These massive corporations have been merging and gaining power. Wall Street private equity influence is very powerful, and workers are fearful of being left behind. And that’s something that we see at our sister local in Detroit. We sent staff to help with the strike. Folks have really taken a hit after sacrificing during the pandemic, and there’s a lot of anger and nervousness about where these massive corporations are trying to go.
“We think service workers deserve to own their own homes and have health care, and to be able to take care of their kids.”
How does what’s happening in Las Vegas and Detroit fit into the larger landscape of food and beverage workers across the country?
The reality is a lot of our jobs across the country are poor people’s jobs when they’re not [connected to a] union. If you’re a server, you might do a little better than the cook. But restaurant jobs, room-cleaning jobs—if they’re not union, generally, it’s folks just getting by.
I was born and raised in Las Vegas. My parents worked in hotels. My grandfather worked in the food industry here. And a lot of us are like that. But the difference is we’ve been able to create a standard of living—through long, nasty strikes, really. We’ve been able to get health care and have job security in a restaurant or hotel, which normally doesn’t happen. We’ve been able to create jobs with security, health care, and pensions. We have a housing fund that helps people buy homes. We have a free legal services fund. What we’ve been able to do here is something that helps raise all boats.
The volume of workers here [has historically been very high]. Pre-pandemic, we [numbered] almost 65,000 with the bartender’s union, which is affiliated with us. Around the country, it’s a little different. But we think service workers deserve to own their own homes and have health care, and to be able to take care of their kids. And so our Culinary Workers Union—we’re part of Unite Here—is fighting and standing up and organizing.
The push for union protection is building across the U.S., including for food and farmworkers. What do you see as the biggest challenges confronting that movement?
I think companies have gotten addicted to these profit margins since the pandemic. These are massive corporations; they’re not mom-and-pop restaurants that we’re talking about. People look at MGM Resorts, Caesars Entertainment, or Wynn Resorts, and they get it, they’re all over the world. You have to be able to join together to have the power to beat them.
One of the big issues is the decline of the labor movement [in recent decades]. You’ve got to have scale to be able to take on these companies. It’s a romantic notion that workers can just get together and win against big corporations—it doesn’t happen. If you want to beat Starbucks, it’s not about 30 workers and a locally owned franchise. You’ve got to beat the corporation. Labor has got to say we’re going to put X amount of money and resources and manpower into working with non-union workers and organizing.
How is this movement for food and beverage workers different from others you’ve seen in your 30-year career?
There’s this idea that in Vegas we’ve been able to succeed because it’s easier. It’s not; it’s tougher. These companies are massive. They’re extremely powerful. It’s like a steel mill town or a coal town. But we’ve been one of the fastest-growing local unions over the last 25 years across the country in a right-to-work state. In other words, legally workers don’t have to pay their union dues, and they would get all the union benefits that we negotiate.
I think there’s understanding now that we can do this, and so I’m very optimistic about that. But it takes real sacrifice and real commitment. If you look at all the polling, the favorability of unions and the idea of belonging to the union is at its highest peak in the last 30 years. And it’s not because unions are doing something different; it’s because workers are seeing the fact that these massive corporations are gonna leave them behind.
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Author: Christina Cooke