No Honeymoon In Vegas

The battle zone is a three-foot-wide sidewalk in the midst of America's capital of surrealism and located just two blocks from a man-made exploding volcano. There, three times a day, many of the nearly 500 strikers picketing outside Las Vegas' faded Frontier Hotel & Casino line up for hot meals served from a pink-and-white striped truck. Unusual? Not unless you consider that the $800-a-day bill for the free grub is paid by the Frontier's competitor, Circus Circus Enterprises Inc., and its chairman, William G. Bennett.

It's hard to remember the last time a company gave aid and comfort to the disgruntled work force of a competitor, even in the bare-knuckled world of Vegas, where casino owners vie to lure patrons to one-armed bandits and smoke-filled poker games. But the one-year-old strike by the Frontier's bartenders, cooks, and other workers--already one of the longest in Vegas history--is hardly a run-of-the-mill labor stoppage.

Why did Circus Circus jump into the fray in mid-August with its meal trucks? Partly to curry favor with its mostly blue-collar patrons, company executives say. "We at Circus Circus share the frustration of the Frontier strikers at the length of the strike," Bennett wrote to the Culinary Workers Union. Plus, Circus Circus and other casinos were angered by the Frontier's ads in the Los Angeles Times suggesting that all Las Vegas hotel workers were on strike.

But the Frontier says its corporate competitors' real motive is to undermine the family-owned hotel. The Frontier's lawyer, Joel I. Keiler, says Circus' chairman hopes his free meals will prolong the strike and weaken the Frontier enough that it can't lower its cost structure. And the Frontier is determined to do that. The hotel's owners are the Elardi clan, headed by Margaret Elardi, 65, who runs the 1,000-room hotel's gift shop when she isn't patrolling the casino's rows of slot machines.

BAD FAITH. These days, Elardi lets her son Tom, 41, handle day-to-day operations. Hotel employees say he regularly berates his striking workers from the Frontier's front parking lot, standing behind the video cameras his uniformed security guards have trained on the picketers. The Elardis, who declined to answer BUSINESS WEEK's repeated telephone calls, bought the Frontier in 1988 from the Howard Hughes estate. In the process, they shifted their operation from a small casino in Laughlin, Nev.

Once on the Vegas strip, the Elardis wasted little time in slashing their employees' wages and benefits. A pension fund was abolished, health benefits cut, and workplace rules changed to make it more difficult to win seniority or even vacations. "They treat their employees like a piece of garbage," says Michael Boyd, who worked for 13 years as a cook for the hotel. Once the Elardis took over, Boyd says, his take-home pay fell by some $600 a month.

Outsiders have tried their best to end the dispute. Back in May, an administrative law judge with the National Labor Relations Board found that the Frontier hadn't bargained in good faith and ordered its lawyers back to the table. And worried about a 3% decline in gaming revenues on Vegas' strip, Nevada Governor Bob Miller tried unsuccessfully to mediate the strike in late July.

But there's still no settlement in sight. And there isn't likely to be one soon. Last year, the same union struck another family-run operation, Binion's Horseshoe Casino, for nine months before settling. And Frontier strikers continue to collect $200 a week in pay for hitting the picket lines, thanks to increased dues on other Vegas union members and $8 million from the national Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees International Union. That, says the national union's Vegas coordinator, D. Taylor, is enough to keep the Frontier pickets going for two years--or as long as the free food holds out.

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