How a Labor Union Almost KO'd the UFC in Boston

A Las Vegas labor dispute nearly puts a stop to the Ultimate Fighting Championship in Boston.


This past Saturday, UFC Fight Night 26, the second Ultimate Fighting Championship event ever held in Boston, went off without a hitch at the TD Banknorth Garden. The event featured hometown fighters John Howard and Joe Lauzon in two separate main card fights, Chael Sonnen, one of the biggest smacktalkers in the world of mixed martial arts, and the big time arrival of Irish phenom Conor McGregor in an undercard bout. Though it was a great night of fights, it almost didn't happen because of the enforcement of an obscure section of Massachusetts law and a prolonged labor dispute in Las Vegas. Yes, a labor dispute in Las Vegas nearly derailed a sporting event in Boston.

All week UFC President Dana White told anyone who would listen, particularly people with recorders and notepads, that future Boston fights were in doubt because of the problems UFC faced in organizing this one. In an interview with Reason.com before the bouts, White said this particular event in Boston had the most regulatory headaches he could remember. In a separate interview, Marc Ratner, the UFC's Vice President of Government and Regulatory Affairs, recalled only one other event in North America that compared in difficulty to Fight Night 26—a 2010 UFC event in Vancouver for which the organization was forced to obtain lavish insurance policies on each individual fighter. 

First, they were required to comply with an obscure portion of the Massachusetts mixed martial arts law that requires all fighters to have social security numbers. This created a major headache for the promotion as they had to bring in numerous fighters from around the globe to their Las Vegas office and go through the process of obtaining the correct paperwork before the fights. Fortunately for them they were able to get everybody cleared in time. For whatever reason, that part of the law was not enforced when the UFC hosted its first Boston event in 2010. "The Culinary Union had nothing to do with the Social Security (law) that was on their books," said Ratner.

Second, the local affiliate of the Las Vegas Culinary Union, UNITE HERE Local 26, made it tough for them when it came to the licensing of a marquee fighter. The Massachusetts State Athletic Commission, like most state athletic commissions, requires professional fighters to obtain a state license before they participate in their bout. It's usually a pretty rubber stamp affair. You give us money, we give you our state blessing, you go pound a dude in the face. This time the union, along with a handful of its like-minded allies, tried to block the licensing of the trashtalking Sonnen just nine days before the fight. He was a perfect target because of a money laundering conviction and his usage of testosterone replacement therapy. After hearing complaints from the union and the National Organization for Women, the commission voted unanimously to license Sonnen anyway, saying, "the decision followed the recommendation of their Medical Advisory Board which considered Sonnen's physical condition and medical information. The Commission also considered complaints regarding his reputation and character but concluded no information the Commission received should preclude Sonnen's licensure."

The third and final headache thrown UFC's way with the union's help was a citywide resolution that would ban anyone 18 and under from attending a mixed martial arts, or MMA, event in the city. The proposed resolution by City Council President Stephen Murphy goes above and beyond the state law that requires anyone under 16 attending an MMA event to be accompanied by an adult. The resolution did not move quickly enough in the legislative process in order to impact the fight but it remains a possibility for future MMA fight events in the city. Boston Magazine reported last week that a group associated with UNITE HERE donated $500 to the Murphy campaign in 2011. Murphy and Local 26 did not respond to Reason.com's for requests for comment on this article.

White had some choice words for the union and Murphy, calling him a "lying politician" before the fights while referring to the union as "dirty." White's disdain for the union is so strong that he went so far as to say "fuck them" at a press conference at the Wang Center when asked about the Las Vegas Culinary Union. White believes the politically powerful union is also the driving force blocking MMA from being legally sanctioned in New York, the only state in the union that has not legally approved MMA fights. Mixed martial arts is now legal in 49 states and 47 of those states have a state athletic commission to oversee the fights; at this point in its existence the UFC won't go to states without a commission. Ratner, a former executive director of the Nevada Athletic Commission, says self-regulation of the MMA world is not the preferred route because you want a regulator between the fight promoter and the actual fight.

So why is a major labor union in Las Vegas causing all kinds of problems for the world's largest mixed martial arts promoter? The majority owners of the UFC, Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, own the Station Casinos chain, one of largest casino companies in the United States, and they are caught up in a never-ending feud with the Las Vegas Culinary Union. Unions represent workers at nearly every casino in Las Vegas but Station Casinos properties, like Red Rock Resort Spa and Casino that hosted the 2012 Libertarian National Convention, remain unconquered territory for them. Efforts by the union and others to unionize workers at mega-resorts the Palazzo and the Venetian on The Strip, owned by billionaire Sheldon Adelson, have been unsuccessful as well.

Union organizers have made their case about pay, benefits, and employee treatment at Station Casinos but the root of the dispute is how workers would authorize union representation for themselves at Station Casinos' properties. The union wants to use a process commonly used on The Strip known as card check, or majority-sign up, where workers simply sign a card stating they want a union to represent them. If a majority of workers submit signed cards then a union is formed. Station Casinos is against this process and wants the union to use a secret ballot process for workers to vote on whether or not to unionize.

Before the Las Vegas Culinary Union took its campaign on the road it led efforts to discourage convention goers and event planners from patronizing Station Casinos through letter writing and websites. In May of this year the union organized a weeklong fast outside the Red Rock Casino. Protests and other activities occur frequently but so far they have remained unsuccessful for the union so they have turned up the pressure on Fertitta-owned UFC.

While the Culinary Union, along with its national affiliates, has caused headaches for UFC around the country, Station Casinos has faced similar allegations of intimidation. The National Labor Relations Board found in 2012 that Station Casinos broke federal labor law numerous times by firing or discriminating against employees involved in union organizing efforts. The Las Vegas properties in the Station Casinos portfolio have always pursued a "locals first" angle to their business and, like the Culinary Union, have used the strong arm of local regulators to their advantage. In 2011 Station Casinos joined other big gaming establishments in Nevada and pushed for stricter enforcement of regulations that would crush smaller slot parlor competitors. They succeeded. Small slot operators like Dotty's challenged the rulings in court but failed in 2012. Somehow, though, Dotty's and places like it have hung on in Las Vegas and have even purchased larger properties in the area.

The post-fight press conference for UFC Fight Night 26 featured a more upbeat White. His tone on returning to Boston was noticeably different but just as direct and on-point as all his previous statements. White noted that his problems this week were, again, with Murphy and the union, not the state athletic commission. "When you guys were asking the other day why we don't bow down to them and give them what they want…we're never going to give them what they want. We're going to continue to do what we do. Sheldon Adelson beat them half to death and we're going to do the same thing," White said, referencing the failed efforts to unionize Adelson's casinos on The Strip.

"I love this city, everything here was a huge success, and we will be back here," White said without any hesitation.