A case study in New York and Las Vegas union politics.
The Ultimate Fighting Championship is known for its mix of "karate, jiu-jitsu, boxing, kickboxing, grappling, wrestling, sumo and other combat sports," played in an "Octagon" cage between two impressively muscled fighters who win by "knockout, submission or decision." None of that has prepared UFC executives for the eye-gouges and below-the-belt punches of New York politics.
Millions of Americans know UFC's mixed-martial arts from television and matches in arenas across the 48 states where its fights are legal. The sport has grown in popularity, especially among young men, and its events bring in hundreds of millions of dollars a year in revenue and other economic activity. But the sport—which is heavily regulated by state athletic commissions—remains illegal in Connecticut and New York. The reason? Union politics in Nevada, of all places.
The Culinary Workers Union Local 226 of Las Vegas, which represents hotel and restaurant workers, has a long-standing vendetta against UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta because he and his brother Frank run casinos and hotels that aren't unionized. The union hasn't dared to run an organizing election on one of the Fertitta properties. But the union is still trying to leverage its political clout to stop UFC expansion wherever it can.
Enter Sheldon Silver, the boss of New York politics. Democrats dominate the state Assembly, and Mr. Silver of lower Manhattan dominates his fellow Democrats. He's been Speaker since 1994, and he's refused even to allow a vote on a bill to legalize mixed-martial arts in the state.
The bill has passed the state Senate four years in a row only to be bottled up each time by Mr. Silver. Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Morelle is the bill's lead supporter and he has 63 co-sponsors out of 150 members. But even he can't get a vote past Mr. Silver, who won't explain his opposition.
UFC has tried to work behind the scenes, but it has more or less been told that the price of getting into New York is to bow to the culinary union. Specifically, the union wants the Fertitta brothers to declare their neutrality in any election and let the union onto their properties to organize via a non-secret "card check" tally. That means potentially subjecting employees to union intimidation, and the Fertittas have understandably refused.
The culinary workers have launched websites attacking UFC, picketed UFC sponsors such as MetroPCS PCS -0.50% and sent letters denouncing the company to teachers at Bishop Gorman High School, where the Fertitta kids attend classes. The union has also complained to the Federal Trade Commission, which launched an antitrust investigation of UFC's parent company, Zuffa, in 2011 for an acquisition of a competing promoter, before dropping the case less than a year later.
Meanwhile, Mr. Silver's obstinance is costing the New York economy, which could benefit from as many as 50 bouts a year. UFC estimates that only two fights, in Manhattan's Madison Square Garden and Buffalo's HSBC HSBA.LN +1.36% Arena, could generate as much as $16 million in business for the Empire State. The economically bereft upstate could use the jobs in particular.
Governor Andrew Cuomo has made supporting noises about UFC's request to enter the state, but as usual he refuses to take on a union, much less Mr. Silver. So it goes in New York, which desperately needs jobs but where union political extortion is nastier than anything you'll ever see in the Octagon.