On Friday, September 27th, I interviewed UFC President Dana White regarding the Culinary Union of Las Vegas and its ongoing battle against the UFC.
But first, readers, a quick primer for those of you unfamiliar with the issue:
Professional mixed martial arts currently remains illegal in the State of New York, the only state in our union (yes, the only) where it is so. (Connecticut is also a hold-out but just technically: professional MMA is allowed and common within its Native American reservations, such as Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun.)
As Lorenzo Fertitta, chairman of the UFC, notes: “The fact that MMA is not legal in New York is solely because of the Culinary Union.”
At this point, you’re wondering: hang on, why the heck does a union have a problem with a sport, rather, a sports promotion company in particular? I don’t get it. You will in two minutes: here we go…
The UFC is owned by Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, as well as Dana White.
Frank is also CEO/chairman of the Las Vegas chain Station Casinos Inc., the Fertitta family business started by his father in 1976 with a mere 90 employees, which grew into a nearly $1 billion company with 13,000 employees — employees who have elected not to unionize, making Station Casinos the largest non-union gaming company in the country.
The ‘Culinary Union‘ is Culinary Workers Union, Local 226, a 60,000-member union in Nevada representing those in the hospitality industry, mostly casino employees. For 30 years, the Culinary Union has tried unsuccessfully to unionize Station Casinos’ employees but the employees have rebuffed their overtures and the union’s interest in the card-check process (see here for a recent report on the latest Big Labor tactics under scrutiny). But, do the math: thousands of employees means millions in annual dues money, on which the Culinary Union is missing out. So they persist. In an apparent effort to put pressure on the Fertittas (or to exact a bit of retribution), the Culinary Union has decided to go after the Fertittas’ other business: the UFC and made it a point to prevent MMA’s legalization in New York, thereby depriving the company of hosting any event there (no Madison Square Garden!), using its affiliates’ substantial political power and Big Labor muscle in New York. Indeed, the Culinary Union appears to be conducting a broad campaign of harassment to make the Fertittas cave in, filing a request with the Federal Trade Commission in 2011 to have Zuffa, the UFC’s parent company, investigated for its business practices (the investigation was subsequently closed) and waging a bizarre PR campaign claiming the UFC is homophobic and sexist, including entire websites aimed at the UFC (see here). Despite MMA-legalization legislation voted on and approved by the New York State Senate five years in a row, the Assembly has repeatedly refused to vote on the matter.
Recently, a gay and lesbian organization in Las Vegas chose to honor the UFC which, predictably, did not sit well with the Culinary Union. White and I discussed the issue:
DW: “They [the Culinary Union] use media, they use sponsors, they use groups…. And they use them to their advantage. I’ll give you a perfect example: the gay and lesbian community in Las Vegas is honoring us, and they [the Culinary Union] love to say how we bash the gay and lesbian community — when it’s the exact opposite. And now they’re in a fight with the gay and lesbian community because they’re honoring us. And the funny thing is, what has the Culinary Union of Las Vegas ever done for the gay and lesbian community in Las Vegas? What have they done? They’ve done nothing – all they’ve done is use them as a shield to get what they want which is Station Casinos at the end of the day.”
I asked White to elaborate on the LBGT community issue, noting the company’s promotion and praise of an openly gay fighter (Liz Carmouche):
DW: “Let’s be honest: a few years ago, I dropped the F word and, because of that, the Culinary Union has gone out there and tried to make me look like I’m some big homophobe, which I am not. And if I was, I would tell you I am and I would tell you why I am — anybody who knows me knows that. I have a lot of friends that are gay, I have people who work for us that are gay, I have people that I respect who are gay. It’s the furthest thing from the truth but it’s a nice sound bite and it’s something they like to use. But if people did their homework and really dug in and saw what the UFC does – not just for the gay and lesbian community but for lots of other charities – they would see that the Culinary Union is full of sh*t and they just use people.”
I then asked White how the company felt about one of his star fighters, Rashad Evans, coming out in support of gay marriage (I wrote about the heterosexual Evans’s stance, here), and the way in which the company permitted Evans to publicly espouse his views on a controversial issue, to which he smiled and replied: “I’m in favor of gay marriage.”
Regarding how the UFC’s strategy to legalize MMA in New York will be different this upcoming year:
DW: “It’s gotten to the point now where basically any of the major sponsors and everybody — everybody knows the Culinary Union is full of sh*t. They’ve gone so far and gotten so sleazy and dirty that it’s so transparent, it’s not even hard to fight anymore. We beat ‘em, we won – it’s over. I mean, the Culinary Union is never gonna get Station Casinos and they do no damage to the UFC whatsoever. And actually, when we went into Boston, the Culinary Union tried to do some stuff. [Yet] the Culinary Union created more awareness in Boston – we pulled the biggest number on the launch of Fox Sports 1 and we sold tons more tickets because of the controversy that they created in Boston. So the Culinary Union has done us some pretty big favors, too.”
I asked White if he ever hears from rank-and-file union members in New York, particularly those in the hospitality industry, who are fed up with their union bosses’ tactics against the UFC and are eager for the wages and hours that professional MMA events (whether UFC or other promotion companies) in their state would provide:
DW: “Not only in New York but in Las Vegas, too! These guys are the Las Vegas Culinary Union [members]! Every time I go into some of these casinos for the fights, we walk through the back of the house and all the people that are union members come and tell me: ‘Thank you so much for what you for us – you bring these events to Las Vegas.’ You know, we’re not anti-union – we’re not anti-union at all in any way, shape, or form. Station Casinos is non-union – their employees don’t want to be union or they would unionize…. [The Culinary Union leadership] is not standing up for anybody. If the Culinary Union gets Station Casinos, $12 million a year it’ll mean for them. It’s a business. It’s a business like any other business and they’re just real dirty. They’re dirty scumbags.”