99 percent vote to authorize strike

Keven Purvis had 85,000 reasons to support authorizing about 10,000 Las Vegas casino and laundry workers to go on strike if they can’t come to terms on a new employment contract.

Purvis, 43, makes about $12 an hour broiling steaks and chicken at the Fremont downtown, a job he just returned to following a hip replacement operation.

“I’m a family man. I’m married and have two kids. My health insurance is a big concern,” Purvis said. “It was an $85,000 operation; my health insurance covered just about all of it.”

He credited the strength of Culinary Local 226 and Bartenders Local 165 with securing good health benefits and living wages for cooks, bellhops, maids and other hotel and casino workers in Las Vegas.

On Wednesday, about 99 percent of the 8,000 union members who voted did so to authorize a strike or other labor action if they can’t negotiate new contracts with 16 employers, including most casinos in downtown Las Vegas, the Las Vegas Hilton off-Strip and Tropicana on the Strip.

The vote won’t move workers from the job to the picket line. But it does give union bargaining committees at each unsettled property the authority to call for a strike if they think negotiations are at a stalemate.

The vote was the union’s second display of its bargaining strength in two weeks. The first was the announcement Sept. 4 of an $80 million strike fund to pay workers if they walk off the job.

A negotiator for several downtown casinos said he thinks management and the union will strike deals and avert a strike.

But management at the Tropicana told employees in a memo the decision to hold a strike vote “so early in the proceedings is very disappointing.”

The memo asked workers to consider a deal that allows for more part-time jobs and subcontracting of work.

“When you think about the changing demands and tastes of our customers, this kind of flexibility is just good business,” the memo stated. “In addition, with part-time staffing capability, we can avert large layoffs in the event of a tourism-diminishing event like 9/11.”

Gregory Kamer of the law firm Kamer Zucker Abbott represents seven downtown casinos in the negotiations. Kamer said the casinos are eager to strike a deal, so long as the costs don’t threaten the viability of struggling downtown properties.

“We want to get a contract at the earliest possible date,” Kamer said.

His clients include the Golden Nugget, considered the most successful downtown casino, along with the Plaza, Western and Las Vegas Club, which have been in decline during the last five years while the downtown gambling win shrunk from about $657 million in 2002 to $630 million in 2006.

“If they are profitable, they are marginally profitable,” Kamer said. “Even the union recognizes that.”

The disparate economic conditions at various casinos in Las Vegas color the negotiations.

The union has already settled contracts that include 3.7 percent raises for about 45,000 workers at Harrah’s and MGM Mirage, companies that own more than a dozen resorts on the Strip.

More recently, operators of the Sahara, Stratosphere and Riviera have come to agreement with the union.

Keith Schwer, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said downtown casinos might be more vulnerable during a strike than their Strip counterparts.

“If they are relatively weak, they have less resources to hold off a business downturn,” Schwer said. “If you are calling a strike from the labor side, that is exactly who you want to strike against. You don’t want to strike against those deep pockets.”

Assessing the financial positions of the union in relation to the casinos is difficult, though, because many of the companies involved are privately run, meaning they don’t disclose revenue to the public.

Schwer said just because downtown properties like the El Cortez and Four Queens have invested tens of millions of dollars in upgrades in recent years doesn’t mean they can afford large labor contracts.

“It may well be they were able to borrow money for those investments. You usually don’t borrow capital to pay workers,” he said.

It is also difficult to gauge whether contract provisions that would keep the labor deals in place in the event of ownership changes or property redevelopment would be overly burdensome.

Schwer said the burden of such provisions would vary depending on the health of the property.

“If you were already making money, it is not going to make any difference,” Schwer said. “If you were losing money and trying to bail out, it probably would be a hindrance.”

Job security in the event of an ownership change is important to workers, especially downtown where declining gambling revenue and rising property values are prompting redevelopment speculation.

At least six of the 11 downtown properties without a new labor contract have changed hands since 2004.

Adalaid Nelson, 63, said job security in the event of an ownership change at the Western, where she works as a cashier, is important.

Nelson said she makes almost $14 an hour to support her family, which includes her retired husband and six adult children who are attending college in the Philippines. Four are studying to be nurses, and two are in engineering school.

Losing her job at the Western could mean trouble paying for her kids’ education.

“We don’t have government aid, student loans,” Nelson said of the Philippines, which she left before taking the job at the Western in 1995, her first job in America. “We have to pay it in cash.”

The strike authorization vote took place in two shifts at Cashman Center.

Union members from the casinos that haven’t settled arrived by car, bus and on foot to vote and participate in the pep rally-like atmosphere.

Roosevelt Nibblett, 53, a bellman at the Plaza, said he supports the right to strike but hopes negotiators can avert it.

“Most people who work at the hotel don’t have a big savings account. They live from paycheck to paycheck,” said Nibblett, a union member since 1971. “No one wants to go out on the picket line.”

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