Labor Politics at the Heart of MMA’s Impasse in New York

October 7, 2008

Madison Square Garden stands as a Mecca for the UFC, a crowning jewel to cap its efforts to see MMA accepted at the highest of levels. But the Garden remains just beyond its reach as the company has been unsuccessful in getting the state legislature in New York to legalize and regulate MMA. But the battle over MMA in New York has little to do with the sport. Instead MMA finds itself caught in the crossfire of an organized labor battle.

Sanctioning efforts in New York have been underway for several years now, but the best hope for passage seemed to come earlier this year. Leading into the June committee vote on MMA legislation, the prospects of the UFC in MSG in the very near future looked good. A bill had passed the Assembly unanimously last year before stalling, that bill would now head to the Tourism committee and presumably to the larger Assembly for a full vote.

Passage seemed to be a mere formality. UFC President Dana White was said to be confident that the bill would pass and rumors circulated that the subject of a major announcement that the company was planning at the time (which turned out to be Lorenzo Fertitta’s move) was sanctioning in New York. But once the committee went into session, seemingly all hell broke loose.

The bill was voted down in overwhelming fashion. Adding to the surprise result was that Steve Englebright, the Assemblyman who introduced the proposal, actually ended up voting against the measure according to a report by

The committee decided to revisit the bill in a week, with passage still believed to be inevitable, but it was ultimately tabled for the next session of the legislature. According to a report by, the vote on the bill in the Tourism, Arts, and Sports Development Committee will now wait until January of 2009.

“It was put on the committee’s agenda, but the chair decided it would be best for purposes of clarification to give all sides an opportunity to weigh in so the best interests of the participants and the state of New York could be served,” Elizabeth Nostrand, Legislative Director for Englebrecht, told

Many in the MMA community interpreted the result as another example of ignorance about the sport. However, in actuality the result had little to do with MMA and everything to do with a battle that has been raging in Las Vegas outside of the octagon.

According to WCBS, the sole correspondence received by the Committee was from UNITE HERE, the hotel and restaurant workers’ union. The letter cited the American Medical Association’s opposition to the sport as well as the alleged concerns of policeman about teenagers emulating the sport on the streets. The union urged the committee to “fully explore” the “social cost” of sanctioning MMA in New York.

UNITE HERE is a powerful force in the state with 90,000 members in New York. Last year the union spent $100,000 lobbying the Albany legislature and made more than $130,000 in political contributions to the Democratic and Working Families parties. That financial commitment dwarfs the UFC’s reported $40,000 in donations to New York Democrats.

The union’s opposition to sanctioning is the result of its failed efforts to unionize the Fertitta’s Station Casinos in Las Vegas. The Culinary Union Local 226, the Las Vegas local of UNITE HERE, is the largest local of the union in the United States and it’s most politically potent. However, it has failed to crack into the locals casino market in the city, one dominated by Station Casinos which is the last major non-union company in Las Vegas.

The family owned Station Casinos has long been staunchly open shop, but its relations with UNITE HERE took a turn for the worse with the company’s purchase of a union casino in 2000. Station fired 1,000 union workers and required them to reapply for their jobs. Only 150 were rehired according to union officials.

“This was something new for Las Vegas,” Courtney Alexander, research director for Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local 226, told the Sacramento Bee. “Casinos are bought and sold all the time, and we had no history of mass terminations when a new owner came in… I think it marked a turning point in how Station was viewed as an employer in this town.”

Scott Nielson, General Counsel for Station Casinos, told the Sacramento Bee, “we’ve said all along we are not anti-union, we are just pro-employee. If our employees believe they want to have someone involved to speak to management for them, they can. We’ve been here for 27 years, they’ve never felt the need to do that.”

Since that confrontation UNITE HERE has made itself a thorn in Station’s side. The union worked with the Sierra Club to force an amendment to the blueprints for Station’s Red Rock Casino and purchased stock in the company in order to affect its corporate governance, attempting to enact amendments to the company’s executive compensation structure and shareholders’ voting rights. In 2007 the company decided to go private, perhaps in part to avoid these types of corporate governance issues.

The union’s efforts to stop the Fertitta’s efforts in New York go back several years. The group’s close ties to members of the Tourism committee, as well as the assembly at large, were instrumental in stopping the push to sanction MMA. A source familiar with the union’s efforts told, “(UNITE HERE) is probably the only thing standing in the way of MMA being sanctioned in New York.”

The letter to the committee is the most concrete example of the union’s efforts to derail sanctioning efforts; however, other less visible efforts have been under way for quite some time. The union’s 2007 lobbying disclosure form lists Healthy NY, Budget, Albany Convention Center, General Casino Gaming Issues, IDA Reform, Labor Peace, Labor Issues, and Mixed Martial-Arts as issues of interest to UNITE HERE.

Marc Ratner of the UFC attributed the bill’s failure to a lack of understanding of the sport. “One of the legislators needs to be properly educated, because he said something about no referees. Some people think it is still no holds barred or no rules,” Ratner told That process may be considerably more difficult than the company imagines as sources indicate to that UNITE HERE’s own “education” efforts have been under way for some time. has learned that the union authored and distributed a DVD on the violence of MMA that was given to all Democratic members of the New York Assembly. The DVD prominently displayed the more violent aspects of the sport, with Chuck Liddell’s head-kick of Babalu being prominent in the footage. Additionally, the union engaged in efforts to enlist fellow unions in their opposition to MMA in New York using a white paper that tied together the AMA’s anti-MMA position along with a report on children’s violence.

The union’s influence over the Tourism Committee is particularly strong thanks to its history of political contributions to its members, including Bob Reilly who has been an outspoken critic of MMA, quoted by Thomas Hauser in an anti-MMA article that appeared on Reilly reportedly stopped the June bill almost single-handedly in the committee.

With the bill expected to be revisited in January, it will be interesting to see what political progress the respective parties have made in the interim. For MMA enthusiasts, it is both sad and difficult to see their sport held hostage by an unrelated political dispute, but that seems to be the current reality. Regardless of your personal feelings on organized labor, MMA deserves to be voted up or down in New York based on its own merits, not held as political ransom.

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