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Special Report

Las Vegas council mulls ways to use voice to speak for workers

By Arthur Jones
NCR Staff
Las Vegas

It was supposed to be a working lunch, but the pizza on the side counter had gone cold. The dozen people around the table were too intent on what they were hearing to worry about food.

Three union representatives were making a presentation for the group’s support in attempts to unionize two local hospitals. The group, the Las Vegas Interfaith Council for Worker Justice, does not recommend to local casinos or hospitals or other employers that their employees unionize.

If the committee involves itself, it’s to ensure that there’s a level playing field, that the workers’ right to unionize is respected. That’s a fine distinction. But the pastors, rabbis and priests around the table understand fine distinctions.

In many ways, Las Vegas, unlikely as it may seem, exemplifies the new organizing efforts being undertaken by labor activists. It has replaced the heavy industry cities of the Northeast and Upper Midwest as fertile territory for organizing. Here unions are training and organizing long-overlooked folks in the hotel, health care, auto rental and other service industries. The efforts in this city also exemplify the new cooperation developing in many areas of the country between labor organizers and religious leaders.

The clergy members were gathered in the conference room at Nevada Partners, a free employment and job training service. Partners director Mujahid Ramadan of the American Muslim Council is an Interfaith Council member.

At the table, Lenore Friedlaender, organizer for Service Employees International Union, Local 1107, asked the committee, “Can you communicate with top management for us?”

The local is seeking to represent two area hospitals. Friedlaender said the owner, UHS -- Universal Health Services -- the third largest U.S. for-profit hospital management corporation, is campaigning against the union.

“We’re asking for corporate neutrality” she said, the same neutrality granted when the workers voted to unionize at Columbia Sunrise Hospital. There, Sunrise Hospital’s owner, Columbia/HCA, America’s largest for-profit hospital manager, provided “employer silence, neutrality, access,” she said.

Not until the SEIU staffer and her colleagues left did some committee members relax enough to saunter over for pizza and sodas.

Back at the table, they weighed the request. This kind of decision-making doesn’t come easy. Some pastors and rabbis lead congregations that include both workers and managers. Some congregants don’t like the involvement. One rabbi was told, “Judaism isn’t unionism.”

The Interfaith Council chair, Pastor Spencer Barret of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church, told NCR, “The Interfaith Council is portrayed as a tool of the unions, but as long as we as a committee are doing what our consciences dictate, it doesn’t matter whether we’re regarded as a tool or not.”

That’s a second fine line, because a portion of the council’s financial support comes from unions.

The council will not endorse any action without unanimity around the table. “We’d lose credibility taking on the issues as a split group,” one member said.

“These are poor people,” said another. “The government doesn’t care much about them. They would have no voice without a faith voice. [The SEIU organizers] are asking that the employers not intimidate the workers.”

After further comments, the committee agreed to contact managements at Valley and Desert Spring hospitals.

The members heard updates on previous committee involvement, such as a prayer service at the local Alamo auto rental agency. The prayer service was a component in the successful drive to organize Las Vegas Alamo. Other Alamo units nationwide are now seeking union representation.

However, “National is taking over Alamo,” reported one committee member, “so if there is a problem with negotiations, we might be asked to help again.”

The monthly meeting’s agenda included an announcement on a forthcoming worker memorial day -- for local construction workers killed on the job. At 63,000 jobs, construction is the state’s fourth largest employer after casinos (retail and government are second and third).

Gambling is Clark County’s economic life-support system. There are more than 180,000-plus casino-related jobs, many of them worked by people such as the African-Americans and Anglos who attend Franciscan Fr. Michael Blackburn’s 260-family downtown St. James the Apostle Church.

The issues the Interfaith Council deals with are precisely those of his parishioners, said Blackburn. They hit close to many homes, including Blackburn’s.

“Many parishioners work in the casinos. My mom works in one,” he said. “They recently became unionized. My mom heard what the union offered and liked what she heard. Before it became union she had very little health care. She’d really got into debt because she had a mastectomy and had to pay most of it by herself, and she’s still paying it.

“St. James is used to involvement,” Barrett said, “because the pastor they had in the ’60s was involved in the civil rights movement. The other thing is -- parishioners who go to St. James go because they want to go. Most of them don’t live in the area. They come because they like what it stands for.”

Not every involvement is a victory. “Pastors are results-oriented,” said Barrett, “and sometimes the results are slow in coming.” Barrett mentioned the Santa Fe casino that took to the courts to stall union representation for six years, despite the fact that workers voted for it.

Interfaith Council members include both ordained clergy as individual members and member congregations (synagogues and mosques, plus Methodist, Episcopalian, Baptist, Presbyterian, Unitarian and Church of God in Christ congregations and three Catholic parishes). There are religiously affiliated social service components (such as Catholic Charities, represented by Marlene Richter), and lay members of congregations (such as Dean Ishman of First African Methodist Episcopal).

It all doesn’t sit well with some people.

Fran Dias, vice president of the antiunion Nevada Employees for the Right to Work, has been quoted in the local paper saying, “I think it’s kind of strange religious leaders are taking their orders from union bosses.”

Yet Las Vegas’ newest casino-in-the-making, The Venetian, understands the importance of the local clergy’s voice. It’s trying to get them on its side to oppose unionization. But when the Interfaith Council and other clergy were invited to meet with Venetian’s management -- who say they offer employees a better deal than the unions do -- omitted from the invitation was the council’s executive director, Mike Slater.

Las Vegas is one of only a handful of U.S. city-based interfaith worker justice councils with a full-time executive director like Slater. Others are Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston, Buffalo, Albany and San Diego. New York has a half-time director.

Las Vegas’ Slater has grown used to slights such as being left off a meeting list. A Minneapolis native, he worked with ACORN, part of a nationwide organization of low-income families working in Minneapolis to improve neighborhood conditions such as bank redlining before joining the SEIU as an organizer.

“I had a radicalizing experience there dealing with nursing home workers,” he said. The workers “just wanted to improve their working conditions, better wages and insurance, and be treated with respect by management.

“I saw the way these employers -- nice people you and I would sit across the dinner table from -- the next day turn around and lie to their workers. Brutalize them, fire them, intimidate them, play all sorts of tricks on them when they wanted to organize.

“I thought, ‘People are never going to be able to improve their working conditions when employers can engage in such tactics,’ ” Slater recalled. “So I came here [as executive director of the well-established Interfaith Committee] in September to use my community organizing experience to support organizing rather than simply watch myself lose election after election.”

The young Minnesotan, who thought one day he’d be a history or anthropology teacher, said of the Las Vegas work, “It’s important to try to build a consensus around how we want the community to look. Because it’s a clergy organization, it takes a longer time to build a consensus -- I mean if everyone is low-income it’s very easy to say, ‘Get the bank.’ ”

There is an advantage to an interfaith group, he said. While “everyone acknowledges in this day and age that justice is a long time coming,” Slater said, with a clergy organization it’s part of the mission. The only choice is whether you duck it.

“Obviously one of the big issues with the clergy is backlash in their congregations,” he said. “We don’t jump on every bandwagon. We don’t pick up on every contract dispute. With a clergy organization you want to be very careful that you measure things appropriately.”

That’s why the pizza goes cold. Interfaith Council members won’t be rushed.

National Catholic Reporter, June 4, 1999