Is Trump's Election An Extinction Level Event For Organized Labor?
The Success Of Culinary 226 In Las Vegas Suggests Otherwise
By Frank C. Pierson, Jr.
That labor unions are in precipitous decline is a popular meme invoked when reporters and their editors go looking for a “labor” story. The poor unions, the line goes, look what’s happening to their membership: Private sector down. Public sector down. Wisconsin, Indiana, a disaster. And now here comes an out and out self declared union busting President of the United States, Donald Trump, for whom many members of the labor movement actually voted. Harold Myerson speculates in the Washington Post that the election of Trump could be “an extinction level” event.
While there’s plenty of bad news to go around, notable is the fact that some labor organizations are doing well. This is a surprise in light of 45 years of direct assault, mostly unmitigated by weak kneed Democratic presidents of the Clinton and Obama years. Recall that Ronald Reagan hit the air traffic controllers union with a cluster bomb of firings. Labor “allies” like Democratic Governor of Arizona Bruce Babbitt broke the mine strikes of 1983 by calling out the National Guard. Bill Clinton and the centrist Democrats never advanced the union cause. Card check never happened in the Obama years. Hillary Clinton was mostly mum on the subject during the recent campaign. And so it went. The fact that ANY unions are excelling in representing workers is remarkable. Right now, to me, that’s the story
Culinary 226/UNITE/HERE in Las Vegas, for example, is succeeding by any measure: protecting workers interests, brokering jobs, training future workers, innovating health plans, delivering key political victories. This after Culinary 226 was mobbed up (with Bugsy Siegel, et al) as late as the 1970’s, under continuous investigation, politically isolated, its very survival endangered. Then in 1977 its president, Al Bramlet, was found shot to death in the desert. That’s a pretty deep hole out of which to climb.
I had occasion to encounter Culinary 226 first hand when I worked in Las Vegas for three years (2009 -2012) laying the groundwork for an Industrial Areas Foundation organizing project there (what became Nevadans for the Common Good). In the course of doing hundreds of individual meetings early on I scheduled time with a high ranking Culinary organizer.
That first meeting happened in his office in the factory district just north of downtown. The building was a teeming rabbit warren of offices and meeting rooms, a bit ramshackle, that seemed to go on forever. Conspicuous was the number of workers coming in before and after work - all nationalities, multi lingual, spirited. I sat in the main hallway for a few minutes, just watching the flow of human traffic up and down. Right then it hit me. This local is the real deal.
Once greeted, I was invited into a small, sparse room, empty of pretension.
During the meeting the Culinary organizer asked good questions, listened attentively, never pulled rank (on a guy who had just arrived in town). Zero bluff and bluster. He acknowledged never having heard of the IAF and that he was skeptical of Las Vegas religious communities taking constructive action. But he thoughtfully considered what IAF was trying to do and wanted to know more about IAF history and methodology.
That first meeting sparked my interest in Culinary 226. We continued to connect off and on over the three years I was there. During that time Culinary was locked in a long term struggle seeking to unionize Stations Casinos, a far flung, multi casino operation that catered primarily to locals. Stations’ executives happened to be major contributors to the Catholic Diocese of Las Vegas which, given IAF’s focus on building a church, synagogue and mosque base, made an early formal relationship with Culinary 226 unwise. That didn’t stop me from taking an enduring interest in the multi dimensional organizing of what I began to view as one of the strongest union locals in the country.
Culinary membership is robust, topping 50,000. Behind their offices are trailers where citizenship classes are taught. Farther north is a training venture that teaches future hotel and restaurant employees how to do the basics of housekeeping and food preparation. Culinary 226’s investment in teaching stewards responsible for specific sites is continuous and tightly organized. I experienced all of the above. Like Culinary as a whole they’re the real deal too.
The bottom line impact is startling. Culinary members make at least 30% more than comparable workers without union backing. Union workers and their families are protected in basic ways that engender loyalty. They successfully build solidarity across lines of race, ethnicity and national origin. Their health care plan is exemplary. Members are willing to fight for the union - no holds barred.
Culinary is a political powerhouse in Nevada. In the 2016 election cycle the union waged an aggressive door-to-door campaign in which Democrats won the state Senate and House, sent the first Latina, Catherine Cortez Masto, to the U.S. Senate, and defeated two incumbent GOP House members.
D. Taylor was the President of Culinary 226 when I was in Las Vegas. He is now President of UNITE/HERE International based in NYC succeeding John Wilhelm. Taylor put it this way in the Washington Post: “I don’t sugarcoat things. I think that the labor movement is very important that we get back to our roots: bread-and-butter issues. Workers want a better deal and we have to show that we’re the best path to that.”