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Cover story

Unions take on role of training for new jobs

NCR Staff
Las Vegas

They’re anonymous, yet everywhere in large hotels. You know them by their carts in the corridor with its fresh supply of linens and little shampoos and soaps that clog the bathroom medicine cabinets of frequent travelers.

Maids -- officially known as GRAs -- guest room attendants, the entry-level workers in the hospitality industry. Who’d want it? Nina McKnight and Suzanne Tastad, for two. That’s why they were at the Culinary Union Training Center for a two-week training course here earlier this year, along with Paul Shaw who was training to be a “houseperson.”

McKnight, a single mother of two, had come to Las Vegas two weeks earlier from California because she’d heard there were jobs in the casino industry. She saw the job training advertised on a building near where she lived, and went to the Culinary Union to see what it was about.

With the training program behind her, McKnight landed a job at almost twice the minimum wage, plus benefits, including health care for the children.

A way to move up

More than that, McKnight, a high school graduate, said that although she’ll be starting at the bottom of the job ladder, it doesn’t mean she’ll remain there. “You can move up if you’ve got the right mindset,” she said. “Just like the training wasn’t hard if you had the right mindset.”

“Nina did real well in the program,” said Bernice Thomas, training director at the center, which is supported by the Southern Nevada Joint Management Culinary and Bartenders Training Fund, whose board includes both casino and union officials. Last year the center trained more than 2,400 workers, said executive director Mark Solomon. That number includes a variety of workers, among them 600 kitchen workers, 54 fry cooks, 79 porters and 763 GRAs.

“The first thing the training gives is self-esteem -- that they can do the job,” Thomas said. “We tell them how they’re going to benefit coming through program. They’ll know the basics so they won’t be flustered.” Many trainees are coming off welfare, some from part-time or minimum wage jobs, she said.

Most have children. Thomas said she likes them to know how to start out at an entry level job well, because, she said, if they want they can “work their way up to be director or whatever they set their goals on.”

For six months they’ll work at 80 percent of $11-plus an hour, and after their probation, get the full rate. The $32.50 a month union dues covers medical benefits and, after five years, participation in a pension plan. Meanwhile they’re in a job, Thomas said, with paid public holidays and vacations.

“And right now there’s a demand for housekeepers. We’ve been having 20 to 25 people in the programs,” Thomas said. “But we’re not just teaching them cleaning. But safety, how to be professional in the job, hygiene, life skills -- the whole package of what they have to do and what their employer is expecting of them.”

Suzanne Tastad, 19, who came to Las Vegas from California six months earlier, said, “This is good pay, better than the $5.25 minimum wage.” She had a job lined up when her GRA course was completed -- a day job so she can get her high school diploma at night. Then she wants to go to college. “I can save money this way,” she said.

Paul Shaw, 40, had been working in the construction industry for years when he heard of the houseperson training program through a friend. In the two-week training, he learned how to transport linen to the GRAs, how to keep things clean and wipe them down.

“The job promises a lot of security,” said Shaw, who has children. “In construction you might work four months, then get laid off. This job I’m being trained for promises a lot. The pay is equal to construction. To me, once I’m inside, I’ll be up the ladder quicker because of the training.”

It isn’t just hotel training that the unions offer in Las Vegas. A notice board near Jim Sala’s office in the Carpenter’s Union hall advises construction workers with experience that training opportunities are available to help them become drywallers and carpenters.

Sala, who years ago worked “quite a few jobs that were non-union before I had a chance to join the carpenters union,” explains building trades unions and job changes this way: “The building trades were a modified version of (the old medieval ) guild system, trying to hold on to the traditions of the past and ignoring the realities of the way the market has changed in regard to the contractors. The contractors are so mobile, and the technology has changed enough, it’s a much more rapid pace than traditional carpentry.

Training for additional skills

“The contractor doesn’t want the traditional carpenter who can take the job from the foundations to the finish,” said Sala, “now there are contractors who do nothing but hang doors. They want a guy trained to hang doors. They don’t care if the guy can run ceiling tiles, because they’re never going to do that.

Union training, says Sala, gives workers additional skills. Las Vegas is a mecca for another sort of training -- developing union organizers. There were 18 going through the program the week NCR was in town.

Is there a dearth of organizers? “Very much so,” said Bob Ozinga, Building Trades Organizing Project director. “No dearth of people with the title organizer, but a dearth of people trained in the type of organizing we’ve performed in Las Vegas --organizers centered on activating and moving workers around their own issues -- people who can do that 10 and 12 hours a day, six and seven days a week.”

As Las Vegas has shown, that’s the organizing that works.

National Catholic Reporter, September 3, 1999