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America’s Most Union Town

Anyone who remembers the big casino strike on the Las Vegas strip in 1984 can’t have many doubts about the willingness of workers in the US’s fastest growing city to weather prolonged and bitter conflict. On picketlines reminiscent of the Wobblies, the west’s original hard-nosed unionists, members of the Hotel and Restaurant Union Local 226 fought it out with the huge corporations who dominate America’s gambling business. The front-page photo of a striker’s head under the wheel of a car crossing the picketline became an icon burned into the memory of unionists nationally.

The grit of Las Vegas casino workers has made the city one of the most heavily-unionized in the country. Their local, at over 40,000 members, is larger than some internationals.

But for the last six years, one casino held out, determined to bust the union — the Frontier. Margaret Elardi and her two sons, Tom and John, forced members of HERE Locals 226 and 165 out on the street on September 21, 1991, along with smaller numbers of Teamsters, Operating Engineers and Carpenters.

The strike which resulted has become one of the longest in modern US labor history. Last month, the Elardis finally sold out. A new owner agreed to rehire the 550 strikers, and sign a union contract. John Wilhelm, secretary-treasurer of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees International Union, says the strikers “preserved the standard of living for working people in Las Vegas for generations to come.”

The strike may have decided even more than that.

The rest of the casino contracts expired last July, and negotiations aren’t going well. One of the biggest, New York, New York, has contracted out hundreds of food service jobs to a non-union contractor.

As momentous conflict looms again on the horizon, the Frontier strike signals one thing clearly. Hotel workers are determined that Las Vegas will stay union.

The Elardis bought the casino in 1988. A year later its union contract expired. For two years they sought to provoke a strike, eliminating the pension plan, cutting wages and health benefits, throwing 100 workers off the health plan entirely, eliminating seniority, bargaining in bad faith, and firing union activists. By September of 1991, workers had had enough, and walked out.

Dirty tricks escalated during the strike. A secret company group to spy on and harass the strikers eventually came to public light.

But the misconduct came back to haunt the Frontier’s owners. The National Labor Relations Board, and eventually Federal courts, ruled that the strike was caused by the company’s illegal actions. That prohibited permanent replacement of the strikers illegal, and required the casino to pay them back wages once they had offered to return to work.

The misconduct also isolated the Elardis from the strip’s other resort operators. William Bennett, who ran Circus, Circus, and now operates the Sahara, outfitted a catering truck which served three hot meals a day to the picketline for years. Nevada Governor Bob Miller grew so disgusted he criticized the family publicly in a speech at HERE’s 1995 Chicago convention.

Finally, the state gaming commission launched an investigation of the dirty tricks. The threat of losing the casino license, piled on top of other reverses, pushed the Elardis into a search for a buyer.

They found Phil Ruffin, who owns ten Marriott hotel franchises around the country, and the Marriott Crystal Palace Resort and Casino in the Bahamas. He bought them out for $165 million. The Elardis had poured so much money into fighting the strike, that the hotel had grown shabby. But the Frontier’s 26 acres of prime strip property convinced Ruffin to pledge another $20 million in renovations, additional money to settle the backwage claims, and to sign a union contract on top of it.

The strike will officially end when the state gaming commission clears him to take over the casino license. But to all intents and purposes, the union has won.

In 74 months, not a single striker had crossed the picket line.

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