It’s a recent afternoon in front of the Cosmopolitan and more than 2,000 picketers from the Culinary Union are yelling.
“Cosmopolitan, look around,” they shout. “Las Vegas is a union town!”
The chants echo past the heads of 100 union members sitting in the middle of Las Vegas Boulevard, waiting for police to throw them in jail. They’re protesting in solidarity for 2,000 employees inside the resort who have been working without a contract for almost two years.
The workers still don’t have a contract.
As Nevada focuses on recovering from the collapsed real estate market and sweeping recession that hemorrhaged jobs and rocketed the unemployment rate to a record level, it’s easy to question the state and strength of unions here. Nevada is a right-to-work state, meaning workers can decide for themselves whether to join a union.
But organized labor appears to be stronger here than anywhere else.
“Is Vegas still a big union city? Yes,” said Jeff Waddoups, a UNLV researcher who studies unions. Membership is “not growing, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less powerful.”
The recession canceled construction projects statewide, shrank Nevada’s workforce and plunged the percentage of union workers in the state to 14.6. At its peak in 1996, 20 percent of Nevadans were represented by unions.
Nationally, the pull of organized labor has shrunk even more. In the early 1980s, when the government began keeping track of membership, unions represented 30 percent of the workforce. Today, they represent fewer than 12 percent of workers.
Why has the Culinary survived in Las Vegas?
Because the health of the Strip is dependent on the health of the union. And despite ebbs and flows for both, neither is likely to cease existing.
“They’ve found their fates to be inextricably linked,” said Billy Vassiliadis, CEO of media, government and public affairs firm R&R Partners. “The union has become institutionalized in Las Vegas.”
The upsides and drawbacks of union membership
• Job security. Union contracts prevent workers from arbitrarily being fired by management. They ensure that employees can be fired only if they fail to meet the requirements of their job.
• Better wages and benefits. Unions negotiate hourly wages that typically are significantly higher than minimum wage. Benefits include health care and a pension.
• Training opportunities. Unions offer workers a chance to improve their current skills and learn new ones, enabling them to move into different positions if they desire.
• Safety. Because union contracts are negotiated with input from workers, they typically include provisions to ensure workplace safety.
• A voice. Unions can empower workers to stand up against injustices at work.
• Cost. Workers pay union dues. Employers foot the bill for higher wages and benefits.
• Strikes. Workers can strike in large numbers, halting business and hurting revenue.
• Conformity. The union’s collective voice could drown out the voice of the individual worker.
• Entitlement. Seniority trumps good work in shift assignments.
• Division. Unions can dilute human resources decisions and hamper a company’s ability to deal with issues directly.
The Culinary represents food and beverage, housekeeping and other service staff at 33 of the Strip’s 40 properties and all but one downtown casino. Members are predominantly immigrants and represent 84 countries.
Non-unionized properties include the Venetian, Palazzo, Hard Rock Hotel, Palms, the Quad and Casino Royale. Las Vegas Sands Chairman and CEO Sheldon Adelson has been among the most vocal union opponents. Workers at those resorts have not asked to organize.
Politically, the Culinary has influenced elections, not with dollars but with its size. It helped secure victories for President Barack Obama in 2008 and Sen. Harry Reid in 2010.
The Culinary organized in 1938 and almost immediately was rumored to have ties to organized crime. People said union brass did business with Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel and workers hobnobbed with gangsters.
In 1977, union president Al Bramlet was shot to death at the edge of the desert, a year after Chicago mobsters roughed him up in a Las Vegas saloon. A high-ranking gangster later pleaded guilty to the murder.
Bramlet had been fighting the mob’s efforts to take over the union.
The Culinary’s image began to change during the 1960s and 1970s, when business on the Strip began to shift. Corporations started to take over hotels and casinos that mostly had been controlled by family-owned companies. Corporate leaders quickly realized the strength of the union and tried to bully members into settling for less lucrative contracts. The Culinary fought back.
First, it was a four-day walkout in 1970. Then, a two-week strike against 15 Strip casinos.
In 1984, the Culinary commanded one of the largest strikes in Las Vegas history. More than 17,000 workers took to the streets to protest 32 Strip resorts. Culinary leaders had carved out contracts with owners of 15 properties but couldn’t reach an agreement with the others.
“They wanted to completely destroy the union,” Culinary Secretary-Treasurer Geoconda Arguello-Kline said.
The battle ended nine months later when 900 picketers landed in jail and six casinos — most of which no longer exist — severed their union ties. The crumbled relationships cost union members more than $70 million in lost wages and benefits.
Still, the Culinary saw the strike as a major victory. The majority of resorts signed contracts workers could live with. Some still reap the benefits today.
Buoyed by its success, the Culinary struck again in September 1991 with a protest of the Frontier. It turned out to be the longest strike in U.S. history.
For six years, four months and 10 days, 550 hotel and restaurant workers held a 24-hour picket line outside the casino.
The strike ended Jan. 31, 1998, when Frontier management invited most of the employees back to work. Others found jobs elsewhere.
Debbie Jeffries, a cocktail waitress at Bally’s, had just moved from Indiana when the strike erupted. It was her first glimpse at the power of her union.
“It was kind of similar to what we’re fighting for now,” Jeffries said. “It seems that every so often these corporations make you prove yourself.”
Today, the Culinary is at war with Station Casinos. The union’s campaign to organize workers has lasted years. Station officials say its workers don’t want to join the union.
In 2010, the Culinary filed more than 80 charges against Station with the National Labor Relations Board alleging unfair labor practices. Union members said supervisors targeted union supporters, bullied them, cut their shifts and threatened to fire them in an effort to kill the campaign.
Station had just emerged from bankruptcy, during which it shed $4 billion in debt. The company used its newfound financial freedom to buy radio and television ads accusing the Culinary of hurting business in Las Vegas by trying to organize Station’s 13,000 employees.
The Labor Relations Board ruled in 2012 that Station had in fact violated federal labor law in its anti-union efforts.
“We got a long history of fighting behind us, a long history that will maintain itself,” Jeffries said. “I got here and fought for myself. I think I’ll keep going.”
As the Strip grew, so too did the Culinary.
The union’s rapid rise began in 1989, shortly after Steve Wynn pumped $650 million into the Mirage, Las Vegas’ first megaresort. Wynn set a precedent by making an agreement with the Culinary.
He vowed he wouldn’t fight organization at his resorts if the majority of workers wanted a union. It was one of the first agreements of its kind on the Strip and marked the beginning of card check in Las Vegas.
“It allowed us to organize without employer interference,” said D. Taylor, former secretary-treasurer of the Culinary and current president of UNITE HERE.
The approach helped maintain good relations between the casinos and union members for the next several years, just as Las Vegas’ building boom of the early 1990s took off. During that time, the union’s size ballooned by an average of 15 percent a year.
The number of tourists coming to the city also skyrocketed. Between 1989, when the Mirage opened, and 1997, the average number of yearly visitors in Las Vegas almost doubled from 18 million to 30 million.
Resorts needed employees to serve all the guests coming to town. Many of the jobs went to Culinary members.
Union membership, like tourism and the economy in general, got smaller after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It was the first time Las Vegas reported a loss of visitors.
Resorts reconciled the loss in revenue by cutting 15,000 Strip workers. Of the union’s 50,000 members, about 25 percent, or 12,500 workers, felt the sting.
The next few years were a time of recovery for the Culinary. By 2006, as Las Vegas’ next building boom raged, membership peaked at 61,000.
The expansion was short-lived. The next plateau came in 2008 as the economy began to crumble. Las Vegas lost 2 million visitors in the years that followed, and casinos cut close to 4,000 union workers.
Today, Culinary membership is beginning to creep back toward its peak. Union leaders expect the upward trend to continue as the valley’s economic health improves and resorts grow.
“We had a lot of layoffs,” Arguello-Kline said. “We want to get people back to work. We’re going in that direction.”
The Culinary’s focus always has been maintaining workers’ standard of living, including job security, fair wages and health benefits.
To that end, the Culinary has wholly succeeded. Its workers have some of the highest wages in the country.
For instance, bartenders and housekeepers at most Strip hotels make $16 an hour, plus free health care and a pension. By comparison, casino and hotel bartenders in Midwestern states make about $9 an hour.
In Las Vegas, restaurant cashiers typically make $17 an hour. The national average is $10 an hour.
Even despite tightened spending by tourists, the union has kept workers’ wages high.
“It’s not easy to get what we’ve got,” Arguello-Kline said. “The companies have never said, ‘Here, this is yours.’ It has never been that way. I don’t think it’ll happen in the present, and I don’t think it’ll happen in the future.”
Culinary leaders now are getting ready to sit down with executives from the Strip’s two largest companies, MGM Resorts International and Caesars Entertainment, to renegotiate contracts set to expire June 1.
MGM has a $13 billion debt load, Caesars about $20 billion. Both companies’ financial challenges could influence workers’ contracts.
Vassiliadis described both sides as having “different realities.” Casino companies are trying to pinch pennies to stay afloat and increase profits. Employees struggle with the rising cost of living.
Leadership at both companies say they expect to maintain a good relationship with the Culinary and reach mutually beneficial agreements. They don’t have much choice: Union members make up most of their workforce.
“For many years, MGM Resorts and the members of the Culinary and Bartenders Unions have worked together as partners,” MGM spokesman Gordon Absher said. “As with most all of life’s long-term relationships, we have on occasion approached things differently, but, in the end, we find that we share common goals. Amidst changing economic realities we’ve all faced in recent years, we are challenged together to write a smart contract for future growth, both for the company and the unions.”