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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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