Published on Thursday, June 3, 2004 by the New York Times
Local 226, 'the Culinary,' Makes Las Vegas the Land of the Living Wage
by Steven Greenhouse
LAS VEGAS - Ask people here why Las Vegas is the nation's fastest-growing city, and they point to the thriving casino industry and to its ever-growing appetite for workers.
But there is another, little understood force contributing to the allure of Las Vegas, a force often viewed as the casino industry's archnemesis. It is Culinary Local 226, also called the Culinary, the city's largest labor union, an unusual - and unusually successful - union that has done a spectacular job catapulting thousands of dishwashers, hotel maids and other unskilled workers into the middle class.
In most other cities, these workers live near the poverty line. But thanks in large part to the Culinary, in Las Vegas these workers often own homes and have Rolls-Royce health coverage, a solid pension plan and three weeks of vacation a year.
The Culinary's extraordinary success at delivering for its 48,000 members beckons newcomers from far and wide. By many measures, the Culinary is the nation's most successful union local; its membership has nearly tripled from 18,000 in the late 1980's, even as the rest of the labor movement has shrunk. The Culinary is such a force that one in 10 people here is covered by its health plan, and more than 90 percent of the hotel workers on the Strip belong to the union. The union is also unusual because it is a rainbow coalition, 65 percent nonwhite and 70 percent female. It includes immigrants from Central America, refugees from the Balkan wars and blacks from the Deep South.
The Culinary's success cannot be separated from the industry's wealth. With the profits rolling in, the casinos have decided to be relatively magnanimous to their workers to ensure labor peace and a happy work force.
"When you're in the service business, the first contact our guests have is with the guest-room attendants or the food and beverage servers, and if that person's unhappy, that comes across to the guests very quickly," said J. Terrence Lanni, chairman of the MGM Mirage, which owns the MGM Grand, the world's largest hotel, with 5,000 rooms and 8,200 employees. "These are people who are generally happy. Is it perfect? No. But it's as good as I've seen anywhere."
Under the Culinary's master contract, waiters are guaranteed $10.14 an hour before tips, the highest rate in the nation. In Las Vegas, unionized hotel housekeepers generally earn $11.95 an hour, 50 percent more than in nonunion Reno. The Culinary contract guarantees workers 40 hours' pay each week, meaning housekeepers earn at least $478 a week, while in other cities housekeepers often work 30 hours and earn just $240. The Culinary's workers pay no premiums for health care, and they often pay just $10 for a dentist's visit, while nonunion workers often pay upwards of $150.
"Our wages are higher, the medical benefits are great, and we have a guaranteed 40-hour week," said Marianne Singer, a waitress at the unionized MGM Grand. "Thanks to all that, I have a beautiful 2,000-square-foot home with a three-car garage."
The Culinary has struggled to shed a once-unsavory image. A half-century ago it worked closely with Bugsy Siegel and the other gangsters who built up Las Vegas. In 1977, its president, Al Bramlet, was found shot dead in the desert; some say the mob killed him because he opposed its efforts to take over the union.
The Culinary owes its successes to war and peace: first a war that most of the hotel casinos waged against it in the 1980's, and more recently, a broad partnership with the industry. The main war was a two-month strike in 1984 in which 900 picketing workers were arrested. Many casinos wanted to break the Culinary, but the union managed to pressure most into signing a good contract. The Culinary was badly shaken by the dispute, with six hotels refusing to sign a contract and eliminating their union presence. To gird itself for future battles, the union revamped, bringing in veteran organizers and young activists who organized vigorous rank-and-file committees in each hotel. The union also began doing strategic research on the industry, striking fear into some gambling companies by warning Wall Street that the casinos had dangerously high debt levels and could not withstand a strike.
Still smarting from the 1984 dispute and seeing that the union was a formidable force, the casinos made a strategic shift toward peace and partnership. In 1989, Steve Wynn, who transformed Las Vegas with his grandiose theme hotels, signed a groundbreaking agreement with the Culinary when he opened the Mirage, famed for its white tigers and erupting volcano.
Mr. Wynn vowed not to fight unionization, saying he would recognize the Culinary once a majority of the Mirage's workers signed cards saying they favored a union. In return, the Culinary gave Mr. Wynn two things he wanted. It rewrote archaic contractual language to whittle 134 job classifications down to 30. The union also pledged to use organized labor's lobbying clout to advance the industry's interests. Caesars Palace, Bally's, Circus Circus and other casinos soon signed similar labor agreements.
"The last thing you want is for people who are coming to enjoy themselves to see pickets and unhappy workers blocking driveways," Mr. Lanni said. "I swore then that we would never have such problems again."
Except for a few strikes at small casinos, the 1989 accords have ushered in 15 years of cooperation and prosperity. Management and union have worked hand in hand to improve service and to press the city's hospitals and doctors to hold down costs, saving the industry millions each year.
Twenty-four casinos help finance the Culinary Training Academy, hailed by many experts as the industry's finest job-training school. It teaches 2,500 students a year to step up to jobs as waiters, cooks or even sommeliers. Courses are free to members of the union, while the unemployed can take courses with federal or state grants.
Steven Horsford, the academy's executive director, said the industry's needs for trained workers were so great that the academy would double its capacity to 5,000 students a year by 2006.
"In Las Vegas, more so than any place in the country, the hospitality industry and the union have realized it is not mere rhetoric to say, 'We're all in this together,' '' said John W. Wilhelm, president of the Culinary's parent union, the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union.
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company