What do casinos and martial arts have in common?

In the mixed martial arts world, the last few weeks were spent in anticipation of UFC Fight Night 26: Shogun vs Sonnen on the debuting FOX Sports 1 network. However, the battles wouldn’t just be confined to the octagon.

Members of Unite Here spoke in opposition to the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) holding an event in Boston where minors could attend, and called for the state athletic commission to sanction fighter Chael Sonnen because he had been convicted of a “crime involving moral turpitude.” Sonnen was eventually cleared to fight and a very watered down regulation limiting youth attendance was passed. But this was just the latest foray of the proxy war between the Unite Here Culinary Union Local 226 and the Fertitta brothers, owners of UFC’s parent company.

Frank III and Lorenzo Fertitta co-own Zuffa LLC, the parent company of the UFC. They also own the Las Vegas based Station Casinos, where Culinary Union Local 226 has been engaged in a more than a decade long battle for union recognition with the Fertitta ownership group.

Tensions between the sides worsened in 2007 after the owners engaged in a leveraged buyout to gain $660 million, but saddled the company with added debt. Two years later, Station Casinos had to file Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Nearly 3,000 jobs were cut – approximately 20 percent of the Station Casino workforce – and those who stayed faced rising health care costs, no raises for five years, and the loss of their 401k employer matches.

Workers highlighted the horrid conditions of employment by going on a weeklong hunger strike in April 2012. Months later, Station Casinos was found guilty of one of the largest number of National Labor Relations Board violations in Nevada gaming history. In October 2012, the NLRB declared 82 violations including firing and punishing workers for their union activities.

As the struggle to organize the employees at the Station Casinos continues, the union has begun utilizing another point of pressure – the Fertitta co-owned UFC. Thus, the proxy war began.

The summer and fall of 2012 saw the development of the UFC=Unfit For Children campaign to pressure sponsors to drop out. The campaign highlighted offensive comments from UFC President Dana White and UFC fighters. It eventually got the U.S. Marine Corps to withdraw its financial sponsorship deal with the company in December 2012.

Due in large part to the campaign to push sponsors to disassociate themselves from the UFC brand over the conduct of Dana White and some of the contracted fighters, the company adopted a code of conduct to govern fighter behavior. While implementation of the policy has been left wanting in cases like Matt Mitrione and Nate Diaz, the pressure from this proxy campaign has helped developed the beginning of a structure of accountability for unprofessional actions by these combat sport pros.

Unite Here’s campaign has highlighted some very significant problems with this sport, especially poor working conditions and the lack of basic freedoms to freely join a union without facing repercussions. The UFC clearly has problems, especially with the lack of meaningful enforcement of the code of conduct and Dana White letting stupid remarks fall out of his mouth at times. These are inhibiting it from becoming a more mainstream sport with national and international media exposure, rather than a niche product.

The proxy war between the union and the UFC has brought the labor battle to national attention. It has led the UFC to provide basic protections for its fighters and curb the worst problem behavior of its ownership and employees. The issues raised have also been a significant factor preventing mixed martial arts from being legalized in one of the biggest markets – New York.

We may not be sure that this proxy war will bring success to the unionization campaign of the Station Casinos workers in Las Vegas. Nor can we be certain the reforms at the UFC will be long-term and meaningful. But one thing we can be sure about is that as long as the labor injustice at Station Casinos continues, the political rumbles of pressure on the UFC will as well.

Photo: A UFC bout, September 2007. Wikimedia Commons


Neil Parthun
Neil Parthun

Neil Parthun is an activist and a sports fan. He attempts to bring these two worlds together with his weekly radio show/podcast/TV show "Not Another Sports Show" and with his writing. His goal is to help build a space that shows people can care about both social justice and sports.