Steven Greenhouse reports on the success of HERE Local 226 in organizing a largely minority and immigrant culinary workforce and fighting in solidarity to seize middle class status:
In most other cities, these workers live near the poverty line. But thanks in large part to the Culinary, in Las Vegas these workers often own homes and have Rolls-Royce health coverage, a solid pension plan and three weeks of vacation a year. The Culinary’s extraordinary success at delivering for its 48,000 members beckons newcomers from far and wide. By many measures, the Culinary is the nation’s most successful union local; its membership has nearly tripled from 18,000 in the late 1980’s, even as the rest of the labor movement has shrunk. The Culinary is such a force that one in 10 people here is covered by its health plan, and more than 90 percent of the hotel workers on the Strip belong to the union. The union is also unusual because it is a rainbow coalition, 65 percent nonwhite and 70 percent female. It includes immigrants from Central America, refugees from the Balkan wars and blacks from the Deep South.
The Culinary’s success cannot be separated from the industry’s wealth. With the profits rolling in, the casinos have decided to be relatively magnanimous to their workers to ensure labor peace and a happy work force. “When you’re in the service business, the first contact our guests have is with the guest-room attendants or the food and beverage servers, and if that person’s unhappy, that comes across to the guests very quickly,” said J. Terrence Lanni, chairman of the MGM Mirage, which owns the MGM Grand, the world’s largest hotel, with 5,000 rooms and 8,200 employees. “These are people who are generally happy. Is it perfect? No. But it’s as good as I’ve seen anywhere.”
Under the Culinary’s master contract, waiters are guaranteed $10.14 an hour before tips, the highest rate in the nation. In Las Vegas, unionized hotel housekeepers generally earn $11.95 an hour, 50 percent more than in nonunion Reno. The Culinary contract guarantees workers 40 hours’ pay each week, meaning housekeepers earn at least $478 a week, while in other cities housekeepers often work 30 hours and earn just $240. The Culinary’s workers pay no premiums for health care, and they often pay just $10 for a dentist’s visit, while nonunion workers often pay upwards of $150. “Our wages are higher, the medical benefits are great, and we have a guaranteed 40-hour week,” said Marianne Singer, a waitress at the unionized MGM Grand. “Thanks to all that, I have a beautiful 2,000-square-foot home with a three-car garage.”
…”In Las Vegas, more so than any place in the country, the hospitality industry and the union have realized it is not mere rhetoric to say, ‘We’re all in this together,’ ” said John W. Wilhelm, president of the Culinary’s parent union, the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union.
The article identifies some of the key strategies which will define twenty-first century unionism: Mobilizing resources for a tremendously threatening corporate campaign when necessary to pressure management, working cooperatively to marshall human and political resources when possible for goals shared with management, aggressively pursuing card-check neutrality, and most fundamentally, focusing on organizing and empowering formerly disenfranchised workers to achieve tangible results.
And in another article, Greenhouse profiles one of those workers:
Ms. Diaz arrived illegally, but she eventually obtained a green card and citizenship through her father, who had been granted amnesty. For years, he had worked at a carwash in Los Angeles. Today, her whole family – parents, two sisters and five brothers – lives in Los Angeles. Once in Las Vegas, Ms. Diaz took a series of nonunion housekeeping jobs that she did not love, at a Best Western hotel, at Binion’s Horseshoe Casino, and finally at the luxurious Venetian. “In the hotels, the hardest job is housekeeping,” Ms. Diaz said. “It’s really hard when you come, and you don’t know the language. You want to be somebody, but it’s very hard.”
Two years ago, Ms. Diaz learned from the wife of one of her husband’s co-workers that there were unionized restaurant openings at the Luxor. Weary of making hotel beds and cleaning bathrooms, she landed a job busing tables at La Salsa. It paid $9.24 an hour, plus about $4 an hour in tips. The health plan was so good that she paid no premiums and made only modest co-payments. But Ms. Diaz had greater ambitions. After she passed the Culinary Training Academy course, she was immediately promoted to waitress. Now she is responsible for a half-dozen tables in the ocher-colored restaurant, which has the music of a Mexican crooner piped in. She greets customers with her big smile and tentative English, often recommending her favorite dish, the fajita salad.
As her status at La Salsa has risen, so has her pay. Las Vegas’s unionized busboys and waiters make the same base salary – $10.14 an hour, the highest rate in the nation. (By comparison, most waiters in New York City make $3.30 an hour before tips.) But waiters make much more from tips than busboys, who must be content with the often-meager amounts that waiters share with them.