Hotel-Casino Workers Block Las Vegas Strip Traffic; Nearly 100 Arrested

UNITE HERE demonstrators in Las VegasCulinary Workers Local 226, an affiliate of UNITE HERE, prides itself on driving a hard bargain with the management of hotel-casinos along the Las Vegas Strip. During Wednesday evening rush hour, union rank and file showed how far they’re willing to go. After nearly two years of stalled contract talks with The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas resort hotel-casino, an estimated 1,500 local  members and allies assembled in front of the facility, many of whom blocked rush-hour traffic in both directions along Las Vegas Boulevard. Police arrested 98 protestors who sat in the middle of the street, as placard-holding, chanting workers cheered them on. This display of raw power could be a prelude to larger confrontations once collective bargaining talks with several other Strip casinos open next month.

The hotel-casino industry in Las Vegas has experienced explosive growth during these past couple decades. With it has come rapid unionization. Since the opening of the Mirage in 1989, the first of several new Strip “mega-resorts,” Culinary Workers Local 226 has expanded its membership by at least 40,000 workers. Now with 60,000 members, Local 226 is by far the largest and most powerful component of the 265,000-member UNITE HERE International. Logically, it has become the training ground for the presidency at the union’s New York City headquarters. John Wilhelm, president of the international union until his retirement last November, previously had run the Las Vegas local. And new UNITE HERE President Donald “D.” Taylor previously had run Local 226 after Wilhelm left the local to head the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) in 1998.

UNITE HERE International was founded in 2004 as a merger of hospitality and laundry/garment unions. But within a half-decade it had degenerated into virtual civil war. Co-leaders John Wilhelm (hospitality workers) and Bruce Raynor (laundry/garment workers), once close allies, now were enemies. Raynor sued Wilhelm for gross mismanagement and Wilhelm countersued Raynor for violations of the union charter. In March 2009, Raynor and 100,000 to 150,000 supporters disaffiliated from UNITE HERE, and soon renamed themselves Workers United and affiliated with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which at the time still was led by Andrew Stern. Wilhelm retaliated by taking his own 265,000-member faction out of the SEIU-driven breakaway labor federation, Change to Win, and re-affiliating with the AFL-CIO. The lawsuits, which eventually focused on control over the UNITE HERE-owned Amalgamated Bank, would be resolved in July 2010.

UNITE HERE, if somewhat truncated, was now John Wilhelm’s union. And when Wilhelm retired on November 29, 2012, D. Taylor was his logical successor. Like Wilhelm, Taylor has a hardball negotiating style and consistently has delivered hefty contracts; union housekeepers in Las Vegas, for example, now start at $16 an hour plus benefits. The current leaders of Local 226, President Ted Pappageorge and Secretary-Treasurer Geoconda Arguello Kline, the latter also serving as executive vice president of UNITE HERE International, are likewise forceful. More than ever, the local and international unions are active in Democratic Party politics. Each has played a central role in moving Nevada from the Republican into the Democratic column. UNITE HERE also has been a major booster of mass immigration, including amnesty for illegal immigrants. The international union has created the position of general vice president for Immigration, Civil Rights and Diversity. This January, Taylor called for a new immigration system that “must include a timely roadmap to citizenship for the millions of Americans already contributing to our industries and communities every day.” And Local 226 over a decade ago established the Citizenship Project; since 2001 the project has enabled over 8,000 people to become U.S. citizens and hence potential voters.

Culinary Workers Local 226, to make a long story short, is the heart of UNITE HERE. With the full blessing of headquarters, local members, as necessity arises, will make life rough for hotel-casinos they see as bargaining in bad faith. Such is the situation with The Cosmopolitan. The hotel-casino, which opened in December 2010 and is owned by Deutsche Bank, hasn’t met union demands over wages, health care costs and job security. And it’s one of the few casinos on the Las Vegas Strip where employees currently work without a contract. The local in 2010 had conducted a “card check,” coaxing a majority of workers at the facility to sign a card indicating a desire to join the union. In other words, it’s a logical target for union dissatisfaction.

Members ratcheted up negotiations on January 31 by picketing outside the resort hotel-casino. The action did not yield results. Undaunted, the union conducted another picket on March 1. Again, it was to no avail. Thus, this Monday the union announced it would take more drastic action: Its members would block traffic on Las Vegas Boulevard two days later and allow themselves to be arrested. “As it is,” said Local 226 spokesperson Yvanna Cancela, “the delay for good contracts at The Cosmopolitan threatens the standard of living that has been established over decades of worker organizing.”

The union made good on its word. On or about 6 P.M., Wednesday, an estimated 1,500 members of Culinary Workers Local 226 and its HERE sister union, Bartenders Local 165, assembled in front of The Cosmopolitan. Many held placards and chanted slogans, sometimes in Spanish. The chants included “No justice, no peace” and “Cosmopolitan look around, Las Vegas is a union town.” Roughly a hundred union members clad in bright red T-shirts sat down in the middle of Las Vegas Boulevard, blocking street traffic, leaving not a few motorists frustrated until police arrested them. Tourists watched either from the sidewalk or a nearby overpass as police led the protestors, one by one, into a white police bus.

The willingness of Culinary Workers Local 226 to go the long haul shouldn’t be underestimated. During September 1991-January 1998 — more than six years — the union conducted a strike against the Frontier hotel-casino. And it won (the Frontier would be razed via implosion in 2007). A similar action in the near future against the Cosmopolitan and/or some other casino is hardly out of the question. While most casinos in Las Vegas are unionized, several aren’t. In addition to the Cosmopolitan, they include the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, the Palms and the Venetian. A Cosmopolitan spokeswoman, Amy Rossetti, said that management is trying to “find a fair agreement” with the local. But it’s hard to negotiate when rank and file prefer creating public nuisances to talking things out – and with the full encouragement of the international union.