Learning from Las Vegas
Culinary Workers, Fortress Unionism, Elections, and Crisis
April 20, 2020
About 95 percent of UNITE HERE members are currently laid off, as the hospitality and airline industries have taken the devastating brunt of the Covid-19 shut down. In several cities, workplace leaders involved in organizing campaigns with the union have now become leaders of rent strikes against their landlords. “No job? No rent. That’s what we demand right now,” says Sami Bourma, a laid off member of UNITE HERE Local 23 in Alexandria, VA. Bourma has organized hundreds of tenants in his high rise apartment building to sign a letter demanding cancellation of rent. His landlord is one of the largest apartment owners in the country.
Bourma learned how to organize in the union. He has a wife and two kids and was working in food service and driving for Uber prior to the Covid-19 outbreak. “I started talking to people in the hallway and the lobby just to have an idea how people feel,” he told public radio. When he talks about the fight for the tenants, he has trouble separating the economic concerns from the safety issues – both have generated an emotional response from his fellow tenants. The sanitation in the building’s common areas (where his daughter uses the internet for school), the need for food, the fear of eviction: these are all factors contributing to a feeling of intense physical insecurity. Bourma has quickly zeroed in on the most widely and deeply felt issues among the tenants.
This story illustrates how essential unions are when they function as institutions that teach workers how to organize and fight on a large scale. Workers who are not afraid to take on structural and corporate class enemies at work and in our community are the people who can change our society. In contrast, elections have proven to be an inadequate training ground for this kind of combat.
Victory in Nevada
Casino workers in Las Vegas caucused in big margins for Bernie Sanders in 2020, driving the campaign to a margin of victory of over 20 percent in the state, despite six other candidates remaining in the race. Leisure and hospitality are the largest employment sector in the state, and the casino workforce is majority women, immigrants, and heavily unionized. About 30 percent of voters in the state are Latinx.
The Culinary Workers Union Local 226, the largest affiliate of UNITE HERE, has 50,000 members across the state including housekeepers, cooks, food servers, cocktail servers, bartenders, bellmen, housepersons, porters, and other workers at 45 different employers from properties owned by Caesars, MGM, and Wynn, to smaller casino companies off the Strip, including some hotels, commercial laundries and hospitals. It is likely impossible to win elections in Clark County by the margins Sanders won — over 50 percent in most precincts — without deep support among Culinary union households, who tend to vote. Sanders lost only 1 out of 7 special caucuses at casino worksites on the strip, where union workers have negotiated a two hour paid break to caucus as part of their collective bargaining agreements.
Union leadership and staff distributed leaflets saying Sanders would “end Culinary healthcare” if elected. They did not endorse any presidential candidate before the caucus but made their opposition to Medicare for All known in local and national media, through direct mail to members, shop floor agitation, mass texting, and social media. In contrast, many other UNITE HERE locals around the country, including chapters of Local 23, endorsed Sanders before and after the Nevada caucus.
In order to understand the caucus results, we have to look at how Culinary stands out as one of the most developed examples of fortress unionism in the country. Its success as an institution has had a conservatizing effect on its leadership, but at the same time a class consciousness among the rank and file, and there are lessons the left must learn from this.
The Sanders campaign invested hundreds of staff and volunteers into Las Vegas for many months, but the margins by which Sanders won working class and Latinx support should be understood not only as a victory for campaign organizers, but as a result of working class organization and consciousness that existed before Bernie’s local volunteers launched his campaign in 2016. While Culinary members did not follow the political direction of their union leadership in the caucuses in 2020, it is, ironically, the union as an institution that most made this victory possible.
The Culinary is an unusually successful institution that has built power on the shop floor for marginalized workers and led its members to take on global corporate interests by engaging in some of the largest and longest strikes and picket lines in contemporary labor movement history. Since the late 1980s, it has centered the struggles of immigrant women and African Americans who work as housekeepers and in other “back of the house” jobs in the casinos, picketing by the thousands and winning demands such as limits on how many dirty rooms per shift can be assigned, employer-provided meals on the job, employer-paid healthcare and a defined benefit pension plan. It has established what is known as the “Strip standard” for workers through strategic and difficult strikes, militant organization, and many sacrifices by workers.
Many new socialists have put blood, sweat and tears into political campaigns of insurgent candidates on the Democratic ballot line since Bernie’s 2016 primary run, and there has been an ongoing debate on the left about the nature of the Democratic party and whether it can be reformed or broken up. The 2020 Nevada caucus win illustrates two things:
- Workers who already know how to fight for someone they do not know are much better at winning elections than most workers with the same class interests, beliefs, and aspirations; and
- The workplace is a key arena for learning how to fight the political establishment as a proxy for the boss.
We should consider Culinary’s history as evidence that enacting policies like single payer healthcare will not happen without workplace struggle and organization on a mass scale before politicians will deliver meaningful policy changes.
In recent years the Culinary has organized thousands of new members on and off the strip through NLRB elections at Station Casinos, an extremely anti-union employer with record numbers of labor law violations. While it is often written about as a “political powerhouse” during election season – a reputation that it actively cultivates in the press – its GOTV prowess relies on placing dozens of its members on union payroll for door knocking during key elections, a significant investment in foot soldiers for candidates. This is only possible because of its strength at the bargaining table. The political influence it has cultivated has made it a formidable junior partner to the largest employers in the state. This is demonstrated not only by victories getting its own members elected to the state legislature and to Congress, but also by helping curtail new taxes on the gaming and hospitality industry. Nevada is a low-tax state, with no personal income tax, and public schools ranked near the bottom. The lack of public funding for social services, schools, public health, and other infrastructure in Nevada is exacerbated by the fact that corporate influence on state politics is consolidated among a handful of gaming and mining companies.
At the same time, it is undeniable that the union has fought hard and created good jobs, particularly jobs for marginalized workers in poor communities, over many decades. A middle class job in a casino can be had without a college degree in Las Vegas. Class mobility exists despite underfunded public schools because tipped workers on the Strip have the highest wages of any in the country.
The fortress union at Culinary has been seriously under construction since the 1980s. The union went through a series of difficult defensive strikes in the 1970s. The employer attempt to bust the union continued through the 1980s. In 1984, over 17,000 members went on strike for nine months, 900 were arrested, and six casinos didn’t sign contracts. The international sent organizers to help rebuild the local. In 1990 Hattie Canty, a maid in the Maxim casino, became the first African American and woman to lead the union. She led it through its most significant period of growth as the gaming industry became more corporate and dominated by Wall street-backed firms. The union began picking strategic fights and winning.
Racial segregation in casino jobs was still prevalent in the early 1990s, with many Black and Latinx workers stuck in lower paid “back of the house” jobs with no career opportunities. The predominantly African American community in Las Vegas on the Northwest side had high unemployment even when the Strip was booming. Canty started the training academy in a small kitchen in the Days Inn in downtown Las Vegas, determined to create a path to good union jobs. It is worth reading the oral history of her time as a union leader, and her journey from Alabama to Las Vegas. The Culinary Academy is now an enormous operation (funded through an hourly assessment paid by casino employers according to collective bargaining agreements, and managed by a joint labor-management trust) with wrap-around services. Workers and community members can attend and get trained to work in a large casino, receive English lessons, childcare, and more.
Having an exceptionally good health plan that hourly workers can afford to use attracts workers to the union and keeps them motivated during what can be very long campaigns and strikes. The health fund was established in the 1960s and pre-dates the pension plan. It provides some of the best access to healthcare in the country at low or no cost to workers, including its clinic and free pharmacy.
The local union’s existential fight in recent years has not been with MGM or Caesars, but with Station Casinos, a large off-strip chain of resorts with both a local customer base and a convention business. Recently Station Casinos Red Rock Resort, which has been an organizing target of the union for decades, announced that it would be making its HMO health plan premium-free and deductible-free just days before the union election was scheduled to happen. The Culinary lost the vote 627 to 534. They are challenging the results and have filed unfair labor practices. The union has already won elections at several other Station Casino properties leading up to this loss, so it was particularly notable escalation of union-busting. That painful loss, tied directly to the issue of the health plan, happened in December 2019, just before the primary began to heat up there.
Orientation and Hiring Hall
Internally, health plan enrollment has become a very important tool for recruiting and retaining members in an open-shop state, and the union has maintained over 80 percent membership consistently over the years. Newly hired workers at union casino properties attend orientation in the union hall in order to enroll in health benefits. This is a key point of contact for organizing, where the history of the union and the contract standards are introduced. Orientation also acts as a hiring hall for people seeking work. A more common arrangement in U.S. unions is a union representative being given a few minutes at employer-run orientations for new hires.
Defending the Fortress
All of this – the health plan and clinics and pharmacy, the hiring hall, the training academy, home buyer programs, pension plan, the Strip standard for workload language and pay – is the impressive fortress the union has built for its members under the harsh physical conditions and economic pressures of the gaming industry and the austerity of the state. The members who have fought to protect it have a culture of organizing that is truly exceptional in the U.S. labor movement.
The need to defend the fortress has a conservatizing effect on the leadership because of the inward focus and the necessary relationship with capital and the political establishment. Social demands like single payer healthcare are viewed as Trojan horses. The leadership understands that electoral politics (especially when driven by a GOTV operation in a two-party system) is an unstable source of power. For example, the union was an early endorser of Obama in 2008, but then had to fight tooth and nail, before and after the ACA was signed into law, against the absurd neoliberal “Cadillac” tax his administration insisted on imposing on non-profit health plans.
The union membership experiences this partnership with capital and the political establishment in a much different way from the leadership and staff. Shop stewards confront the employer’s attempts to erode the contract, and at the same time they experience the power of being a part of an effective union on the shop floor. The members live both inside and outside the fortress, within immigrant communities of family and friends that do not have access to union health plans, high wages, or a social safety net. The union taught them they could take on big corporations and win.
As layoffs due to Covid-19 rolled through the entirety of the UNITE HERE membership in a matter of days, members in less unionized industries like hotels and food service suffered the most, while casino workers have been able to keep their health plan funded during the shut-down for now. After all, casino employers will need the Culinary’s skilled workforce when the Strip reopens, a labor force with training and completed background checks required by the state gaming commission.
Cultivating vs. Mobilizing
Chris Kutalik, a former labor organizer who worked for the 2020 Bernie campaign for several months in Las Vegas, notes that the task of the campaign was not just to knock as many doors as possible (they were doing 5,000 per day by the the end), but to find the already developed leaders, who often turned out to be union members or in union households. Not only did Bernie win on the Strip and in most of Clark County, across age groups and demographics, he particularly won among women ages 30-45. (Unlike service industry jobs in the rest of the country, Culinary jobs tend to be careers, so the workforce skews older than the service sector in most places.) Kutalik had this reflection:
Door after door, the issues motivating many Latinos were economics and healthcare. This is what they wanted to talk about. The political campaign helped articulate, sharpen and broadcast working class consciousness by giving it a mass stage. More than the work in the strip caucuses was the day after day organizing conversations going on in the neighborhoods.
Bernie’s model of electioneering is most effective when it can build on and expand the arena for class demands. But what remains to be seen is whether it can cultivate a class consciousness from scratch, one deep enough to survive a year-long primary in the U.S. For example, in Texas, where Bernie won many working class and heavily Latino precincts, but lost the state by a narrow margin. Often it was stark: the north sides and wealthier suburbs of major cities went for Biden, the south and east and west inner cities for Bernie. The border counties all went for Bernie, despite having gone for Hillary in 2016, and historically being dominated by Democratic Party machine politics. There are not many unions in Texas, and definitely not many in the private sector or low-wage service industry. If that was not the case, and if those hypothetical unions were fighting unions, it is possible the ranks would have turned out in higher numbers more easily.
It is likely there are large segments of the working class with compelling life experiences that Bernie is able to attract, but who are unorganized in the workplace or their community, inexperienced in fighting any kind of establishment, and disconnected from the struggles around them. These people might give a donation, but they also might not turn out to vote for a lot of reasons. This is in contrast with the workers who have been trained to understand that the bosses and political establishment always must be forced to listen, and to vote as a bloc with their coworkers and families.
The precursor for mobilizing the working class to fight for social democratic policy reforms like single payer (let alone to fight to abolish capitalism) is class consciousness. Many people who discover their class interest from listening to Bernie also tend to lose track of it easily while listening to other politicians and the corporate media. Bernie is very consistent and compelling in his message, he wins people back over and over, but he is laboring against very strong headwinds.
Elections and campaigns, even Bernie’s, are not institutions; they are temporary for most participants. We need to build more institutions and movements that can train workers how to fight and win in the workplace and in communities. Unlike the union, social movements are not fortresses. Culinary has won many many boss fights, but it has learned to do it alone on the terrain of Nevada politics, shaped by a very small number of corporate interests. If we view recent election results as a reflection of the level of organization in the workplace and community, the outcome of the Bernie campaign makes a lot of sense as a measure of solidarity, and it helps us better understand the project of building class consciousness that can extend outside the walls of the union, and withstand the crush of the ruling class and right-wing institutions. It does not mean workplace organizing is the only arena that matters for the left, but it is one that should be understood as foundational for sustaining class consciousness, and not be dismissed because of conservative union leadership or the long-term commitment required to win in the workplace.