Security guards form first union in Las Vegas Sands’ empire

Over the last 23 years Sheldon Adelson has built Las Vegas Sands Corp. into the world’s largest casino company — bigger than the next 10 competitors combined.

He’s done it without having a single one of his 40,000 workers in Las Vegas, Asia and Bethlehem, Pa., join a labor union.

Now a band of security guards making $13 an hour may be on the verge of ending the world’s 14th-richest person’s winning streak.

The National Labor Relations Board has ordered Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem to begin bargaining with its 130 security guards as a labor union. Pending an appeal to a federal court, Local 777 would become the first union in Las Vegas Sands’ $35-billion gaming empire.

The NLRB ruling, dated Wednesday, says Sands engaged in unfair labor practices by refusing to bargain with the guards, and ordered casino officials to recognize that the guards are a union.

Sands officials called the ruling routine and pledged to appeal the matter to a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C.

“It’s been a good clean fight, but it’s time to sit down and start talking,” said George Bonser, lead delegate for the local unit of the Law Enforcement Employees Benevolent Assn. “They certainly fought us every step of the way, but I’m hoping we can finally start bargaining.”

Though a relatively small bargaining unit in Las Vegas Sands’ smallest casino, the guards could find themselves an unlikely victor against a casino company whose founder has aggressively resisted organized labor for more than two decades. In Las Vegas, Adelson is one of the few casino owners who has been able to keep the powerful, 60,000-member culinary union out of his gambling resorts, in part by paying his workers more than union workers.

At one point, Adelson even fought to keep culinary union workers from leafleting on the public sidewalk outside the Venetian. When police and local courts told him he couldn’t, he spent eight years appealing the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court before giving up.

The guards in Bethlehem first asked to seek certification in May 2011 and voted in July to unionize. They called themselves Local 777, the so-called lucky numbers Sands uses in its address and phone number.

“We weren’t trying to be smart or disrespectful,” Bonser said. “We just kind of liked it.”

Sands appealed several of their efforts and, last August, alleged that the guards had intimidated their colleagues into voting to unionize. Those allegations were withdrawn and the guards sought to begin bargaining for a contract in March, but Sands officials refused, according to the NLRB ruling.

In its order, the NLRB directs Sands to recognize the union and begin bargaining.