At a moment when union membership has plummeted to historic lows across the nation, Las Vegas’ Culinary Union 226 is beating the odds and proving that working people who get organized get more, even in the most hostile environment.
For 65 years, the deck has been stacked against unions in Nevada, a right-to-work state where workers are not obligated to pay dues, even when represented by a union. At the same time, Local 226 (known around town as “the Culinary”) is not only surviving, but thriving. Today, membership stands 57,000 workers strong, with 95 percent of workers voluntarily contributing full dues.
How have they done it? The secret to the Culinary’s success is no secret at all. A union succeeds when members take the future into their own hands. Organizing and taking action increases participation and benefits for all. Take Richard Blair, a Las Vegas kitchen worker recently featured in the Huffington Post:
When Richard Blair, 63, was working in a kitchen at the Dunes in the 1980s, he didn’t even know he had a shop steward. But as the union transformed into a more bottom-up operation over the years…members like Blair have become the driving force. He is now a shop steward at the MGM Grand and says he has been arrested five times at Culinary protests over the years. Nearly every worker on his list of 20 is a dues-paying member: “everyone but that one guy on swing shift,” said Blair.
Strong connections and active involvement from members—helping co-workers settle grievances, registering voters, picketing hostile employers, and more—has lifted the tide for workers across Las Vegas’ booming hospitality industry. With members willing to take action, the Culinary has negotiated better pay, better contract provisions, and better benefits. From the same Huffington Post article:
According to the union, the average member earns $23 per hour in pay and benefits, including a generous health plan and an employer-funded pension. The union’s health fund offers family coverage with no monthly premium, and last year the union opened its first health clinic to serve members and their families. The housing program, which was created a decade ago through a collective bargaining agreement with the casinos, has shelled out more than $4 million toward down payments and closing costs.
People across the union, from shop stewards to the union’s own former president, credit these benefits with the steady and passionate involvement of rank-and-file members.
We’ve never viewed right-to-work as a hindrance,” said D. Taylor [former president of the Cuilnary]. “Workers are getting screwed whether they’re in right-to-work states or not. You have to have a constant organizing presence and you have to change the culture of your union. It has to be run by great rank-and-file leaders.”
The lesson is clear: when we stand together, we create a better future for our families. The time is now to take action if we’re going to fight back against those who want to roll back dignity and democracy for working people. As Las Vegas cocktail server and shop steward Monie Stewart-Cariaga said: “I appreciate the people who did this before me. I’m doing it because it’s the right thing to do.”