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Union negotiations: Culinary contracts expiring

2 May 2007

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- With one month to go before contracts covering 50,000 hotel and restaurant service employees represented by Culinary Workers Local 226 expire, Harrah's Las Vegas cocktail waitress Tina DeValle is nervous.

As a member of the Culinary's employee committee that is negotiating a new five-year agreement with management representing six Harrah's Entertainment-owned hotel-casinos, DeValle said Tuesday she is worried the process is taking longer than expected.

"It's going too slow, and I think there are still a lot of important issues that need to be discussed," said DeValle, who has served drinks to Harrah's customers for 11 years. "I want to make sure our health care remains strong. That is still my number one issue."

Culinary Union Secretary-Treasurer D. Taylor used a morning campaign appearance at the union hall by New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democratic candidate for president, to inform about 200 members of negotiating teams from several hotel-casinos about the status of the talks.

Taylor, who in February called for early contract negotiations with the major gaming companies, only briefly commented on the talks. Instead, the union allowed Richardson to conduct an hour-long town hall meeting.

"My report on the early negotiations is not very good," Taylor said before introducing Richardson. The contracts covering workers at some of the Strip's largest and most recognizable hotel-casinos expire at midnight May 31.

"We started early with the best possible intentions," Taylor told union members. "We've made some progress, but we still have a long way to go."

Representatives of the two largest casino companies involved in contract negotiations, MGM Mirage and Harrah's, however, disagreed with that assessment. They believe new contracts can be reached by the May 31 deadline.

"I have no concern that anyone isn't eager to settle," said Marilyn Winn, regional president of Bally's, Rio and Paris Las Vegas who is representing six Harrah's-owned resorts in the contract negotiations. "It's a long month, and things are going to heat up. We want an agreement just as much as the union."

Richardson, who touted himself as "a pro-union governor," told the Culinary workers he supports their efforts. Speaking in both English and Spanish, Richardson said he also favors the position of Nevada's gaming industry on issues that concern casino operators, such as state regulation of gaming over federal control, including state-regulated Internet gaming.

After the town hall meeting, Richardson said when he meets with corporate casino executives he would express his desire that they not hesitate to settle new contracts.

"It simply makes sense for the casinos and the unions to quickly get their deals in place," Richardson said. "There is so much that can be accomplished when the casino companies and the unions work together. In New Mexico, I'm supportive of the efforts by the unions to represent workers at the Indian casinos."

Since negotiations began, Culinary representatives have had numerous talks with corporate representatives from MGM Mirage, Harrah's, and brief talks with the owners of the Stratosphere, Sahara and the Riviera. An initial session with Tropicana owners Columbia Sussex was scheduled for Tuesday.

Culinary workers involved in the contract negotiations universally agreed the talks are going slow.

Matt Knepper, a food server at the Mix restaurant atop The Hotel at Mandalay Bay, and a member of the negotiating committee meeting with MGM Mirage executives, said contract language is holding up progress.

While the union's proposed financial package has yet to be brought to the table, the sides are busy negotiating wording concerning other issues, such as third party labor agreements. The union wants to be able to represent workers at new Las Vegas properties and amenities where the casino companies have joint venture agreements.

Mix is operated by celebrity chef Alain Ducasse, and Knepper said the third party union agreement helps workers.

"That's a big issue for us," Knepper said. "What concerns me is that MGM Mirage is talking about using third parties at their new developments, especially when they build on all that land they purchased on the north end of the Strip. We want to have the right to go in and represent those workers."

MGM Mirage spokesman Alan Feldman said the current contract language doesn't preclude the union from trying to organize workers. At the company's $7.4 billion Project CityCenter development, Feldman said about 6,000 of the estimated 12,000 jobs at facilities operated by MGM Mirage would fall under the Culinary contract. He said there is nothing that stops the union from attempting to organize workers at the boutique hotels operated by the company's joint venture partners.

MGM Mirage, he said, opposes language that would automatically require those joint venture developments to be unionized.

"How do you bind our partners or future partners?" Feldman said. "We have had some productive discussions with the union at the committee level. Obviously the contracts are more complex (than they were 20 years ago) and there is language that didn't exist before. But we believe they can be quickly resolved."

Gaming sources said the financial portions of the contract will most likely mirror the 10-year agreement the Culinary signed in 2005 with Wynn Las Vegas, which has cost of living increases built into the deal.

Winn said, "I can understand (the employees') concern but there hasn't been any major difficult issues that we have come across. I think we've had some excellent negotiating meeting to date."

Union negotiations: Culinary contracts expiring is republished from Online.CasinoCity.com.