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Gaming Guru

Michael J. Mishak

Culinary turns to others as MGM Mirage talks stall

25 July 2007

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- The Culinary Union will open contract talks with a number of other Strip casino operators this week as it tries to isolate MGM Mirage, whose negotiations with the union have stalled.

The union kicks things off Tuesday, resuming negotiations with the Tropicana, whose new owners, Columbia Sussex, have laid off at least 300 workers in Las Vegas since January. Job security is of immediate concern in those talks, which started in May.

Negotiations with the management of the Riviera, the Stratosphere and the Las Vegas Hilton will follow over the course of the next two weeks. The union will also begin talks on behalf of workers at Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville in the Flamingo.

The new round of negotiations amounts to a cooling-off period for MGM Mirage and the Culinary. The company and the union are dug in on pay and benefits, and especially the rules that will govern organizing workers at some new properties.

Culinary Secretary-Treasurer D. Taylor said the union has met with MGM Mirage a total of 32 times since the talks began in March, both in subcommittee meetings and main-table bargaining sessions. But he said the two sides have made little progress on big-ticket items, such as so-called "card check" organizing rights at nongaming portions of CityCenter, the company's $7 billion development now being built on the Strip.

Current five-year contracts, affecting about 50,000 hotel and restaurant service employees, expired June 1, but the union and the casino operators signed extensions that allow both sides to continue negotiating. About 21,000 of those workers are employed by MGM Mirage.

"We're going to give all our members the opportunity to negotiate a contract," Taylor said. "Our time won't be monopolized by one company."

For its part, MGM Mirage says both sides have made significant progress, citing 80 tentative agreements on issues such as establishing a career ladder for employee development. Also, the company says it is not challenging the union's right to organize CityCenter's centerpiece casino, which includes about 6,000 union jobs. Last week it urged the union to return to the bargaining table.

At the moment, however, the Culinary is focusing on the settlement it reached last month with Harrah's Entertainment. Labor leaders say that deal, which included the union's largest-ever wage and benefits package, set the tone for MGM Mirage - and the other Strip operators, with whom they begin talks this week.

Under the Harrah's contract, pay raises come in the form of fixed hourly increases spread over the five-year agreement. The deal also continues to give the Culinary an easy "card check" method of organizing workplaces, including those managed by third-party operators. Card check organizing means an employee can express a desire to form a bargaining unit merely by signing a card, rather than voting in an election.

In addition to ensuring its organizing rights in the upcoming talks, the union has said it wants to maintain existing health care and pension benefits, increase opportunities for upward mobility, protect tipped workers through an IRS defense fund, boost wages for nontipped workers and establish a housing trust to help members purchase homes.

The Culinary also seeks negotiating dates with the Sahara and downtown operators. In the case of the latter, Taylor is predicting a series of contentious talks.

"We'll have a big fight downtown," Taylor told a small group of workers Thursday during a contract briefing with former Sen. John Edwards. "I can guarantee that."

In an interview, Taylor said his comments were based largely on contract talks from 2002, when the Culinary and downtown operators fought bitterly over maintaining the union's health care and pension plans. "Hopefully I'm wrong," he said. "But if we had a difficult time last time, I'm anticipating the same thing this time."

A spokesman for the bulk of those downtown properties said owners were not eager to repeat history, and were looking forward to the negotiations.

"My clients aren't looking for a fight," said Gregory Kamer, the labor lawyer representing the Golden Nugget, Fitzgeralds, the Four Queens, El Cortez, the Las Vegas Club and the Western. "We value our employees and we value our relationship with the Culinary Union. Our goal is to have a fair contract and to have labor peace."

Culinary turns to others as MGM Mirage talks stall is republished from