This story by Anjeanette Damon appeared March 15, 2010 in the Reno Gazette Journal.
To hear former state Sen. Sue Lowden tell it, she was the lone vote that stood in the way of the state’s powerful labor unions’ attempt to overturn Nevada’s voter-approved right-to-work status in a tense legislative battle in 1995.
The bill, as Lowden recounts, would have started the reversal process of the law that prohibits union membership from being a condition of employment.
“I was a state senator in this very difficult time of right to work,” Lowden said in an interview. “You know, was it going one way or another? And it went right through the Assembly. It passed that the state would not be a right-to-work state. And I stopped it in the Senate.”
The only problem?
There never was such a bill, and there never was such a vote, which Lowden acknowledged later when pressed for specifics.
As Lowden embarks on a campaign in a crowded Republican primary to determine who takes on U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., in November, she’s positioning herself as a foe to organized labor. It’s a role she knows well. She and her husband, Paul Lowden, were central figures in the Culinary Union‘s historic battle to organize workers at the Santa Fe, one of four casinos they owned in Southern Nevada. If the Culinary Union had succeeded, it would have been the first union neighborhood casino in the Las Vegas valley.
The couple spent seven years fighting the Culinary’s attempts to organize the Santa Fe. The Culinary won a unionizing vote but failed to reach agreement on a contract before the Lowdens sold the property in 2000.
While the Culinary Union lost that battle, it succeeded in ending Lowden’s nascent political career. Sinking significant resources into its “So Long Sue” campaign, the union defeated her re-election effort in 1996.
If Lowden wins this year’s Republican primary, some see a rematch brewing with the union, which supports Reid.
Lowden was engaged in an ugly battle with the union over her business dealings. But she was never the swing vote on a repeal of Nevada’s right-to-work law as a state senator, despite having claimed intense pressure from the union to change her vote on the bill that didn’t exist.
“This is during the time I’m voting on right to work, which passed by one vote,” she said. “And I’m in a Democrat district. And they came to me and said we will back off on your re-election if you just vote the other way.”
In 1995, the Senate did consider a bill that would have amended the right-to-work law by guaranteeing an employee’s right to join a union. That measure failed in the Senate by a 3-to-15 vote. The bill never made it to the Assembly.”I don’t even know what she’s talking about,” said D. Taylor, secretary-treasurer of Culinary Local 225 who was involved in the fight to unionize the Santa Fe. “I guess that’s a bill that’s all in her mind.”Republicans controlled the Senate, 13-8, and the Assembly was evenly split.”You think Republicans would pass repealing right to work?” Taylor said.Unable to find any bill that matched Lowden’s description, the Reno Gazette-Journal asked her to clarify her remarks. She admitted she had been wrong in her re-telling of the 1995 session.
“I absolutely want to clarify that,” she said. “We’ve gone over the records meticulously, which maybe I should’ve done before I said anything. It was my vivid recollections of so many close votes. That’s how I remembered it, but the record doesn’t show it.”
She chalked the mistake up to the 15-year time lapse and the fact that she was the swing vote on many important issues in the 1993 session. Her election to the Legislature in 1992 swung control of the Senate to Republicans.
“We had a lot of 11-10 votes,” she said.
Although a concerted, and well-funded, labor effort opposing her candidacy could give Lowden troubles in the general election, the opposite could be true in a Republican primary.
Indeed, Lowden is working to cultivate an image as an enemy of “union bosses.”
“Union bosses have had Harry Reid in their pocket for a long time, and they have been out to ‘beat’ me for almost as long,” she wrote in a recent fundraising letter.
She’s walking a fine line, focusing her attacks on “big labor union bosses” while saying that she’s working for the working person’s vote.
“I’m courting the rank and file,” she said. “There are a lot of former employees we consider friends. It goes beyond membership in a union.”
Lowden has sought to make job creation a centerpiece of her campaign.
But the Reid campaign has picked up where the Culinary Union left off 14 years ago, combing through old public records to paint a picture of her as a failed businesswoman who was cited for unfair labor practices, gave her husband hefty bonuses during times of employee layoffs and had multiple health code violations at her properties.
State Senate Minority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno, a long-time friend of Lowden’s who was her mentor in the state Senate and is on the board of her gaming corporation, disputed that Lowden lacked business acumen.
“I doubt there is any company that you can find in the state of Nevada that’s a gaming company that hasn’t done exactly the same and even more,” Raggio said of the layoffs. “She has a good business head. She is not just window dressing. She is active. She’s on the board, and she’s hands on.”
Lowden recalls the 1990s war with the union as a difficult time for her and her family.
“Our home was picketed. My children were picketed. We had picketers lay down in the lobby of our hotel,” she said. “We had to have Metro (police) come arrest people one by one.
“I had to be escorted off the Senate floor. Security felt it was important to escort me to my car.”
Taylor acknowledged picketers engaged in “civil disobedience” protests but said no police report was filed for any threatening behavior by union members.
“They made those allegations about their children, but I’ve never seen one single police report,” Taylor said. “We’ve been having disputes with casinos for a long, long time, and no one has ever accused us of that, except them.”
But Lowden and her husband also recount with a bit of pride the efforts they took to prevent the Santa Fe from being organized. They said they had a long and peaceful relationship with the union, which represented employees at their two casinos on the Las Vegas strip.
Paul Lowden said that changed when the union threatened to strike at those casinos if the Lowdens didn’t negotiate a contract for the Santa Fe.
“They saw an opportunity to leverage to be able to force us to unionize, without a vote, the Santa Fe, by threatening a walk out at the Sahara and Hacienda,” he said. “I wasn’t gonna be leveraged.”
The Lowdens implemented what they called the economic portions of the contract being sought by the union at the Sahara and Hacienda, giving their employees raises and benefit increases in the hopes it would placate them enough, so they wouldn’t want to strike for another hotel.
The Lowdens also stopped automatically collecting dues for the union.
“Let them collect them,” Lowden said with a laugh. “Why would we collect them? They went nuts.”
Taylor denied they made any walkout threats on the Sahara or Hacienda.
“We were under a collective bargaining agreement,” he said. “That is a ludicrous proposition to do that. They could’ve gone to federal court, had us enjoined.”
The Culinary Union ultimately won a labor election at the Santa Fe in 1993. The Lowdens appealed the results for three years and eventually began negotiating a contract.
But at the same time, the Lowdens had financial difficulties with another property, the Pioneer Hotel in Laughlin.
They were unable to make a $60 million balloon payment on bonds that financed their purchase of the Pioneer. Seeking to extend the bond term, they received a forbearance on the debt from 75 percent of their investors.
But a minority of investors, who had their eyes set on acquiring the Santa Fe, attempted to force the parent company into Chapter 7 bankruptcy. The Lowdens eventually entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy to reorganize and reached an agreement in which all of their debt holders eventually were paid.
To make that final debt payment on the Pioneer, the Lowdens used some proceeds from the sale of the Santa Fe to Station Casinos.Lowden denied that the sale of the Santa Fe was forced by the bankruptcy. She and her husband also denied that they sold the Santa Fe to keep it from being unionized.
“The real reason? $205 million,” Paul Lowden said. “They made us an offer we couldn’t refuse.”
But Paul Lowden acknowledged that the sale angered the Culinary Union.
“They did everything they could to stop that sale,” he said.
Station, which remains a bitter rival of the Culinary Union because unionization attempts have failed over the years, forced all of the Santa Fe’s employees to re-apply for their jobs. It broke the unionization attempt.
“They fired everybody,” Taylor said. “They lost everything.”
Lowden shrugged off questions about whether she took personally the Culinary Unions actions in her state Senate race.
“It’s life,” she said. “Life was tough. It is what it is. I was surprised when I won the first time.”
Taylor also denied the Culinary Union would take special interest in defeating Lowden if she wins the GOP primary.
“We’ve already said we’re supportive of Sen. Reid,” he said. “For us, we’re organizing Station Casinos. We have a big battle there. We’ve got our day-to-day efforts. We’re not really focused in on (the Senate race.)”