"It has nothing to do with mixed martial arts the reason that we're not in New York," White said. "It has to do with the Culinary Union. The Culinary Union is spending millions of dollars of all these people who pay dues to keep us out of there because my partners, the Fertitta brothers, are the largest non-union gaming company in the country. So these union idiots, all these people work in the Culinary Union, pay their money towards dues, this is what all their money's being spent towards. Fighting the UFC from coming there and bringing money into the state of New York."
Culinary Union Local 226, which consists of over 60,000 members working in the food service industry in Nevada, has been trying unsuccessfully for approximately 15 years to unionize almost 14,000 workers at the 18 hotel-casinos operated by Station Casinos.
A quick look at the union's web site will show you that a large portion of their attention is focused on the fight to unionize Station Casinos. In short, the union believes that Station Casinos has violated workers' rights. They argue, "the company has illegally used threats, intimidation, interrogation, surveillance, bribery, discouragement, discrimination, discipline and physical assault against employees engaged in lawfully protected union activities."
So how could the Culinary Union's battle with Station Casinos in Nevada stretch across the country and affect the UFC's fight to legalize MMA in New York?
The Culinary Union's parent company is UNITE HERE, which happens to be one of two groups lobbying in New York on mixed martial arts. The other is the lobbying firm Brown, McMahon & Weinraub, hired by Zuffa in 2007, as well as Global Strategy Group, a media-relations political consulting firm. While the lobbyists at Brown, McMahon & Weinraub work on pushing Zuffa's case for MMA regulation in New York, UNITE HERE has been lobbying against the proposed bill to legalize mixed martial arts, Bill S01707A.
According to its web site, UNITE HERE boasts approximately 90,000 members in New York State alone and "represents workers who work in the hotel, gaming, food service, manufacturing, textile, distribution, laundry, and airport industries."
MMA Fighting repeatedly attempted to speak with members of the Culinary Union and UNITE HERE for months, long before White spoke of the issue following UFC 129. Unfortunately, those contacted refused to discuss on the record the connection between the Culinary Union's fight against Station Casinos and the legalization, or lack thereof, of MMA in New York.
However, MMA Fighting obtained a memo that was circulated in Albany last month by the New York Hotel Trades Council, which is a member of UNITE HERE, outlining their reasons for lobbying against MMA.
There is no acknowledgment of the Culinary Union's fight against Station Casinos in the memo, or even the brutal nature of MMA -- a major talking point for Assemblyman Bob Reilly, New York's loudest critic of MMA.
Instead, the memo focuses primarily on the UFC. It states that the UFC "has achieved nearly a monopoly position in the sport of mixed martial art (sic), to dictate abusive and exploitative contract terms with fighters" and later points to Zuffa's purchase of Strikeforce in March as "potentially" making "it even more difficult for professional mixed martial arts fighters to negotiate fair contracts."
The memo added that MMA fighters do not enjoy "outside-the-ring" protection from "unscrupulous promoters." It points to the fact that "in mixed martial arts, there is also no central industry standard-setting body or a fighters' union. Given these similarities, strong legal safeguards against abusive and exploitative contracts between a promoter and a fighter should be carefully examined before mixed martial arts events are legalized in this State."
When MMA Fighting contacted the UFC about the memo, it responded in a statement that strongly denied the assertion that Zuffa's purchase of Strikeforce constituted the creation of a monopoly.
"There are numerous organizations promoting professional mixed martial arts competitions in the 45 states that regulate the sport, not to mention those fights conducted in states in which the sport remains unregulated but legal," a spokesman on behalf of the UFC stated. "Only New York expressly bans the sport. An economic impact study from February 2011 found that if MMA were regulated in New York the UFC is expected to hold 2 competitions while smaller operators would average about 70. Indeed, in Ohio and California alone, there are over 100 fights a year which have nothing to do with the UFC. The UFC conducts its business in a highly regulated environment and does not engage in any business practices which could remotely be characterized as a restraint to any other organization's ability to conduct its business. To suggest otherwise is without merit."
Another issue brought up in Hotel Trade Council's memo against the UFC and MMA was the "high-profile controversies over fighter pay and contract disputes." It points to certain provisions in UFC contracts that "seem abusive," like the championship clause and fighters being labeled as "independent contractors" despite being exclusively tied to the UFC.
The UFC replied, "the contracts are the standard in the industry and are negotiated fairly. They are generally for a 1-2 year duration and may cover 3-6 matches. The more recognizable fighters can earn millions on their own through endorsements and appearances. To isolate a small number of well publicized business disputes in no way suggests that our business practices are unfair to the vast majority or that the terms of any contracts are onerous."
Monday's announcement that Zuffa will be offering 24-hour, worldwide accident insurance to the 350 fighters contracted to both UFC and Strikeforce beginning June 1 is a strong momentum shift in its favor in the argument against critics who have complained that Zuffa doesn't protect its fighters well enough.
Again, members of UNITE HERE did not reply to MMA Fighting's request for comment on Monday's insurance news.
Perhaps most interestingly, the UFC brought up its effort to work with unionized workers, noting that they have been using the hotel union's very own travel company to ensure that when the UFC puts on events in different North American cities, they are doing business with unionized hotels.
"In Toronto the UFC spent over $1 million in direct wages to union employees. Almost 500 union workers – from stagehands to electricians to security guards to ushers – would be employed for a single UFC event at Madison Square Garden. In fact, the very union opposing this bill and criticizing the UFC's business practices sought its business for its very own travel booking company called Inmex, ensuring that UFC stays in unionized hotels around the country."
The promotion also brought up the irony that a hotel union would fight to keep the UFC, which helps fill up hotels when it comes to town, out of The Empire State. This, the UFC insisted, only further supported White's claim that the real issue here is the Culinary Union's battle with Station Casinos.
"The hotel workers are opposing legislation which would create jobs for their members and seek to disparage a company with which it does business for reasons wholly unrelated to mixed martial arts or even the UFC. We would offer the real motivation for its 'opposition' is the fact that a company in Las Vegas, a totally separate business outside of New York, has not acquiesced in a culinary union organizing drive; the only nexus between these two situations is the fact that some of the owners of the UFC happen to be partial owners of that separate company in Nevada."
This begs the obvious question: Is UNITE HERE against MMA or just the UFC? Since the memo issued by the Hotel Trades Council focuses primarily on the UFC's business practices, one can only assume that their issue lies with the UFC. And what is the root of the issue? According to Dana White and the UFC, it is as far removed from MMA as possible.
"It has nothing to do with MMA. Look at us, look where we're sanctioned, look at all things that happened. It has nothing to do with mixed martial arts. It has to do with the Culinary Union," White said in Toronto. "They're very powerful in New York. These unions on the east coast are still strong like the old school, and that's really what's going on."
For the record, Assemblyman Reilly, who is a strong union supporter, as are many influential politicians at the top of the New York political scene, has been linked to UNITE HERE in the past. In 2006, he received $2,000 in donations from the union. Reilly has since been re-elected to office twice, but there are no records of any contributions from UNITE HERE to his campaigns.
When MMA Fighting contacted Reilly, he quickly shot down the idea that he was working on behalf of UNITE HERE.
"UFC has tried to disparage me by saying I received a contribution from UNITE in 2006 and this is why I've taken my opposition to MMA, and I just think that's attacking the messenger here. I received many contributions of all sorts from unions," Reilly said.
"The people that gave me a donation are far removed from the people in Las Vegas who are reacting against the Fertitta brothers for being non-union people. But the fact that Dana White makes disparaging remarks against unions, I don't find acceptable.
"I think it's an attempt to change the argument where he said, This is all about the unions. It's not all about the unions, it's about MMA. So it's nice to change the argument and say, This is all about the unions and they are opposed to it because the hotels aren't unionized. We don't have that problem in New York. It has nothing to do with New York."
Of the 48 states with athletic commissions, only New York, Connecticut and Vermont do not sanction MMA events. UFC officials appear confident that they will be able to cross Connecticut off their list this year, a state which regularly hosts MMA events on the self-regulated Indian reservations of the Mohegan Sun Resort and Casino and Foxwoods Resort.
The legalization of MMA in New York was on former Gov. David Paterson's budget last year, but was removed after Assemblyman Reilly sent a letter signed by 48 members of the 150-seat Assembly to the speaker, Sheldon Silver, asking for MMA to be excluded from the budget.
In addition, a bill to legalize MMA in New York passed the State Senate and was approved last year in two committees of the Assembly but was not brought up for general vote.
In March, a group of UFC officials and fighters traveled to Albany to make their case once again as to why the sport should be legalized in The Empire State. UFC president Dana White, CEO Lorenzo Fertitta and others presented, among other arguments, an economic impact study, funded by the UFC, stating that major mixed martial arts events held in the State could generate $23 million in annual state revenue for New York.
While New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's current $132.9 billion budget proposal does not include mixed martial arts as a source of revenue, a standalone bill for the legalization and regulation of MMA in New York, passed through the Senate Standing Committee on Cultural Affairs, Tourism, Parks and Recreation, by a vote of 13-1 in March. UFC officials say they are optimistic the senate will pass the bill.
The other major step would then be for the bill to pass through the Assembly before the New York State Legislative Session ends in late June. As with the senate, UFC officials remain confident this will happen this time around.
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