The Culinary Union Faces Its Biggest Test as Coronavirus Shuts Down Vegas

Hamilton Nolan March 16, 2020

The High Roller at The Linq Promenade and hotel-casinos on the Las Vegas Strip, including The Venetian Las Vegas, the Trump International Hotel & Tower Las Vegas and The Palazzo Las Vegas, are shown as the coronavirus continues to spread across the United States on March 15, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

There may be no more vivid illus­tra­tion of the eco­nom­ic hav­oc being wreaked by the coro­n­avirus than the rapid shut­down of the Las Vegas strip. What was a boom­ing tourist des­ti­na­tion a week ago is now in the process of becom­ing a locked down row of emp­ty build­ings. For the Culi­nary Union, whose 60,000 mem­bers com­prise vir­tu­al­ly the entire Las Vegas casi­no indus­try, this is the equiv­a­lent of a nuclear bomb.

In just the past two days, MGM Resorts, which oper­ates 10 major prop­er­ties on the Strip, has announced that it is clos­ing all of them indef­i­nite­ly; Wynn Resorts has announced it is clos­ing its two prop­er­ties for at least two weeks; and Caesar’s, anoth­er major oper­a­tor, has begun lay­offs. With trav­el grind­ing to a halt and Amer­i­ca hun­ker­ing indoors, it is like­ly only a short mat­ter of time before every casi­no and resort in Las Vegas is emp­ty, a sit­u­a­tion even worse than the after­math of the 2008 finan­cial crisis.

The Culi­nary Union, which just weeks ago was being fet­ed and flat­tered by Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates in town for the Neva­da cau­cus, will now be test­ed by the rapid fur­loughs and lay­offs of what will amount to a large por­tion of their work­ing membership.

In an update sent to mem­bers late last week, the union said that it was hold­ing emer­gency nego­ti­a­tion ses­sions” with all of its employ­ers, seek­ing five paid sick leave days, paid leave for those in quar­an­tine, enhanced clean­ing stan­dards, and leaves of absences on request. Some of those asks will become moot as prop­er­ties shut down. Culi­nary Union spokesper­son Bethany Khan told In These Times that the union has nego­ti­at­ed up to six months of paid health­care ben­e­fits for work­ers who are laid off.

Yes­ter­day, the union told mem­bers that the board of the Culi­nary Health Fund, the union-run health­care provider for more than 125,000 mem­bers and their fam­i­lies, will be extend­ing cov­er­age for those who are laid off or have had their hours cut, and will not impose copays. The Health Fund also told mem­bers that all test­ing for the coro­n­avirus will be cov­ered at no cost (although the Fund’s web­site now promi­nent­ly notes that The Culi­nary Health Cen­ter cur­rent­ly does not have the abil­i­ty to test for the Coro­n­avirus,” and that the emer­gency room is the only place peo­ple can cur­rent­ly be tested.)

Unlike for­mer crises like 911 and the Great Reces­sion, the coro­n­avirus shut­downs are not only eco­nom­ic, but also tinged with the fur­ther uncer­tain­ty of an unfold­ing pan­dem­ic. That means that the shut­downs and lay­offs in Las Vegas could per­sist even after the virus itself comes under con­trol, due to the eco­nom­ic fall­out, or even after eco­nom­ic recov­ery mea­sures have been tak­en, if the virus itself is still rag­ing. There is no way to say when busi­ness might return.

The Culi­nary Union became a union role mod­el by build­ing wall-to-wall pow­er in a one-indus­try town. Now that that indus­try is fac­ing what could become a total tem­po­rary col­lapse, the union’s abil­i­ty to func­tion as a social safe­ty net will be test­ed like nev­er before. Last month, every Demo­c­ra­t­ic politi­cian in Amer­i­ca was com­pet­ing to prove that they sup­port­ed the union and its mem­bers more than any­one else. Now, they will get a chance to prove it.

Even Culi­nary Union mem­bers who have not been laid off are fac­ing their own haz­ards. One union work­er at a prop­er­ty on the Las Vegas strip that is still open told In These Times that they are now caught between the fear of los­ing a job, or los­ing their health. It’s a petri dish.”

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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