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Las Vegas Casino Workers: A Tradition of Militant Struggle

The Las Vegas Strip is known worldwide. Lined along its flashy flanks stand many of the largest casino resorts in the world. Less known is the militant history of the workers who give life to these pharaonic structures—an army of guest room attendants, cocktail and food servers, porters, bellmen, cooks, bartenders, and laundry and kitchen workers, organized in one of the strongest trade unions in the US. With 60,000 members in its ranks, the Culinary Workers Union Local 226 is the largest union in Nevada.

Through militant struggle, the Culinary Union members have unionized over 90% of the Strip and secured some of the best working conditions in Las Vegas. A unionized housekeeper starts at a wage of $18 an hour and is eligible for full family no-monthly premium or deductible healthcare benefits and a pension plan. These gains have been won by the workers solely through their own organizational efforts, solidarity, and resilience. By contrast, whenever working people have relied on capitalist politicians and the narrow limits of bourgeois law, this has served only to constrain and diminish their immense power. In this period of intensifying economic crisis, workers should stick to the tried-and-true methods of class independence. Politically, this means orienting their mighty forces toward building independent political representation, rooted in the working class as a whole.

Culinary Workers Union Local 226Through militant struggle, the Culinary Union members have unionized over 90% of the Strip and secured some of the best working conditions in Las Vegas. / Image: Barack Obama via Flickr

Advance or retreat?

The second half of the last century marked the beginning of a period of attacks against organized labor in the United States. Following an unprecedented wave of strikes in the postwar period, Taft-Hartley was enacted with bipartisan support in 1947. This legislation, along with the ensuing drive by big business to pass “right-to-work [for less]” laws, meant that the workers’ ability to organize as a class beyond particular trades was severely curtailed. As a result, union membership has been in sharp decline ever since, from a peak of 35% at the beginning of the 1950s, to just 11% today.

Bucking this trend, the Culinary Union has grown from 18,000 members in 1987, to 60,000 today, despite the generally hostile environment for labor. Part of the reason for this anomalous growth is doutbtless due to the workers’ willingness to struggle and to challenge the bosses, going further than most unions in resorting to strike actions and organizing new worksites. Through experience, casino workers have become aware of their power as a united force, understanding that only by using this power can they make real advances and protect past gains.

Culinary Union members went on strike four times in the 1970s. In 1984, more than 17,000 workers from 32 Strip resorts went on a citywide strike and picketed for nine months. From 1991 to 1998, one of the longest and most inspiring strike actions in US history took place in Las Vegas when 550 workers walked out of their job at the Frontier Hotel and Casino and maintained a 24/7 picket for six years, four months, and 10 days, without a single one of them ever crossing the picket line. The workers also voted to approve strike action in 2002, 2007, 2013, and 2018.

Throughout the 1990s, Culinary Union workers unionized nine more of the biggest casino resorts on the Strip. Since 2008, they have been engaged in a determined campaign to organize 12,000 workers at Station Casinos, a chain of 10 mostly neighborhood casino resorts that cater to local residents. Despite a massive antiunion campaign by the company, workers at six out of 10 casino resorts finally won the right to join the union. Just this past June, two more Station Casinos properties were unionized, and 1,000 workers held a picket outside another Station Casinos resort which still refuses to accept the vote whereby 84% of employees chose to join the union over a year ago. The workers even took on Trump in 2015–2016, successfully unionizing workers at Trump Hotel Las Vegas after Trump paid half a million dollars to a “union avoidance” antiunion, busting/consulting firm and fought the workers’ efforts for months.

The tradition of struggle continues to this day. In 2018, when it came time to negotiate a new five-year contract for over 80% of the members, 25,000 members participated in a nearly unanimous vote to authorize a citywide strike. The workers began gearing up immediately and even set up a strike headquarters. Within a few weeks, the workers’ demands were met as they secured a contract with the highest wage increases, healthcare and pension benefits ever negotiated, in addition to several new protections against sexual harassment and language regarding automation and technology. Understanding that the end of one contract negotiation is merely the beginning of preparations for the next one, the union has active shop stewards and volunteer organizers inside the casinos who help enforce the contract and remind the company of the power of its rank-and-file workforce.

Culinary Union workers picket Trump Las Vegas HotelThrough experience, casino workers have become aware of their power as a united force, understanding that only by using this power can they make real advances and protect past gains. / Image: Culinary Union via Flickr

Betrayal by Democrats

The media often credit the Culinary Union with swinging elections in Nevada in favor of Democrats. This is not unjustified. In the 2018 midterm elections, the Culinary Union’s political team and volunteers knocked on over 370,000 doors in the state, made 45,000 personal calls, and sent out 1.75 million mailers. The union even shuttled thousands of workers from their worksites to the polls. And yet, despite the heavy investment and mobilization by the union to elect “friendly politicians,” Democrats, who have been historically complicit in antilabor policies, have made no serious push to further union rights or meaningfully improve the conditions of the working class.

This year, for the first time in 27 years, with the help of the Culinary Union, Democrats in Nevada achieved full party control of the state assembly, the state senate, and the governor’s office. This means they could have passed any law they wanted at the biennial legislative session that recently ended. Unsurprisingly, this capitalist party unapologetically defended the class interests it represents. One of the Democrats’ central campaign promises was to raise the minimum wage. While the popular nationwide call for $15 an hour is already recognized as conservative because this figure is below a living wage (Culinary Union members in Las Vegas earn an average of $26 an hour including wages and benefits), the Democrats’ best proposal was $12 by 2020, which they later amended to $8 by 2020 with a gradual increase to $12 by 2024. Democratic Party politicians then had the nerve to tout this as a great victory for workers.

During a Culinary Union rally held in May 2019 in support of a bill intended to grant state employees collective bargaining rights for wages and benefits, D. Taylor, the head of the Culinary’s parent union, UNITE HERE, called the bill “labor’s top issue this legislative session.” In the end, the bill eventually approved by Democrats gives the governor the final say over whether the state would fund the wages and benefits bargained for by AFSCME workers. Furthermore, it makes it illegal for them to strike, arguably crushing the union’s ultimate leverage.

Members of the Culinary Union, the largest immigrant organization in Nevada, are deeply invested in the struggle for rights for undocumented immigrant workers. A May Day rally organized by the union in 2017 in defense of immigrants drew nearly 5,000 marchers. That same year, the Democratic majority at the state legislature killed a bill that would have stopped the police from acting as ICE agents. This year, after winning the governorship, Democrats again killed an even weaker version of the bill, proving once again that their “love” for immigrants—professed so ardently during election season—is just a cynical ploy to con workers into handing them votes.

Culinary Union 226 supports immigrant rightsMembers of the Culinary Union, the largest immigrant organization in Nevada, are deeply invested in the struggle for rights for undocumented immigrant workers. / Image: Fair Use

At the rally for union rights for AFSCME workers, Taylor said that labor wouldn’t forget what happens come election time. But as long as unions around the country continue to support the two-party system, this threat is as empty as the promises and illusory gains peddled by the Democrats, who know that the other wing of the bourgeois party is even more hostile to organized labor.

Playing by the enemy’s rules

48% of nonunionized workers in the US would join a union if given the opportunity to do so, according to a 2018 MIT survey. What accounts then for the immense gap between the proportion of workers who want to be unionized and those who actually belong to a union?

A key factor lies in the constraints of the legal scheme, of which Taft-Hartley is part. The web of labor control spun by pro-capitalist politicians makes it incredibly burdensome for workers to gain legal recognition for a union, while simultaneously enabling businesses to easily and legally quash them. In the long process required to cast a vote for unionization, the employees are forced to attend mandatory antiunion meetings. They can also be compelled to endure one-on-one antiunion pitches from their supervisors, who can lawfully insinuate that a vote for the union would result in layoffs or closure. Companies also engage in rampant violations, from threats and harassment to surveillance and terminations, knowing full well that proving these abuses requires lengthy legal proceedings and the penalties are very weak.

For instance, in 2011, Station Casinos was found to have engaged in 87 such violations against the Culinary Union’s organizing drive. Some of the penalties, including offering to rehire unlawfully fired workers and to post an order at one of the properties. This is not much of a deterrent. An entire industry exists, made up of consulting firms which guide companies through the process of union-busting. Such is the farce of “freedom to organize under bourgeois democracy.

It is evident that all the gains of Culinary Union members have come through their independent struggle and sacrifice—and not at all through the good graces of bourgeois politicians and their machine or the legal system. Militancy is the only approach that has produced any results. In this time of increased precarity, when more and more workers are struggling to survive, it is time for union workers to focus their energies and immense power on building a party of their own, oriented to the whole working class.

Both parties of capital have shown their true colors time and again. Only a party of workers like the Culinary Union members, independent from the bosses and fighting for a socialist program, will be able and willing to put up a strenuous fight to repeal Taft-Hartley and all other antiunion laws. Such a party must be willing and ready to fight for universal access to affordable, quality healthcare, housing, jobs, and education. It must boldly fight climate change, to end all forms of discrimination, and to unconditionally legalize all immigrant workers. Above all, it must challenge the capitalists’ rule and its endless horrors. With the deepening crisis of capitalism and another economic crash around the corner, this is the only way to guarantee a dignified future for all workers.

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