The Culinary Workers Run Vegas. The Politicians Are Just Visiting.

Hamilton Nolan

Ahead of the Nevada caucus, presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden joins members of Culinary Workers Union Local 226 picketing outside The Palms Casino in Las Vegas on Feb. 19, 2020 in a campaign for a first union contract. (Photo by Mark RALSTON / AFP) (Photo by MARK RALSTON/AFP via Getty Images)

LAS VEGAS — It was the politi­cians that turned the pick­et line chaot­ic. Not the work­ers. The work­ers knew just what they were doing. Hun­dreds and hun­dreds of them, in their red Culi­nary Union T‑shirts, stretched out down West Flamin­go Road in front of the Palms Casi­no, just off the Vegas Strip last Wednes­day. They marched a few hun­dred yards and back in an order­ly if bois­ter­ous cir­cle, guid­ed by a bat­tal­ion of bull­horn-wield­ing chant lead­ers. They’d done this before. 

Then the pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates showed up. 

One by one, each tak­ing their turn in the spot­light, and each accom­pa­nied by a seething scrum of press, they plowed their way down the the pick­et line like speed­boats slic­ing through a riv­er. Cam­era­men walk­ing back­wards tripped over curbs; micro­phone-wav­ing reporters bumped into strik­ers; union staffers had to join arms and form human shields around the more pop­u­lar can­di­dates, just to keep the march mov­ing. Some of the can­di­dates, like Eliz­a­beth War­ren and Amy Klobuchar, looked nat­ur­al, famil­iar with the rhythm of pick­ets. Oth­ers, like Pete Buttigieg and Joe Biden, looked awk­ward and ner­vous, pale, spec­tral wonks in white Oxford shirts dropped into a seething horde of human­i­ty and forced to car­ry No Jus­tice, No Peace” signs, unable to quite pull off the angry work­ing-class look. And some, like Tom Stey­er, accom­pa­nied by a sin­gle staffer and ignored by most of the press, just looked hap­py to be invit­ed. (Bernie Sanders was con­spic­u­ous­ly absent.) 

But all of them, one after the oth­er, messed up the flow of the pick­et line. Their pres­ence was some­thing to be tol­er­at­ed. This was all part of a sys­tem that has been per­fect­ed over decades. The reporters come to trail the politi­cians. The politi­cians come to pay homage to the Culi­nary Union. The Culi­nary Union puts them all to use by march­ing them up and down a pick­et line for a fight against Sta­tion Casi­nos, a grind­ing fight that has been drag­ging on for years and years. 

For a few days, the nation­al spot­light is here in Las Vegas, for the Neva­da Cau­cus. But after the spot­light moves on, the Culi­nary Union and its 60,000 work­ers will still be here, try­ing to win con­tracts in the face of crim­i­nal intran­si­gence, try­ing to pull thou­sands of work­ing peo­ple into the mid­dle class through sheer force of sol­i­dar­i­ty and stub­born­ness. It is this dynam­ic that always gets twist­ed in the whirl­wind of the nation­al media around a pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. The union does not exist to serve the politi­cians. The politi­cians exist to serve the union. The union has built a won­drous machine to ensure that it stays that way.

That machine is a sim­ple vir­tu­ous cir­cle. It begins and ends with orga­niz­ing, which nev­er stops. Orga­niz­ing is pro­pelled by the fact that the union demon­stra­bly improves the lives of its mem­bers. Build­ing that array of mem­ber ben­e­fits, from health care to pay to job pro­tec­tions to a train­ing acad­e­my to dis­counts on rental cars, nev­er stops either. These things pro­vide a large num­ber of extreme­ly engaged peo­ple. The union can offer the sup­port of this moti­vat­ed and well-orga­nized force to politi­cians who back the union’s goals. These union mem­bers can do every­thing from phone bank to fli­er to knock on doors to pro­duce scream­ing ral­lies on short notice. Their sup­port is high­ly prized, and their oppo­si­tion is feared. The polit­i­cal allies they earn help to clear the omnipresent polit­i­cal obsta­cles to more orga­niz­ing, and the cycle continues. 

The Culi­nary Union has spent more than 80 years becom­ing what it is today, which is one of America’s most effec­tive social and eco­nom­ic jus­tice orga­ni­za­tions. Its mem­bers are most­ly women and most­ly Lati­no. They work in casi­nos, mak­ing the food, clean­ing the rooms, serv­ing the drinks, doing the laun­dry, car­ry­ing the bags. They are the work force that makes Las Vegas run, and the mem­bers of that work force have mid­dle class wages and health insur­ance and job pro­tec­tions and the back­ing of local and state and nation­al elect­ed offi­cials as a direct result of the work of the union. The Culi­nary Union oper­ates in the heart of the most gild­ed indus­try in an unnat­ur­al city built of mon­ey, and it is the one and only rea­son why the peo­ple who do the work of that indus­try are not exploit­ed to the hilt. 

They have pulled off this feat with their cycle of orga­niz­ing, improv­ing people’s lives and exer­cis­ing polit­i­cal pow­er. Nev­er is this method more evi­dent than dur­ing Neva­da cau­cus week, when it is put on dis­play for the entire world. This year, it came with more than a lit­tle extra drama. 

The head­quar­ters of the 60,000-member Culi­nary Work­ers Union sits just north of the Vegas Strip​. (Pho­to by Hamil­ton Nolan)

The union’s head­quar­ters is a squat, sprawl­ing two-sto­ry white con­crete build­ing just north of the Vegas Strip, in the shad­ow of the Stratos­phere spire, with In Sol­i­dar­i­ty We Will Win!” embla­zoned in red on its wall. The vis­i­tors who pass through the lob­by on an aver­age week­day morn­ing pro­vide a sam­pling of the union’s sprawl­ing oper­a­tions. A young woman drag­ging two way­ward tod­dlers is check­ing on a griev­ance. Work­ers are here to sign up for job train­ing. A team of Stey­er staffers wants to know if Tom can come in and talk. Some­one from the Mex­i­can embassy would like to set up a meeting. 

In back, a war­ren of cubi­cles had been cleared out for vol­un­teer get-out-the-vote phone bank­ing, which con­tin­ued for a sol­id week before the Feb­ru­ary 21 cau­cus­es. It was the least com­bat­ive phone bank­ing I’ve ever wit­nessed — not a grum­ble from any­one who picked up the phone, after they heard it was the union calling. 

Marc Mor­gan, a mid­dle-aged bell­man at the D Hotel and six-year mem­ber of the union, sat patient­ly dial­ing from a list, telling callees the time of the cau­cus (Sat­ur­day at 10 a.m.) and the exact loca­tion of their cau­cus site at their work­place. He remind­ed them to get per­mis­sion from their super­vi­sors and to alert a shop stew­ard if the super­vi­sors ille­gal­ly refused. With­in an hour, at least a half dozen peo­ple who were not plan­ning to cau­cus — includ­ing one who said, Cau­cus? What does that mean?” — promised to turn out. Mul­ti­ply that by many peo­ple call­ing for many hours for many days, and you start to get a sense of why the Culi­nary Union is a sought-after polit­i­cal ally for Democ­rats. Thou­sands more mem­bers vot­ed ear­ly as well, anoth­er process the union encour­ages and supervises.

Mor­gan, a shop stew­ard, is, like many union mem­bers, a prac­ti­cal man more than a fire-breath­ing ide­o­logue. His attach­ment to the union was moti­va­tion enough for him to vol­un­teer to spend hours call­ing fel­low mem­bers, just out of a sense of duty. That attach­ment was root­ed in per­son­al expe­ri­ence. I can see the neces­si­ty — the man­agers, oh my god,” he said. He had been through a bit­ter con­tract fight at his own casi­no in 2018, and had seen the pet­ty retal­i­a­tions that work­ers suf­fered. Employ­ers want to test the bound­aries. They’ll con­tin­ue to test those bound­aries until you pull them back in. It’s like par­ents and children.” 

Despite being cov­et­ed mad­ly by every­one run­ning for pres­i­dent, the Culi­nary Union did not issue an endorse­ment this year. The union endorsed Oba­ma in 2008, but he lost to Hillary Clin­ton in Neva­da any­how. It didn’t endorse in the 2016 pri­maries. Much has been made in recent weeks of its spat with Bernie Sanders, which became a huge polit­i­cal news item after the union issued a pur­port­ed­ly edu­ca­tion­al fli­er to mem­bers warn­ing them that Sanders, if elect­ed, would end Culi­nary health­care” — a rather mis­lead­ing char­ac­ter­i­za­tion wide­ly inter­pret­ed as a dec­la­ra­tion of oppo­si­tion to Medicare For All. 

This mush­roomed into an entire news cycle pit­ting the union against Sanders, and even drove a round of ques­tion­ing in last week’s pres­i­den­tial debate. Mod­er­ate Democ­rats seized on the oppor­tu­ni­ty to frame their oppo­si­tion to Medicare For All as a pro-union posi­tion, a devel­op­ment that cer­tain­ly pleased the health insur­ance indus­try and drove pro­gres­sives in the labor move­ment mad.

There was much spec­u­la­tion that the union decid­ed not to endorse any­one because they were pret­ty sure Bernie was going to win, and they couldn’t endorse him because of the con­flict they’d start­ed, but didn’t want to endorse some­one who would lose, and so decid­ed to sit on their hands. But offi­cial­ly, they sim­ply chose to endorse their own goals.”

The con­flict over this issue — with­in indi­vid­ual unions, and with­in orga­nized labor as a whole — is very real. The Culi­nary Union runs its own health­care cen­ter for mem­bers, and uses its health­care ben­e­fits as a key recruit­ing tool in a right to work” state. Major unions that are, in effect, in the health care busi­ness them­selves have a nat­ur­al lev­el of con­ser­vatism towards change in the sys­tem. But there is also an influ­en­tial por­tion of the labor move­ment that is strong­ly in favor of Medicare For All, not least because it would free up unions to spend their polit­i­cal cap­i­tal on things oth­er than health care, like bet­ter wages. 

Lar­ry Cohen, the for­mer pres­i­dent of the Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Work­ers of Amer­i­ca who now leads the Sanders-affil­i­at­ed group Our Rev­o­lu­tion, says that Medicare For All would amount to a spec­tac­u­lar gain for unions in the long run. By bring­ing down admin­is­tra­tive and phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal costs, he says, nation­al health care would actu­al­ly save employ­ers mon­ey — mon­ey that would be fun­neled to work­ers in the form of bet­ter pay and oth­er ben­e­fits. On top of that, there is the sim­ple fact that free­ing peo­ple from employ­er-based health care would allow them to be less enslaved to bad jobs. 

If you go do some­thing else, you’re not cov­ered!” Cohen exclaims. Why would we pos­si­bly want to have a sys­tem where the job is what gives you the health care?” 

Culi­nary Union mem­bers and staffers will remind you that their cur­rent health care sys­tem, which is free for mem­bers and pro­vides care for more than 100,000 peo­ple, has been won at the cost of many years of great strug­gle and quite a few strikes, some of which dragged on for years. They con­sid­er it a crown jew­el, and view it with pride. Yet the deci­sion of union lead­er­ship to wade pub­licly and aggres­sive­ly into the Medicare For All debate has put them in the posi­tion of becom­ing a use­ful talk­ing point for for-prof­it health care inter­ests. (It is much more polit­i­cal­ly palat­able for con­ser­v­a­tives to say unions are against pub­lic health care” than insur­ance com­pa­nies want to main­tain profits.”)

One union staffer told me, The best way for any work­er to be pro­tect­ed is a union con­tract.” That may be true, but all three mil­lion cit­i­zens of Neva­da are unlike­ly to be in the union any time soon, and they still get sick. As Culi­nary Union mem­ber Mar­cie Wells wrote last Decem­ber in a wide­ly shared essay call­ing for Medicare For All, We have to acknowl­edge the real­i­ty that for-prof­it insur­ance asserts that if you don’t work you deserve what you get: up to and includ­ing death. Also, sick peo­ple don’t deserve jobs.” 

The oth­er thing that should be said, how­ev­er, is this: For the polit­i­cal left, or sup­port­ers of Bernie Sanders, to view the Culi­nary Union as some sort of ene­my is utter­ly insane. The union has actu­al­ly accom­plished the things that the left says it wants to accom­plish. There is no pop­u­lar polit­i­cal move­ment that could not learn from its suc­cess. Ulti­mate­ly it is incum­bent on the left to bring along the Culi­nary and oth­er unions on the path to Medicare For All, not vice ver­sa. They are nat­ur­al allies. Some peo­ple in the union world say pri­vate­ly that Bernie Sanders is on their side ide­o­log­i­cal­ly, but that he often fum­bles or ignores the stan­dard polit­i­cal busi­ness of pulling in stake­hold­ers and lis­ten­ing to them before he plunges ahead on big issues that affect them. The dif­fer­ences between the two sides, in oth­er words, are fix­able. Fight­ing over such things is a waste of time, when there is still a work­ing class that needs help. 

***************

The gen­er­al pub­lic typ­i­cal­ly hears about the Culi­nary Union in rela­tion to elec­toral pol­i­tics. But from the per­spec­tive of the union, elec­toral pol­i­tics is just a means to an end. All of the famous politi­cians stum­bling down the pick­et line think they are there for the sake of their own cam­paigns, but in fact they are there to help draw atten­tion to a near­ly decade-long union orga­niz­ing cam­paign at Sta­tion Casi­nos, the com­pa­ny that owns the Palms and sev­en oth­er casi­nos where work­ers have vot­ed to union­ize in recent years. 

The com­pa­ny relent­less­ly fought the orga­niz­ing cam­paigns. Once work­ers at indi­vid­ual Sta­tion Casi­nos began vot­ing to union­ize in 2016, they refused to rec­og­nize the unions, stalled on con­tract bar­gain­ing, and have dragged the entire mess into the bureau­crat­ic mire of the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board. Thou­sands of work­ers who should already have union con­tracts have been forced to con­tin­ue their fight against the com­pa­ny for sev­er­al years. 

To height­en the con­tra­dic­tions to car­toon­ish lev­els, Sta­tion is owned by the bil­lion­aire Fer­tit­ta broth­ers, who got filthy rich when they sold the Ulti­mate Fight­ing Cham­pi­onship for $4 bil­lion in 2016. The Fer­tit­tas have donat­ed mil­lions of dol­lars to the Trump cam­paign. In 2018, Frank Fer­tit­ta spent $25 mil­lion on his daughter’s wed­ding, com­plete with an appear­ance by Bruno Mars. Yet there seems to be no length to which they will not go to pre­vent their house­keep­ers from join­ing a union. 

They are unsym­pa­thet­ic fig­ures. A pick­et line feels almost polite, in rela­tion to their con­duct. At the ral­ly at the Palms on Wednes­day, flight atten­dant union leader Sara Nel­son, who had come in sup­port, called them the frit­ta­ta broth­ers.” D. Tay­lor, the hard­boiled head of Unite Here — who, in shades, a ball­cap and a fad­ed t‑shirt, resem­bled noth­ing so much as a high school base­ball coach about to yell at every­one to run laps — was even more direct. These guys are scum­bag liars!” he shout­ed. The only way we’re going to win is to kick the everlov­ing crap out of them and beat the shit out of them.” 

That is a col­or­ful way of say­ing: We rec­og­nize the val­ue of con­tin­ued orga­niz­ing.” On Fri­day, the day before the cau­cus­es, as the nation­al press corps was still replay­ing two-day-old debate zingers, a group of 17 Culi­nary Union orga­niz­ers involved in the Sta­tion Casi­nos cam­paign met at 9 a.m. in a sec­ond-floor con­fer­ence room at the head­quar­ters build­ing. They were men and women, young and old, Lati­no and black and white, and almost all of them had been as casi­no work­ers and union mem­bers before they were organizers. 

For an hour, they reviewed the past week’s work. Most impor­tant was the tal­ly of how many union cards each per­son had got­ten signed, with each card earn­ing a round of applause inside the room. (One orga­niz­er who had pulled in five signed cards earned her­self a day off, and the jeal­ousy of every­one else.) After­ward, the orga­niz­ers head­ed out for home vis­its. This is the true, sweaty, grind­ing sub­stance of union orga­niz­ing: a nev­er-end­ing process of talk­ing to peo­ple who are always busy doing oth­er things. A nev­er-end­ing process of refin­ing and updat­ing a mas­ter list of names. With­out this work, unions don’t exist. 

I set out with Oscar Diaz, a 35 year-old with a shaved head, glass­es, and a goa­tee who had been with the Culi­nary Union for ten years. His father had been a Culi­nary Union shop stew­ard at the West­gate, where he worked for more than 30 years. Diaz’s orga­niz­ing work focus­es on Boul­der Sta­tion and Palace Sta­tion, two Sta­tion Casi­nos prop­er­ties that, after years of orga­niz­ing, held suc­cess­ful union elec­tions in 2016

The fact that he is still deeply engaged in orga­niz­ing them four years lat­er will give you an idea how hard the fight has been. Part of the slog is direct­ly attrib­ut­able to nation­al pol­i­tics. When the com­pa­ny breaks the law, the union files charges against them with the NLRB. But staffing num­bers at the NLRB’s Las Vegas office, Diaz says, have been reduced under Pres­i­dent Trump, mean­ing that cas­es take longer to work their way through the bureau­cra­cy. The delays mean the union cards signed a year or two ago have expired; orga­niz­ers must get work­ers to sign again.

Good orga­niz­ers com­bine the tal­ents of a sales­per­son, a pri­vate detec­tive, a moti­va­tion­al speak­er and a long-haul dri­ver. With a print­ed list of work­ers’ names, Diaz drove around North Las Vegas, seek­ing out address­es in the expanse of iden­ti­cal sand-col­ored hous­ing devel­op­ments. The work­ers do not know that orga­niz­ers are com­ing, mean­ing that they may be gone, or asleep, or sus­pi­cious about open­ing the door. But Diaz is used to nav­i­gat­ing logis­ti­cal hur­dles. We reached one apart­ment com­plex only to find that we didn’t have an access code to open the front gate. Diaz hopped out of the car, peered on top of the key­pad box, and found the code. The FedEx guys will scratch it on top of the box some­times,” he said, shrugging. 

An orga­niz­er may knock on dozens of doors in a day and have only a few tru­ly pro­duc­tive con­ver­sa­tions. The abil­i­ty to nav­i­gate unknown neigh­bor­hoods with lit­tle infor­ma­tion and track down secu­ri­ty codes and slip seam­less­ly between Span­ish and Eng­lish and read each per­son for signs of bias or dis­hon­esty or con­fu­sion are all just inher­ent in the job. And things used to be even hard­er. At the begin­ning of the cam­paign, Diaz recalls, orga­niz­ers got refer­rals with no names or address­es, just vague descrip­tions: Go up Trop­i­cana, you’ll see a house that has a stat­ue of the Vir­gin Mary, knock on the back door.” 

For the work­er who signed a union card, Diaz will come back again anoth­er day with one of her cowork­ers, to recruit her to get more involved. For the work­ers who didn’t answer their doors, he will mark them down, and come back again, how­ev­er many times are nec­es­sary to pull cohe­sion out of this huge group of tired, busy, far-flung peo­ple. He and his fel­low orga­niz­ers will do this tomor­row, and the next day, and the next day. They did this for years already to get an elec­tion, and years more to try to get that elec­tion affirmed, and may do it for years more to win a con­tract. This is what it takes. 

Bust­ing unions is not hard,” Diaz says. It’s play­ing with people’s fears.” Dur­ing the long Sta­tion Casi­nos cam­paign, he has seen how much effort it takes to coun­ter­act intran­si­gent boss­es that pos­sess enor­mous advan­tages in time and mon­ey. The peo­ple that they are up against have bil­lions of dol­lars. The Culi­nary Union has Oscar Diaz, and all of the oth­er orga­niz­ers, who will find out where you live and con­vince you to stand up for your­self. With those tools, the Culi­nary Union has orga­nized Las Vegas. Orga­niz­ing beats mon­ey, even if it takes a very, very long time. 

Culi­nary Work­ers Union mem­bers hold Bernie plac­ards before cast­ing their votes dur­ing the Neva­da Demo­c­ra­t­ic cau­cus­es at the Bel­la­gio Hotel in Las Vegas on Feb­ru­ary 22. (Pho­to by Fredric J. Brown/​AFP via Get­ty Images)

Sat­ur­day was cau­cus day. The cau­cus for work­ers at the Bel­la­gio, one of the more opu­lent prop­er­ties on the strip, was held in a ball­room, where 100 chairs were set out on gar­ish pais­ley car­pet under crys­tal chan­de­liers. Around 11 a.m., small groups of house­keep­ers wear­ing their dark blue uni­forms began trick­ling in, tak­ing seats and try­ing to ignore the mass of cam­eras at the back of the room, where every net­work and news out­let had gath­ered to wit­ness this immod­est open demon­stra­tion of democracy. 

Most of the cau­cus-goers were women of col­or. A few shared their thoughts as they wait­ed for the pro­ceed­ings to begin. Lau­ra Flo­res, a house­keep­er and 20-year mem­ber of the Culi­nary Union, said she was sup­port­ing Bernie Sanders, because of his posi­tion on health insurance. 

More­na Del Cid, anoth­er Culi­nary Union mem­ber, who worked in the pok­er room and had been with the com­pa­ny for 30 years, was par­tic­i­pat­ing in her first cau­cus. She was sup­port­ing Bernie Sanders. Peo­ple have to make a change,” she said. Asked about his stance on Medicare For All, she replied, I love that.” 

Of 123 eli­gi­ble peo­ple in the room to cau­cus, 75 went for Bernie Sanders in the first round, and 39 went for Joe Biden. War­ren got six and Stey­er got three, mean­ing they were not viable. One sup­port­er of each viable can­di­date then had a minute to make their case to the hand­ful of vot­ers whose can­di­dates didn’t make the cut. A Bel­la­gio work­er wear­ing a red Culi­nary union t‑shirt spoke for Bernie Sanders, declar­ing, My chil­dren and future gen­er­a­tions should all have health care!” Medicare For All was her pitch.

The final tal­ly was 76 votes for Bernie, 45 for Biden, and two uncom­mit­ted. Bernie ran away with the Bel­la­gio and almost all of the oth­er casi­nos on the Vegas Strip, the very heart of the Culi­nary Union’s ter­ri­to­ry. This set up an easy nar­ra­tive about a polit­i­cal vic­to­ry over an entrenched union leadership.

But that nar­ra­tive is mis­lead­ing. A union is the peo­ple in the union. The mem­bers, col­lec­tive­ly, are its heart, its mind and its voice. In a good union, its lead­ers and orga­niz­ers and staffers do what they do in order to give pow­er to its mem­bers. The Culi­nary Union is a good union. Its mem­bers won, so it won. 

After the votes had all been count­ed, those who had cau­cused filed out of the room quick­ly, return­ing to work and try­ing to avoid the gaunt­let of media that lined the exits, bom­bard­ing them for quotes. I didn’t have the heart to press them any more. They had already spoken. 

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Hamil­ton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writ­ing about labor and pol­i­tics for Gawk­er, Splin­ter, The Guardian, and else­where. You can reach him at Hamilton@​InTheseTimes.​com.

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