The Nevada Independent

Your state. Your news. Your voice.

The Nevada Independent

With contracts settled, Culinary Union eyes aggressive growth in 2024

After completing 10 months of contract negotiations, the labor organization seeks to expand its Las Vegas presence with The Venetian, Fontainebleau and Sphere.
Howard Stutz
Howard Stutz

Jose de Jesus Zuniga, a cook at Alexxa’s inside Paris Las Vegas, watched last November as restaurant employees at the Strip resort celebrated the ratification of a new five-year labor agreement between Culinary Workers Union Local 226 and property operator Caesars Entertainment.

He hopes to have that same experience one day.

Alexxa’s, an American eatery with patio views of the Bellagio Fountains on the other side of the Strip, operates independently of the dozen Paris-run restaurants. Like other privately owned food outlets inside Strip resorts, it's not part of the five-year labor agreements Culinary and its affiliated Bartenders Local 165 settled during the past 10 months with companies representing nearly 40 Strip and downtown resorts covering nearly 50,000 non-gaming workers.

But one of the provisions in the new contracts allows the Culinary and Bartenders to organize nonunion restaurant workers at those properties. That was good news to Zuniga, who said he makes $6 an hour less than unionized Paris restaurant workers and pays for his health care. He is often asked to perform several tasks outside his job classification, such as washing dishes, which wouldn’t happen under a union contract.  

“We want a union and we support a union,” Zuniga said, speaking in Spanish that was translated by a Culinary member. 

“That’s why we’re sharing our stories. We hope more workers like me can join the union,” Zuniga said.

Culinary Secretary-Treasurer Ted Pappageorge said in an interview that the restaurant organizing effort, which now centers on Alexxa’s, Eataly at Park MGM and Citizen’s at Mandalay Bay, could involve as many as 10,000 workers. Growth is one target for the unions now that last year’s contract negotiations are completed — absent continuing talks with Virgin Hotels Las Vegas.

The Culinary has card check neutrality agreements — a voluntary process that allows workers the opportunity to vote whether to organize under a union contract without pushback from management — in place with The Venetian and Palazzo resort complex, Fontainebleau Las Vegas, Sphere in Las Vegas and Formula One’s Grand Prix Plaza to organize non-gaming workers at those facilities. 

The union is also seeking permission to organize half of the part-time workforce at Allegiant Stadium while gearing up for another fight with longtime nemesis Red Rock Resorts. 

Already Nevada’s largest union with more than 60,000 members and a potent political force feted by state and national Democrats, an ambitious growth strategy for Culinary will have sizable effects on the state’s economic and political climate.

It will also likely affect the state’s overall unionization rate: 12.4 percent of wage and salary workers in 2023 were union members, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, above the national average of 10 percent. The relatively high unionization rate makes Nevada an outlier given its status as a “right-to-work” state, meaning that unions cannot compel workers to be members as a requirement for their job.

Members of the Culinary Workers Union Local 226 conduct an informational picket in front of Golden Nugget Las Vegas in downtown Las Vegas on Feb. 2, 2024. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

New five-year contracts completed 

Pappageorge said the union needed to settle the 2023 contracts before diving into any new opportunities. He said he wasn’t surprised the talks continued into 2024.

“We knew coming out of COVID that things were going to get complicated. We had some big disputes with the companies over the technology issues,” he said, noting the use of automated bartenders, kiosks for ordering in restaurants and new advancements in housekeeping.

The union also used major events on the Las Vegas calendar to spur talks. Strike dates were set before the Formula One Las Vegas Grand Prix in November to get last-minute deals with MGM Resorts International, Caesars Entertainment and Wynn Resorts. A second strike deadline set just before Super Bowl LVIII in February pushed along deals with the remaining downtown and Strip properties.

The Culinary said the 32 percent salary increase over five years — 10 percent in the first year — was the largest in the union’s 89-year history. The average worker earned roughly $28 an hour under the previous contract — including health and pension benefits. By the end of the new five-year deal, the average worker will earn $37 an hour, including benefits.

The contracts also included workload reductions for guest room attendants, the reinstatement of daily hotel room cleanings, increased safety protections for workers on the job and language covering the expanding use of technology and artificial intelligence and how workers can be retrained or receive financial benefits if their jobs are replaced.

During recent fourth-quarter earnings conference calls with analysts, top executives from major Strip operators, including MGM Resorts and Caesars, acknowledged that the contracts will result in increased labor costs.

“As it relates to [operating expenses], we are looking at increases. The main increases [are] associated with our new labor agreement in Las Vegas with the Culinary Union,” MGM Resorts Chief Financial Officer Jonathan Halkyard said in February.

A tale of two Strip resorts

Under the ownership of Las Vegas Sands Corp., the 7,000-room Venetian and Palazzo complex was the largest nonunion resort on the Strip. That was because the late Sands Chairman and CEO Sheldon Adelson fought off the Culinary’s attempts to organize the property. 

That could change this year. 

A year after the billionaire Republican megadonor passed away, Sands completed a $6.25 billion sale of the resort and Venetian Expo to private equity firm Apollo Global Management and real estate investment trust VICI Properties. Apollo manages the two resorts under a lease with VICI.  

Pappageorge said a neutrality agreement reached last summer with Apollo led to 80 percent of the non-gaming workforce signing cards signifying union support.

“We had our first main table negotiations at The Venetian in February,” Pappageorge said, adding that unionizing the workforce could provide the Culinary and Bartenders unions with between 3,500 and 4,000 new members. “We're in the process of subcommittee meetings right now. We're going to get a great contract there.”

In an emailed statement, Venetian chief human resources officer Matt Krystofiak said it was a “right of choice” that a majority of the resorts’ employees in housekeeping, food and beverage, and custodial positions elected to be represented by the unions.

“We understand the importance of this choice for those team members and respect their decision,” Krystofiak said. “We look forward to constructive dialogue with union representatives and will work together to uphold the well-being, rights, and interests of our team members.”

Pappageorge said there was a “longstanding relationship” with New York City-based Apollo through the Culinary’s parent affiliates in New York and other states. 

“We’ve spent time talking with Apollo and other giant pension funds that are allies of ours around the country,” Pappageorge said. “That helped us get to the neutrality agreement.”

Three months after reaching the neutrality agreement with The Venetian, the Culinary announced a similar agreement with Fontainebleau Las Vegas, ahead of the $3.9 billion resort’s opening last December. 

Pappageorge said the union was certified by the National Labor Relations Board as representing Fontainebleau employees in December, but a negotiating team is still being created and contract talks may not begin until summer.

He cited two reasons why he’s hopeful for a positive outcome with Fontainebleau: Its legacy resort in Miami Beach has an agreement with the union’s South Florida affiliate and January’s hiring of former Wynn Las Vegas President Maurice Wooden as president. The Fontainebleau has received a mountain of bad press since its opening, including bad reviews and the departure of several key executives. 

“If anybody can turn it around, he certainly can,” Pappageorge said of Wooden. “He’s someone our organization knows well. We expect [the Fontainebleau] to do well and sign a Strip contract.”

In an emailed statement, Fontainebleau confirmed the card check process was completed and contract talks would begin “at an unscheduled date in 2024.”

A view of the Sphere seen on Sept. 25, 2023. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

‘Different from most arenas’

As with The Venetian and Fontainebleau, Pappageorge said Culinary is well acquainted with the top executives of New York’s Madison Square Garden, which built the $2.3 billion Sphere in Las Vegas. The 17,500-seat venue was spun off into its own separate public company last year.

Unlike T-Mobile Arena and Allegiant Stadium, Sphere operates with a majority of its 800-person workforce qualified as full-time employees.

“It’s different from most arenas, which primarily use part-time workers,” Pappageoge said.

He said the New York affiliate union offered assistance in negotiating a neutrality agreement in July to begin organizing Sphere employees. Pappageorge said the Sphere operators signed a participation agreement with the union to be part of the Culinary’s health care fund, which he took as a good sign ahead of contract discussions.

A Sphere representative declined to comment.

Finishing the job

A few days ahead of February’s Super Bowl LVIII at Allegiant Stadium, the Culinary announced plans to organize roughly 1,500 nonunion workers that handle concessions at the 65,000-seat venue. The effort was backed by another union — the NFL Players Association.

When Allegiant Stadium opened four years ago, Levy Restaurants became a contracted food-service vendor for certain stadium concessions, clubs, bars, suites and other premium spaces. Many of its 800 employees are Culinary members.

However, concession workers employed by 27 companies operating independently of Levy do not have union agreements. The Culinary sent letters to those service providers demanding card check neutrality agreements but have so far been met with silence, according to the union.

“Our goal is to bring the rest of concession workers, ushers, custodial jobs and other service folks under our contracts,” Pappageorge said, adding that nonunion workers make roughly $13 an hour during events at Allegiant. As a comparison, unionized cashiers at the Las Vegas Convention Center earn $23.54 per hour. 

Pappageorge said the workers at entertainment venues and convention centers often work multiple jobs because of the sporadic nature of conferences and events. 

Vickey Powell, a cashier at Allegiant and the convention center, said she worked a 14-hour shift at Allegiant during the Super Bowl, earning $13 an hour.

“This has been going on for years,” she said in an interview with The Nevada Independent. “We haven’t seen any raises and no types of benefits.”

Pappageorge said Culinary benefits are “portable,” meaning all hours working under a union contract are added to the pension and other benefits. 

“A lot of our people in these jobs do whatever they have to do to get enough work so that it’s full-time,” he said. “You can see why workers at Allegiant Stadium have approached us about unionizing.”

The union released a Jan. 25 letter from Las Vegas Raiders President Sandra Douglass Morgan who said the team would “always respect the legal right of employees to select a bargaining representative of their choosing” and “will not do anything to impede their right to do so if they are so inclined.”

Joe Biden
President Joe Biden, when he was a candidate, walks the Culinary Workers Union Local 226 picket line with former secretary-treasurer Geoconda Arguello-Kline in front of the then-Station Casinos-operated Palms Casino Resort on Feb. 18, 2020. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

The white whale

Meanwhile, the 25-year-long standoff with Red Rock Resorts and its Station Casinos operating division is still smoldering and is expected to flare up again in 2024. Both sides said they are awaiting rulings from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on disputed matters, such as post-pandemic hiring practices. 

Red Rock — the largest locals casino operator in Las Vegas with seven properties and nearly 10,000 gaming and non-gaming employees — has long served as the union’s white whale.

Even as the Culinary leadership seemed to be in contract negotiations for much of last year, a focus remains on Red Rock. Union representatives and Red Rock employees speak to Nevada gaming regulators twice a month during the public comment period to give a three-minute presentation on an aspect of the long-standing conflict. The union has launched websites critical of the company, targeting travel by company executives and the makeup of Red Rock’s board.

A spokesman for Red Rock declined to comment while the NLRB considers the dispute. 

“Station’s workers came to us a long time ago in a very big way,” Pappageorge said. “We’re going to continue to support those workers.”


Featured Videos

7455 Arroyo Crossing Pkwy Suite 220 Las Vegas, NV 89113
Privacy PolicyRSSContactJobsSupport our Work
The Nevada Independent is a project of: Nevada News Bureau, Inc. | Federal Tax ID 27-3192716