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Another union seeks Culinary's right to organize Strip workers

27 April 2009

Las Vegas Sun

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- A month ago, when labor leader Andy Stern was drumming up excitement over a nationwide campaign to organize hotel and casino workers, he said his union wouldn't set up shop on the Strip.

This was, after all, Culinary country.

"We are certainly not intending to go raid anybody," Stern said at the time. "We don't think there's a need in Las Vegas for another union to represent the hospitality workers that are there."

That was then.

An affiliate of his Service Employees International Union is now knocking on doors. It wants in.

The affiliate, called Workers United, sent letters this month to gaming companies in Las Vegas and Atlantic City, asking for the same organizing rights afforded the Culinary and its parent union, Unite Here. Letters were also sent to hospitality and food service companies across the country where Unite Here represents workers.

The action is the latest chapter in the escalating rivalry between two of the nation's most progressive unions, with the hotel workers union accusing the service workers of attempting to cut into Unite Here membership and turf.

Some background:

In 2004, the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees, known as Unite, and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union, known as Here, merged into one union. But over the past six months the factions have been engaged in a nasty power struggle over the direction the union.

Former Unite officials called the merger a failure and encouraged former Unite members to break away, while former Here officials argued that both sides are stronger together as they struggled to keep the merger intact.

The SEIU's Stern promoted the division by inviting either or both sides of Unite Here to simply join the SEIU. Last month at a weekend meeting in Philadelphia, delegates representing 150,000 of Unite Here's 400,000 members announced they were splitting away and, calling themselves Workers United, joined the SEIU.

This month, the Nevada AFL-CIO, of which the Culinary is a member, adopted a resolution condemning Stern and the SEIU for, among other things, "claiming organizing jurisdiction over hotels, gaming and hospitality, which is (Culinary) territory." The resolution told him to back off.

In Las Vegas, Culinary leaders lashed out at the SEIU, telling its own members:

"In these difficult times, the last thing we need is another union trying to divide us and weaken us. Unfortunately, the SEIU is using the tactics of anti-union employers to further their goal of taking over your union."

Culinary Secretary-Treasurer D. Taylor said members in Las Vegas and Atlantic City had recently received mailers and robo-calls promoting secession. He made no distinction between the SEIU and Workers United.

"They are clearly trying to divide workers in order to do a raid and a takeover," Taylor said. "Obviously they don't care about the benefits of the workers."

Workers United spokeswoman Amanda Cooper vigorously denied the Culinary's claims, saying the letter was simply part of the "due diligence" involved in establishing a new union.

"This is just a process we went through to let people know we're open and we're representing people," Cooper said. "Workers United is interested in organizing unorganized workers. The point of the letter is to find out about organizing rights for workers that don't have a union."

She said Workers United would not compete for Culinary members.

But the letter says differently. In it, Workers United President Edgar Romney asks casino operators to sign agreements identical to the ones afforded the Culinary, which allows card-check organizing without management interference.

But that agreement also explicitly defines which job classifications are subject to organizing. By extending that agreement to Workers United, it would seem to put the two unions in direct competition for new members.

That competition could play out with the opening of MGM Mirage's CityCenter, if the company grants the SEIU affiliate's request.

The Culinary secured immediate organizing rights for half of the development's 12,000 employees in its contract talks two years ago.

Under labor law, Workers United could also make a play for Atlantic City workers this year because their contract expires in September.

Cooper denied any attempt to raid the Culinary and its Unite Here affiliates.

"There is no plan for Workers United now or in the future to take existing Culinary members," she said. "Our concern is for unorganized workers."

Representatives of MGM Mirage and Harrah's Entertainment said their labor attorneys are reviewing the SEIU affiliate's letter.

But with the Culinary's long history of labor relations with Strip resorts, operators might be reluctant to welcome a new player.

"The rights that the Culinary has have been developed through four decades of bargaining," MGM Mirage spokesman Alan Feldman said. "We, along with the union, have bargained very hard to create a relationship that benefits both of us."

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