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Culinary Workers Union

Building a Strong Union in a Right to Work State

Huffpost looks at what the Culinary Workers Union does to dominate Sin City

Posted on
Jun 14, 2018

While everyone worries about the outcome of the Janus case, the Culinary Workers Union proves that organized labor can be a strong force even in a right to work state. Find out more about how they have grown to dominate the tourism industry in Las Vegas.

Monie Stewart-Cariaga recently decided to leave the townhouse she’s renting to buy a new home. For a single cocktail server, she couldn’t be in a better position to do it. Beyond the fair wage and tips she earns at the Paris Las Vegas Hotel and Casino, Stewart-Cariaga plans to take advantage of a home-buying assistance program run by the Culinary Workers Union Local 226, the powerful union that represents service workers like her on the Vegas strip.

Members are eligible to receive a $20,000 loan to help with a down payment, which is only repaid if the member sells or rents out the home. It is one of many ways the Culinary, as it’s known, has been helping servers, bellhops and line cooks get their piece of the American Dream. More than half of the union’s members are Latino, and more than half are women.

“For what I do, I feel like I couldn’t be in a better place,” said Stewart-Cariaga, who is 50.

She was about to get ready for a shift at the Paris, where she has worked for 18 years ― what would be considered an eternity in most U.S hospitality jobs. But Vegas has upended the assumption that service jobs must be high turnover and dead-end. For Stewart-Cariaga, a mother of two, there’s no mystery as to why things are different here: “This is a union town, and everybody knows it.”

That’s in spite of the odds against it. For 65 years Nevada has been a “right-to-work” state, one where union-represented workers can opt out of paying dues, even though the union is still legally obligated to bargain on their behalf. Nationally, union membership in the private sector has tumbled to a near-historic low of just 6.5 percent; the numbers tend to be most dismal in right-to-work states, where unions typically wield less power in the workplace and the statehouse.

Yet the Culinary has found a way to thrive in Nevada. The union now represents 57,000 workers at the majority of casinos and hotels on the strip and all but one casino downtown. (Its sister union, Bartenders Local 165, accounts for 3,500 of those members.) Even though the right-to-work law means none of those workers can be required to support the union through their paychecks, more than 95 percent of those workers choose to pay full union dues anyway, keeping the union on strong financial footing. That is an astounding rate by any measure.

The union just recently flexed its muscle in contract talks involving 50,000 workers at 34 properties. As the previous contracts neared their June 1 expiration date, the union held a strike authorization vote. Ninety-nine percent of workers who cast ballots authorized the union to declare a citywide strike June 1 or later if they couldn’t reach a deal with the casinos, potentially disrupting the entire local economy. The credible threat led to a breakthrough, with the two largest operators ― Caesars and MGM, which together run 18 unionized properties ― soon agreeing to five-year deals. As of publication, workers are still preparing to strike at other properties where negotiations continue.

“There’s just a real willingness to organize and to constantly be organizing,” said Ruben Garcia, an expert in labor law at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas School of Law.

The union’s success is a ray of hope for unions elsewhere, as state and federal policies become more hostile to organized labor. Previously the domain of the South and West, right-to-work laws have spread rapidly in recent years, even to Midwestern union bastions like Michigan and Wisconsin. They are now on the books in 28 states. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court is poised to decide a potential landmark case in Janus v. AFSCME Council 31, which could make the entire U.S. public sector right-to-work and deliver a severe blow to public employee unions.

If unions hope to endure in such an inhospitable climate, they will have to look a lot more like the Culinary. For years, the union has blended unionization campaigns at non-union properties with the ongoing organizing within their current membership.

When workers have the option to not pay any dues, a union has to constantly engage its members and prove its value to the people it represents. For the Culinary, that has meant cultivating leaders inside the casinos; getting rank-and-file members involved in political causes and organizing drives; and, above all, mobilizing to win solid contracts with strong pay and benefits that show members the advantages of being in a union.

“We don’t know any other way,” said Geoconda Arguello-Kline, the union’s top official. As a Nicaraguan immigrant and former Vegas housekeeper, Arguello-Kline is a symbol of the union’s rank-and-file ethic. “For us, it’s a very natural way to survive here in Las Vegas: organize, organize.”

Arguello-Kline was speaking at the Culinary’s bustling union office, near the northern end of the strip. The halls buzzed with English and Spanish, as workers sought out reps to help them with their health care coverage, compensation benefits and workplace grievances. The office also brought job seekers. Every weekday the union runs orientation for would-be members and holds a roll call to announce job openings at union properties they can apply for.

But much of the union’s most important day-to-day work is done off-site by members like Stewart-Cariaga. She serves as a shop steward at her casino, helping other cocktail servers navigate problems in the workplace. When she isn’t ferrying drinks to customers at the blackjack table, she may be helping unionize other casinos and restaurants or, as was the case this spring, working on the next contract covering workers at the Paris. A few years ago, she even took off work and fasted for seven days outside Palace Station to draw attention to a labor dispute inside.

As a shop steward, Stewart-Cariaga has a list of 20 employees she’s responsible for helping and engaging through the union. One woman on her list was lukewarm about joining until Stewart-Cariaga recently showed her what the union can do. A supervisor had written the woman up for dubious reasons, so Stewart-Cariaga went to bat for her and helped file a grievance. After that, the woman started paying the $60-per-month dues.

“Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, they will end up needing the union’s help,” Stewart-Cariaga said. “Fortunately, we’ll do that for them, and that speaks volumes.”  

The union tries to achieve a positive feedback loop: worker involvement begets good contracts, and good contracts keep workers involved.

According to the union, the average member earns $23 per hour in pay and benefits, including a generous health plan and an employer-funded pension. The union’s health fund offers family coverage with no monthly premium, and last year the union opened its first health clinic to serve members and their families. The housing program, which was created a decade ago through a collective bargaining agreement with the casinos, has shelled out more than $4 million toward down payments and closing costs.

Employers, in turn, get a well-trained and professional workforce with low turnover. The union jointly runs a training center with employers called the Culinary Academy, helping workers upgrade their skills so that bussers can become servers, barbacks can become bartenders and so forth. The course food servers take is 152 hours long.

“Even though this is a right-to-work state, people who work here understand that the Culinary has made a living wage possible,” said Leain Vashon, a bell captain who also serves as the union’s vice-president. “Even the people who are not in the union only get a great salary because of the Culinary.” 

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