WASHINGTON — Contract negotiations are stalled for thousands of workers at casinos on the Strip and in downtown Las Vegas to the point where they may go on strike — and the sticking point is Obamacare.
On Feb. 20, thousands of housekeepers, porters, cooks, cocktail servers, and others represented by Nevada's largest union, the Culinary Union Local 226, voted to end a contract extension the workers agreed to last summer. The union wants to maintain its current benefits — including health care coverage at no cost to workers, pensions, and guaranteed 40-hour workweeks.
Rising health care costs due to provisions in the Affordable Care Act could put those benefits in jeopardy, the union says.
"The biggest hurdle to reaching settlements in Vegas is the new costs imposed on our health plan by Obamacare," Donald "D" Taylor, president of Unite Here, the parent union of CU Local 226, told BuzzFeed in a statement. "Even though the president and Congress promised we could keep our health plan, the reality is, unless the law is fixed, that won't be true."
On March 20, workers will have the opportunity to decide whether or not they would want to walk off the job at several hotels, including the Stratosphere, the Riviera, and the Plaza.
The vote wouldn't necessarily start a strike. A successful vote would merely give the union the right to authorize a strike. But once a motion to strike passed with a simple majority, workers could walk off the job at any time.
Union leaders have long voiced concern over the health care law's effect on their Taft-Hartley plans, which are collectively bargained plans maintained by multiple employers and a labor union. Under the Affordable Care Act, Taft-Hartley plan recipients (like the members of CU 226) are not eligible for tax subsidies. That makes some union employees more expensive for employers who provide health care, making employers less agreeable when it comes time to foot the bill.
Taylor has been outspoken about his displeasure with President Barack Obama's signature health care law for some time, going as far as meeting with one of his top critics, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, earlier this year. This is a far cry from how most union leaders have handled their Obamacare grievances — often toeing the line between admitting the law needs changes and actually criticizing the administration.
"You can't just order people to do stuff," Taylor told the Washington Post in January. "If their health plan gets wrecked, why would they then go campaign for the folks responsible for wrecking their health care?"
In response to the contract situation, CU Local 226 has already worked out a deal with MGM Resorts and Caesars Entertainment, which covers another 35,000 workers. The deal includes free health care coverage for all workers, as well as other provisions the unions say protect workers. Similar health care plans at other non-union hotels cost between $300 and $400 a month, according to internal union documents.
CU Local 226 represents approximately 55,000 workers overall.
Yvanna Cancela, political director for CU Local 226, said with rising health care costs due to Obamacare, employers have started to say they can no longer afford to pay for their health care. In some situations, companies have asked workers to also pay into an HMO.
According to Cancela, negotiations are ongoing, and some are further ahead than others. A deal was struck as recently as early Wednesday morning with the Tropicana Hotel, in which workers will keep their benefits, including free health care and a pension.
But the March 20 vote still looms.
"I think members will make a decision based on where they're at in negotiations, and considering how negotiations are going, I think workers will likely give the union authority to call for a strike," Cancela said.
The last time a similar strike happened was in 1991, when workers from five different unions walked off the job for six years, four months, and 10 days before the dispute was worked out.
"Hopefully we reach a settlement and never get to that point," Cancela said.