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Cover story


NCR Staff
Las Vegas

Slot machines are the Wall Street of the working class. Workers and retirees, that is. These days though, here in Slots Capital, USA, it’s the other workers on The Strip -- those who keep the casinos and hotels going -- who are catching attention.

In the past few years, labor protest and unionizing has become such a feature of the Southern Nevada landscape that labor leaders now refer to Las Vegas as “the new Flint, Michigan.” Flint --from the 1930s until the 1950s -- was probably the most unionized city in the nation. Now Las Vegas probably is.

NCR has taken Las Vegas as a case study to briefly examine some of what’s underway in a major counter-cyclical push, the return of organized labor (see NCR, June 4). In 1998 alone, nationwide almost 400,000 Americans joined unions, predominantly in the service sector. (The offset was that as U.S. manufacturing changed or shifted to south of the border, some 250,000 unionized manufacturing jobs were lost.)

In the 1990s, union representation here has outstripped Las Vegas/Clark County’s more than 20 percent population growth. For once corporate America moved in on casinos and hotels (and the mob apparently moved out) and began a casino-building frenzy, Las Vegas burnished its image as a family place. (Still, the new mayor is a lawyer best known for his Mafia clients.)

Forget the gamblers for a moment. For the working class family, another price here is still right: housing. A thrifty hotel housekeeper on union scale can buy a single-family home in a region where the median housing sale price is only $119,000. Not surprisingly then, more than 40 percent of the newcomers have flocked in from next door -- California where it’s 30 percent more expensive to live. But it isn’t just in this booming gambling mecca that the unionizing push is on. Evidence of low wages and new labor pressures is everywhere. Where workers are concerned, something’s in the air nationally. In a move that would have had America’s colonial governors call out the redcoats, a 1998 protest march in Colonial Williamsburg, Va., slammed the low pay that supports that region’s tourism.

Nationally, a family of four needs $32,000 annually to live. Colonial Williamsburg wages range from $12,660 to $17,180. At UCLA in the West and at Ivy League schools in the East, graduate students -- teaching assistants who shoulder the work professors no longer undertake -- want to unionize. The once-aloof medical profession in June watched the American Medical Association form an all-doctors union.

Other victories

Organized labor has scored some other odd victories recently. Stockholders at Oregon Steel Mills this year sided with a labor-backed resolution to make it easier to oust the board of directors and end the secrecy surrounding how the company conducts it business. In recent years, strikes are more common -- including at airports, where it’s no longer unusual to see uniformed airline pilots protesting long hours or low pay as they carry neatly printed signs urging public support.

Few homemade signs could match 17-year-old Josh Whitman’s hand-lettered 1998 placard: “Boycott McDonald’s. On strike for better staffing, wages and vacations.” The Fairfax, Va., high school junior led eight night-shift colleagues off the job to force the company to address issues of long hours and low pay. McDonald’s responded with a meeting at which officials promised to fully staff busy shifts, conduct regular wage reviews and post work schedules well in advance. The National Labor Relations Board was not involved on Josh’s behalf.

On the West Coast, immigrant restaurant workers in Los Angeles’ Koreatown know the feeling. Last year they were marching to protest the $600 a month they earn for 9-to-12 hour days, six days a week -- less than half the minimum wage. High on the complaint list were working conditions -- from slippery floors to employer verbal abuse. But not all abused employees find they can bring in the union. Hundreds of Guatemalan workers in North Carolina’s chicken-processing plants have been trying for years.

Overworked? In a Darien, Conn., hearing earlier this year $9-an-hour nursing home workers said they had to wear roller skates on the job to get to all the patients.

So, for all the high employment figures, there is unease. Nationally there is the growing realization that working in America isn’t what it used to be or ought to be. The blue-collar class feels it worst, but there is simmering white-collar resentment against exploitation in fields as different as medical care, law and the airline industry.

Entrepreneurs may make computer billions, but all the computer workers see is corporations in Washington opposing rules proposed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to protect workers from repetitive-action syndrome.

Other auguries: Despite the booming economy, the United States still has the highest poverty rates and most unequal income distribution among industrialized countries; projections suggest that 60 percent of today’s white 20-year-olds and 90 percent of all black 20-year-olds will fall below the poverty line sometime during their lives. The real crunch, as Notre Dame economics professor Teresa Ghilarducci notes, is that “real wages have fallen for 15 years and corporate profits have increased for the past eight.”

Unions are emerging as one answer to the exploitation, real wage stagnation and unease. At the start of the 1990s, organized labor was still mired in what Pittsburgh University economics professor Michael D. Yates calls “labor’s decline: internal forces,” such as high living officials not elected by the rank-and-file; collective bargaining far removed from workers’ control (often resulting in “sweetheart contracts” between union leaders and employers), and ties to the mob.

“The worst unions, such as the Teamsters and many construction unions,” writes Yates in, Why Unions Matter (Monthly Review Press, 1998) “were run as dictatorships, complete with ruthless violence against anyone who dared complain, and were infiltrated by criminal elements who routinely raided union treasuries to finance casinos and other underworld ventures.”

When United Mine Workers’ reform candidate Joseph Yablonski challenged UMW President Tom Boyle, “Boyle actually had him murdered.” The worst of it all, from the workers’ perspective, says Yates, is that the labor movement “ceded control over the workplaces to the employer.” This was all practical stuff, far removed from the 1991 moral and ethical lesson Paterson, N.J., Bishop Frank J. Rodimer provided the U.S. Senate Labor Subcommittee.

“The role of unions in promoting the dignity of work and of workers is very important in Catholic teaching,” said Rodimer, “and the U.S. bishops in their 1986 pastoral letter, ‘Economic Justice for All,’ pointed out that ‘the way power is distributed in a free market economy frequently gives employers greater power than employees in the negotiation of labor contracts. Such unequal power may press workers into a choice between an inadequate wage and no wage at all.’ ”

Rodimer said, “I can tell you that there is no question that labor unions in this country are weaker than at any time in my memory. Census takers have found that the gap between rich and poor in the country is an ever-widening chasm. It now takes two wage earners to support most families with children, even with a lower standard of living than their parents had.”

In Las Vegas the following year, 1992, a huge crowd of strikers outside one hotel and casino was suddenly swelled when 1,500 members of the Service Employees International Union adjourned en masse from their nearby convention to show support to striking workers. The strikers were men and women who wanted the casino to permit a vote on whether the Culinary Union, the local manifestation of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees union, could represent them. The protest had been ongoing for years, and would continue. In the middle of a crowd was “labor priest” Msgr. George Higgins. John Sweeney, then SEIU president and now AFL-CIO President, saw Higgins in the crowd and had his aides bring him to the convention platform where Jesse Jackson was winding up a speech at fever pitch.

Settling for a prayer

A former professor and a U.S. Catholic Conference labor issues staff member, Higgins was asked by Sweeney to speak next. “When I got to the microphone,” Higgins recalled later, “I told the crowd that when I was a young boy my father had called me aside and warned me that some day I would have to speak right after Jesse Jackson. ‘Don’t be a fool,’ my father admonished me, ”Don’t do it. Settle for a prayer instead.’ “ And with that Higgins (see accompanying story) encouraged the crowd to join in the Lord’s Prayer for the success of the strike. The union -- which has a strong working relationship with the local religious labor justice group (see NCR, June 4) -- nonetheless has relied on more practical tactics than prayer alone during 15 years of local organizing that has seen membership soar from 20,000 to 50,000. Las Vegas isn’t just casino workers and the Culinary Union.

Organizers like Jim Sala of the Carpenter’s union dug their heels in more than a decade ago to try to change the face -- and pay scales -- of the construction work force. Sala explained that unionized construction workers in Southern Nevada take home almost twice as much pay as non-unionized labor, and have benefits on top of that.

Nevada is part of something else, too. In the early ’90s, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations developed a Building Trades Organizing Project to bolster the unionization of construction trades. BTOP’s Las Vegas man is Bob Ozinga.

“Collective bargaining,” said Ozinga, “is a peace treaty between employers and workers. Organizing is all about creating an environment in which a meaningful peace treaty can be negotiated.” Success for the Building Trades Organizing Project is when a company agrees to recognize several buildings trades unions all at once. In June 1998 the local Pete-White Eagle Concrete Co. agreed to recognize three unions -- carpenters, laborers and plasterers, and concrete masons -- provided BTOP could get White Eagle’s competitors to do the same.

Ozinga, who took on the Nevada BTOP directorship last year, said that in the last two years the local building trades unions “have grown aggregately by more than 7,000 members -- a 35 percent increase. Over 300 employers -- contractors and subcontractors -- have signed collective bargaining agreements.

“Organizing is tough by its very nature,” said the Carpenter’s Sala, though in Las Vegas it helps that the union package is almost double the non-union in value.

“Non-union workers average $12 to $16 an hour,” he said, “with little or no benefits. Union scale is higher, there’s paid family health care, two pension plans.” What unionized building contractors want most, he said, is a level playing field -- to prevent non-union labor construction companies from underbidding them on projects.

Ozinga points to certain Las Vegas factors that “conspire to create the kind of growth unions are experiencing” in the Las Vegas/Clark County area. “There’s a very healthy construction economy -- locally that creates a very high demand for skilled labor -- some incumbent very strong labor-management relationships, and the presence of a very large, visible and militant organizing program,” he said.

The local Las Vegas Business Press doubts that Las Vegas building trades gains can serve as a national model. Writer Rob Bhatt contended last year that Southern Nevada’s “relatively unique characteristics -- unprecedented casino expansion coupled with a modest cost of living -- have made organizing possible.”

But what are the major issues for the striking construction workers?

“Dignity and justice,” said Ozinga. A feature of the White Eagle strike were demands for toilet facilities and water at building sites and breaks and lunch-times being honored. “It’s hard to get passionate about an extra 25 cents an hour,” he said, “but difficult not to when your human dignity’s at stake.”

The workers and the unions will dig in. During one 1998 strike, the workers, overwhelmingly Latino, primarily non-union, stuck it out for five months protesting unfair employers. From 4:30 and 5 a.m. onward, 10 hours a day, six days a week, they protested. BTOP rallied nationwide support. “Babies were born. We had people to feed, foreclosures to avoid -- all the things you could imagine in a community of 500 families. Having that number of people in militant, non-violent motion at one time is unprecedented.”

But the strike wasn’t entirely successful. The two largest employers among the seven being struck “are today still unorganized,” said Ozinga, “although they’re operating at 20 and 30 percent below their former capacity.” Sala and Ozinga agree that the construction unions had lessons to learn. “Fifty years ago,” said Ozinga, “85 percent or more of all construction workers were union represented. Today it’s only about 20 percent.”

Part of the problem, say Sala and Ozinga, both members of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters, was that construction unions formerly operated like a guild. Apprentices and non-union members would be invited to join and union jobs would be found for those who did. Contrast that with today, when the 15 unions of the building trades target companies that are not unionized, or they support non-union workers in their strikes in the hopes of union representation to follow.

There’s activity galore, but no room for complacency.

In a holding pattern

Building trades unions nationally grew by 160,000 members in 1996-97. Last year the total hovered between a plateau and a slight decline. This year, said Ozinga, “we’re in a virtual holding pattern.” And whether there’s an approaching holding pattern for revenues from the building trades in Nevada is also a question -- like the one about the stock market’s potential decline -- only the future can answer. As more casinos are built nationwide -- by Native Americans on their reservations, or in economically ailing Mississippi River towns -- Nevada’s competition increases in the battle for the traveling gamblers’ buck.

In April, Forbes magazine reported that nearly one-half of all growth in Las Vegas gambling revenues was from four Stations casinos nowhere near The Strip. “Our big challenge is the neighborhood casinos,” said the Culinary Union’s man in Southern Nevada, D. Taylor. “That’s really five casinos, about 10,000 workers.”

Taylor, who has been in Las Vegas since 1987, said the Culinary Union has “increased our market share and our percentage.” Though the union has lately picked up representation at two Hilton casinos in Reno, adding a further 2,500 members, there’s still plenty to do in organizing in Las Vegas. The owner of the now-opening Venetian hotel and casino is flatly opposed to the unions. “We’ll have a big fight on,” said Taylor.

The Culinary Union, said Taylor, “basically gets its staff from the rank-and-file. A lot of the people who built this union are still members -- it’s not a third- or fourth-generation thing. I think that’s important.

“And second, because we always have lots of fights, it never allows us to be complacent, to feel like we’re legitimized. We always have an edge to us. Like anything, if you allow the non-union to grow, stuff [such as workers being able to buy their own homes] gets eradicated. That’s why we’re always organizing, fighting.”

Successful or not, it’s lonely being the only service sector union in town. That has changed. The SEIU did more than hold their convention and support someone else’s strike in Las Vegas. They came back to organize. Today, they’ve turned the local health care industry into a majority union industry with 4,700 members in the major local hospitals and a further 1,500 members in city government.

Economically, Las Vegas is still booming. The never-ending stream of tour buses with the next load of slot-players is fueling it. But it is people like Nina McKnight, mother of two, who fuel the union boom. In May McKnight left California for Las Vegas to find work. Two weeks later she was in the Culinary Union’s two-week housekeeper training program. Two weeks after that came the job -- benefits and all.

National Catholic Reporter, September 3, 1999