A labor dispute of cartoonish proportions is playing out in Las Vegas, pitting two Trump-supporting casino billionaires against one of the largest private union drives in the country.
Brothers Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta have been ordered to testify about allegations that their gaming business, Station Casinos, egregiously tried to undercut labor organizing efforts. It is just the latest chapter in a complex saga that has played out for a decade. An administrative trial involving some of the claims is underway before a National Labor Relations Board judge.
The Fertittas are best known for Ultimate Fighting Championship—the mixed martial arts promoter they sold for more than $4 billion in 2016—and for donating millions of dollars to Donald Trump and his dark-money machine, America First Action. Much of their wealth, however, lies in a gambling operation founded by their father, which is now the subject of the union-busting allegations.
“It's extraordinary that you would bring in the very, very top person in the company [to testify],” says Bill Werner, an associate professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who researches employment disputes. “What the union is saying: the Fertittas made this decision.”
The trial follows a blistering opinion issued by a federal judge in July, which ordered Station to begin negotiating a contract with roughly 1,350 culinary workers over a contested 2019 union vote at Red Rock Resort.
In the run-up to that vote, Station had announced that it would grant employees new benefits, including a pension plan, reduced health-care contributions, and a medical center, according to court documents. The union ultimately lost the right to organize by a margin of 627 to 534.
“Red Rock’s offer of benefits was a hallmark violation,” Judge Gloria Navarro wrote in her opinion. “Many employees admitted not voting for the Union because they feared losing the new health care and 401(k) benefits that Red Rock had just promised.”
Adam Christian, a union supporter who has been a server at one of Station’s properties for 15 years, believes that many of his co-workers were intimidated into voting no.
“They decided to throw the kitchen sink at everybody and not even give detailed information to us to be able to even make an informed vote,” he says. “I just want to be treated fairly by a company and have something in writing.” Christian claims the casino stopped letting him serve Frank Fertitta meals once he started wearing a union button on his shirt, even when the billionaire sat in his section.
A spokesperson for Station Casinos denies that the new benefits were related to the union drive, saying it made “changes before it even knew there was to be an election.” In an appeal to the July ruling, the company called the decision “not only unjust, but also unprecedented.”
The Fertittas are likely to challenge the order to testify until the last moment, Werner says. In the meantime, supervisors at their casinos are choosing sides.
Last month, dozens of managers arrived at the union’s offices wearing matching shirts and chanting, “We despise union lies.” Most were not even eligible to join the unit.
“In our nearly nine decades of organizing, the Culinary Union has never seen company managers or supervisors picket, especially on their day off when it is 99 degrees outside,” the union’s secretary-treasurer, Geoconda Argüello-Kline, said in a statement. “We hope that they stay hydrated and cool.”
Union activity at Station Casinos has bubbled for a decade, driven in part by a history of harsh workplace practices, some employees claim.
Steve Bailey, a bellman at Red Rock Casino, says that he was pressured to skip breaks when he first started at the company 14 years ago. He bristled at other policies too, including a requirement that on-call employees be available 24 hours a day if managers decided to summon them into work.
“If you did not answer that call within five minutes, it was considered a refusal,” Bailey says. Three refusals resulted in automatic termination, he said. “I was so apprehensive about missing a call that I would put my phone in a plastic bag… and I would take it in the shower with me.”
Bailey also claims that employees have faced pressure to work private events for the Fertitta family, and that managers have sometimes used surveillance tapes to nitpick job performance. There is little recourse, he says, when employees are asked to perform tasks outside of their job descriptions.
As one example, Bailey was recently asked to drive a gambler to another property, he said. He resisted, since he lacked formal training, and ultimately said no, but he worried about repercussions: “I felt like my job was in jeopardy,” he said.
A Station spokesperson says that “the Culinary Union has a fraught relationship with the truth from the top down. The very few of our employees who have complained typically have an agenda.”
The years of tumult have not impeded the Fertittas’ financial success—including the massive UFC sale five years ago.
The brothers had purchased the fight promoter for just $2 million in 2001 after growing addicted to martial arts while taking classes in the basement of one of their casinos.
“What makes UFC so great,” Lorenzo Fertitta told Forbes in 2008, “is that every single man on the planet gets it immediately. It’s just two guys beating each other up.”
Previously, gambling had been the true family trade. The Fertittas’ dad, also named Frank, founded Station Casinos in 1976, and it grew to specialize in properties off the main Vegas strip, catering to locals over crapulent tourists.
The company is technically still private, though it is partly owned by Red Rock Resorts, a publicly traded business that the Fertittas control. Red Rock’s stock is up more than sixfold since the start of the pandemic—when it suffered a precipitous drop—and it’s now worth over $5 billion, an all-time high. Each Fertitta brother is personally worth $2.7 billion, Forbes estimates.
The brothers have not been shy about that money.
In late August, Lorenzo’s 285-foot megayacht, Lonian, caused a stir when it docked off the coast of Newport Beach; some locals believed it was a naval ship. Lonian, which cost a reported $160 million, features a glass-bottomed pool and helipad. It even travels with its own special friend, a 217-foot support yacht called Hodor outfitted with a spare helipad and additional gear.
Frank is known to splash out, too. His daughter’s 2018 wedding reportedly cost $25 million, thanks to a cake that stood more than two stories tall, a blinding amount of crystal, and an entertainment lineup that included Seal, John Mayer, and Bruno Mars. According to the Review-Journal, event staff were asked to sign non-disclosure agreements.
As for the labor dispute, the ongoing trial is unlikely to end the war, since the Fertittas could easily drag out the fight for another decade or longer.
“This will all be resolved when the culinary union has a contract with each Station property,” says Werner, the University of Nevada professor, about one slice of the battle. “I predict that happens never.”