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Nevada casino workers launch hunger strike

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“I’m fasting and praying to God that this company will be benevolent enough to see that the company is its workers,” cocktail waitress Dawn Vaseur said, pushing back tears. Vaseur, one of thirteen Station Casinos workers on a week-long hunger strike, is literally starving to protest the working conditions and the union-busting campaign taking place just outside the Las Vegas Strip.

Station Casinos, the third-largest private employer in the metro area, operates 18 casinos in Las Vegas which are largely off the tourist-heavy Strip and designed to cater to locals. Unlike the casinos on the Strip, Station Casinos’ 12,000 employees are without union cards, or the benefits they bring — in part because the company has engaged in one of the most staunch anti-union campaigns in the country. “We are the company. We’ve sacrificed our time and our bodies to make this company billions but they refuse to respect us,” Vaseur said.

Vaseur, her co-workers and five other union members launched a week-long Fasting with Faith campaign yesterday to draw attention to what has become the nastiest union battle in Nevada history. They plan to go without food until April 23 and have attracted the attention of progressive lawmakers like John A. Perez, speaker of the California Assembly, who joined the protestors and their supporters Thursday in a show of solidarity for a workforce that is largely invisible even in an economy dominated by the service sector.

Vasuer and her colleagues see this action as a hopeful and respectful way to engage with a company that has so far shown nothing but disdain for its workforce. “We just want to put justice back where it belongs,” said Vaseur, “and that’s with the people.”

That’s putting a lot of faith in a company that has been accused of looting corporate profits at the expense of its workers and which has simply ignored federal charges related to its labor practices.

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The major problems with the company go back to 2007, when thirteen of Station Casinos’ executives, directors and majority shareholders — including brothers Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta — extracted approximately $660 million from the company in the form of payments from a $5.4 billion leveraged buyout of Station Casinos by none other than the Fertitta brothers and their investors. The buyout added about $1.6 billion of net debt to the company’s balance sheets while the Ferittas, other executives and stockholders walked away with cash — essentially, the Fertittas bought and sold the company to themselves as a way to take cash out of its operations. By 2009, the company was forced to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protections due to “substantial liquidity challenges” even as the Fertittas and other insiders amassed millions.

In that time, Station Casinos cut over 2,800 jobs and fired about 20% of their workforce. Those, like Vaseur, who managed to hang on to their jobs saw their health care costs skyrocket, lost their employer-paid 401(k) matches and worked without raises for five years.

By 2010 those employees finally had enough. About half of Station Casinos’ workforce is in a job that would covered by either the Culinary Workers Union Local 226 or the Bartenders Local 165 if they worked on the Strip, including kitchen and restaurant staff, cocktail servers, housekeepers, bartenders, bells and porters. Union workers on the Strip make twice as much doing the same jobs, have free health insurance benefits and a defined pension plan. And, most importantly for Vasuer, they say they are treated with respect by their employers. “At the end of the day” Vasuer said, “what we just want are the same privileges as those who work on the Strip.”

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In February 2010, Station Casinos workers went public with their campaign to unionize and, by March 2010, union organizers delivered a petition to company representatives asking Station Casinos respect their demand for a fair process to unionize. The request was ignored.

Instead, Station Casinos launched a massive anti-union campaign that ultimately resulted in union representatives filing Unfair Labor Practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board. After a trial before an administrative law judge, the NLRB found Station Casinos broke federal labor laws no less than 88 times, the largest documented number of unfair labor practices committed by a single employer in the history of Nevada gaming. Of those illegal labor practices, the NLRB found 80 percent involved Latino workers. Vaseur says that nothing has changed.

The treatment was so bad and the findings so egregious that it prompted leaders in the Las Vegas faith communities to send an open letter to the company pleading they pledge to respect workers rights and change business practices immediately. That request was also ignored.

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So now the employees and their supporters are fasting and praying that the owners of Station Casinos change their practices. “Really, all we are expecting is for them to respond to us,” Vaseur said. “The media campaign has been a blessing in disguise because now folks are more aware of what we’re going through, the campaigns and assaults to prevent us from organizing. We’ve made these people billions of dollars. We just want some respect in return.”

As Vasuer puts it, “It’s in God’s hands now.”

[Image via Bethany Kahn]


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