winning accolades for its stylish features, spacious rooms, and signature restaurants, hasn’t made money. The property lost $19.4 million in the third quarter and $25.2 million in the quarter that ended June 30.

Deutsche Bank would love to unload The Cosmopolitan, but buyers for the 8.7-acre site tucked between Bellagio and CityCenter are few and far between.

That’s one reason why the current operators won’t sign a contract with the union. The Culinary wants a clause or a guarantee that the contract would also bind any future buyer, too.

With additional protests that block Strip traffic and increased acts of civil disobedience, the union hopes to keep visitors out of The Cosmopolitan. The Culinary warns the effort is a prelude to the first citywide strike by hotel workers since 1984.

Earlier this year, the union created a website warning tourists and convention planners of potential issues on the Strip. In September, Culinary researchers sent a report to the investment community threatening that a strike by 44,000 workers against hotels operated by MGM Resorts International and Caesars Entertainment was brewing.

Few buy that rhetoric.

Union Gaming Group analyst Robert Shore told investors MGM Resorts and the Culinary are close to finalizing a new five-year contract.

“In our understanding, both sides have tentatively agreed on a number of contract provisions,” Shore said. “A key remaining hurdle remains an economic contract. Our contacts maintain that there appears to be momentum to get this issue finalized and wrap up final contract negotiations.”

Talks with Caesars are slower than expected, but an MGM Resorts agreement could be a catalyst to a settlement.

In the meantime, the Culinary plans to step up its Cosmopolitan protests.

The union members, however, have been joined on the line by the Alliance to Protect Nevada Jobs, which is affiliated with the anti-organized-labor Washington D.C.-based Workforce Fairness Institute. In October, the group released videos showing Culinary members calling Strip tourists “scabs,” “beached whales” and “losers” for visiting The Cosmopolitan.

The union’s demonstrations, strike threats and travel warnings haven’t slowed Las Vegas tourism.

“To date, we have seen no impact on visitation,” Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority spokeswoman Dawn Christensen said in an e-mailed statement. “It’s not uncommon during negotiations for either side to use various tactics in an attempt to further their bargaining positions. We continue to monitor the situation but are not directly involved in negotiations and are respectful of the collective bargaining process.”

Shore said the protests against The Cosmopolitan may have caused some of the hotel’s guests to rethink their property choice. But the pickets haven’t created enough national headlines “to materially deter visitation to Las Vegas.”

Culinary leaders said workers voted in May to approve a 60 percent dues increase to support workers in the event of a strike.

But a citywide strike seems far-fetched.

It’s one thing to get a housekeeper from the MGM Grand or Flamingo to picket for a few hours on Friday evening after a full workday. It will take a Herculean push by the union, however, to get that same employee to walk off the job when the Strip’s economy is still recovering from the recession.