labor How the Mighty Culinary Union Survived the Apocalypse
It was the week before Halloween on the Vegas Strip, and the party had already begun. In front of the Paris Las Vegas Casino, cones were carefully laid down the middle of Las Vegas Boulevard, shutting down three of its six lanes. A flatbed truck served as an improvised stage. Speakers blasted the song “We Are Family.” And from all directions, people in red shirts trickled in. Two women in matching fishnet stockings and leather bikinis stopped accosting tourists for photos and tips for a moment and wandered over to take in the scene. “What’s going on here?” one said nervously, fingering her riding crop. “Are the cops gonna come break this up?”
Her concern was misplaced. This was the most wholesome thing happening on the Strip. It was not debauchery, but a celebration. All those people in red “Come Back Stronger” T‑shirts were room cleaners, bartenders, bellhops and other workers in the casinos that dominate the skyline. They had seen this Strip deserted not long ago. Now, they had come to rally in a town once again full of gaudy life. The past year and a half had been very, very hard. But the mighty Culinary Union survived.
When the history of the pandemic’s effect on working people is written, there will be a special place in it for the devastation of Las Vegas. It is the story of what happens to a one-industry town when that industry is suddenly and completely shut down.
Virtually all of the employees of the Vegas Strip’s famous casinos are members of the Culinary Union, which has spent the past 86 years building an organization of more than 60,000 hospitality workers in Nevada. Today, it is not so much a simple labor union as a full-service social service and political operation, with unparalleled efficiency in using labor power to create sustainable, middle-class lives for workers who would otherwise face low wages and indifferent prospects. Along the way, it has become the state’s strongest political force pushing bread-and-butter progressive issues that help working people.
The Culinary Union is Las Vegas, and its fortunes rise and fall with the city. When the pandemic struck in full force in March 2020, the entire Strip shut down, a sight that rivaled New York City’s empty Times Square for apocalyptic eeriness. That was the beginning of the union’s greatest test.
Rocha (who goes by one name), a Culinary Union member, is a utility porter at The Strat, the sprawling hotel and casino whose soaring 1,149-foot observation tower marks the north end of the Strip like an exclamation point. In early March 2020, she recalls, the company told its employees that some of them would be laid off. Three days later, it said that, actually, everyone would be laid off. The entire casino was being shuttered indefinitely. Rocha was one of the last workers in the building on the final day.
“I remember they had a big hallway, and they started shutting the lights, one by one,” she says. Each snapped off with a sharp sound that punctuated the unnatural emptiness of the space. “It was really depressing and scary.”
That unnerving experience was shared by thousands of others who worked at the city’s normally bustling casinos. A few miles down the Strip, Shawn Best was employed as a banquet cook at the swanky Cosmopolitan hotel and casino. He, too, was one of the last people closing things down on March 18, 2020. “It was very surreal,” he says. “I remember going up the escalators, and there was nobody in there. It was a weird feeling.”
The Culinary Union itself could not afford to wallow in disbelief. The pandemic shutdowns were an existential crisis. Virtually overnight, 98% of its members became unemployed.
“That was a very difficult time,” says Geoconda Argüello-Kline, with characteristic understatement. A native of Nicaragua who moved to Las Vegas for work in the early 1980s, Argüello-Kline has been a top officer of the Culinary Union for nearly a decade. She began as a member, then became an activist, and then became an organizer, and has spent countless months leading difficult strikes against intransigent casino companies. A photo of her marching with Cesar Chavez on a Vegas picket line now hangs on the wall of the union’s maze-like office. But nothing she had experienced rivaled the sheer scope of what the union’s members faced in 2020: total unemployment, a public health crisis and paralyzing uncertainty about how everyone was supposed to keep their homes and their healthcare and continue to feed their families while the jobs in the city ground to a halt.
In the face of all that (and with its own offices shut down, its finances in peril) the union got to work. It launched a free food distribution program that has, to date, given out more than 475,000 baskets of food to members: beans, rice, chicken, fruit. At the program’s peak, 1,800 people were coming to pick up food each day. The union also began a massive assistance campaign to help members file for unemployment benefits, and developed its own online tools to better navigate the creaky state website.
Healthcare was an equally pressing matter. The Culinary Union runs its own health fund, which provides healthcare to all members and their families — more than 130,000 people. When everyone was laid off, the union guaranteed its members would keep their healthcare coverage for 18 months. That meant that, unlike most every non-union laid-off worker in America, Culinary Union members could be sure they wouldn’t have their employer-provided health insurance snatched away from them right in the midst of a global health crisis.
The reassurance that benefit provided was acute: The union says more than 1,500 members (or their family members) have been hospitalized with Covid-19. The union has heavily promoted vaccination to its members, running virtual town halls with doctors to combat vaccine skepticism.
Housing was another concern. Casino workers, like everyone else, were at risk of eviction when their incomes dried up. Shawn Best, from the Cosmopolitan, did get evicted when he couldn’t pay his rent; he found himself living in a hotel. He called the union and they connected him with rental assistance money from ULAN, a labor-affiliated nonprofit. “The union told me to contact the attorney general, and they got me back in the place, and they paid the back rent,” Best says. His sojourn at the hotel lasted only two weeks.
Without the union, “I would have been homeless; I would have not had healthcare,” says Best, who spent time in the hospital in 2020 with complications from diabetes. “Honestly — and I know this sounds extreme — I might have been dead. Because without healthcare, I wouldn’t have had insulin, wouldn’t have had emergency room care.”
Amid all of this, the Culinary Union didn’t stop organizing. Since the start of the pandemic, it has successfully unionized the Circa Resort and Casino and the city’s new Allegiant Stadium, adding 3,400 new members.
To understand the Culinary Union’s power, it is important to understand that it is a fundamentally political organization. Every four years, Democratic presidential candidates come to jockey for its endorsement, perhaps the most coveted one in Nevada Democratic politics. (During the 2020 election, the union was one of the only entities in the country that ran a full, statewide door-knocking campaign on behalf of Joe Biden, while most of the Democratic Party shied away from in-person campaigning. Biden won Nevada.) But its politics flow directly from practical concerns — like how to guarantee that regular working people are able to claim their fair share of the rich proceeds that the gaming industry pulls in. It is a majority-woman, majority-Latino organization with a very canny understanding of how labor and political power are tied together. Its progressive identity is just a byproduct of catering to its members. Las Vegas is the power center of Nevada, and the Culinary Union is the labor force of Las Vegas, and that labor force has built a machine to ensure political power in the state serves working people.
And that machine does not just campaign for candidates — it creates them. Maggie Carlton, the chair of the Nevada State Assembly’s Ways and Means Committee and the longest-serving female legislator in the state, got her start as a Culinary Union shop steward at Treasure Island on the Vegas Strip. She personifies the union’s virtuous cycle of producing activists and officials who will look out for the interests of the union’s members and people like them.
In the midst of the pandemic, that political capital was put to use. Even while triaging the immediate, life-and-death problems of members, the Culinary Union turned its attention to the broader issue of how to get everyone back to work. Its first major achievement was the August 2020 passage of Senate Bill 4, the “Adolfo Fernandez bill,” which mandated Covid-19 safety regulations in the Nevada hospitality industry, including protective equipment and daily room cleaning in hotels. (It also protected businesses from civil lawsuits over Covid-19, an incentive for them to open back up.) Adolfo Fernandez was a worker on the Strip who is believed to have died of Covid-19 in June 2020.
Leain Vashon, a longtime bell captain at the Paris Las Vegas Casino, who is also the Culinary Union’s vice president, remembers the visceral stress of 2020. “In the beginning, when this was first starting out, it became something of a terror for the workers because of the way it was being handled,” he says. He emphasizes that the standard safety protocols now in place at hotels only came about “at the insistence” of the union, and became enforceable only after SB4 was passed. He is still bitter about the apparent lack of concern for workers’ health in the initial rush to reopen, when safety measures were haphazard.
The second state legislative victory was Senate Bill 386, signed into law in June 2021. That bill, dubbed “Right to Return,” guaranteed two years of recall rights to 350,000 Nevada hospitality workers — meaning that those who were laid off in the pandemic would have the right to be rehired back into their same jobs for two years afterward. Those rights are critical because they protect longtime employees from seeing their jobs handed to new, lower-wage replacement workers once businesses reopen. Perhaps the most notable thing about the Culinary Union’s advocacy of the bill was that most of its own members didn’t need it, since the union’s existing contracts already guarantee recall rights. (California and Connecticut have passed similar laws, along with a number of cities across the country.) These laws, and the job security they bring, are the pandemic era’s best example of the political influence of unions raising standards for an entire industry, benefiting those who aren’t yet in the union.
By getting both daily room cleaning and recall rights enshrined in state law, the Culinary Union has already won battles that are still being fought throughout the hospitality industry nationwide. Unite Here, the Culinary Union’s 300,000-member parent union, is still waging fights in cities and states across the country on those very issues. Many hotels see the comeback from the pandemic as a golden opportunity to get rid of higher-priced veteran workers and to train customers not to expect daily room cleaning. Both are direct threats to the economic interests of hospitality workers. In tourist cities like New Orleans and Miami, most hotel workers still have to worry. But in Las Vegas, those threats are receding.
The reopening of the Vegas Strip began in summer 2021. Today, two-thirds of Culinary Union members are back in their jobs, with another 20,000 awaiting callbacks. As of September 2021, Las Vegas tourism was about three-quarters of the way back from pre-pandemic levels, but major conventions and international travelers have been scarce for most of the year. Now, union members and officers say the most widespread issue is overwork of the employees who have been called back, as casinos prefer to pile more hours on fewer workers than call back the entire staff.
“The workers is not back but the business is full,” says Hanna Alamuu, a guest room attendant at the Aria resort and casino. “One worker is working two different positions. The company, they make more, but the worker does not.”
The union is pushing to get as many of its members as possible rehired before their two-year recall rights expire in March. “Our big priority right now is to get everybody back to work — safely. Safely is key,” says Vashon. “They’re exhausting our workforce by having them do way too much.”
As grateful as workers are for the renewal of their paychecks, they also recognize that the Culinary Union was their only real safety net during the harrowing past year and a half.
The area on and around the Las Vegas Strip now sports the physical scars of the pandemic’s devastation. Some big casinos remain closed. Empty storefronts dot the nearby strip malls. Yet the recovery is everywhere you look. Tourists are starting to crowd the Bellagio’s dancing fountains once again; the NFL bettors are crowding every sportsbook, clutching tickets and hope. There will soon be a new casino or cannabis dispensary or instant wedding chapel to fill every empty spot. Vegas, for as long as it can hold out before climate change returns it to the desert, will always bounce back. It is the repository for an entire nation’s tackiest dreams, and that business will never disappear.
The Culinary Union is rising back up in tandem with the city itself. Their future is people like Rocha, whose rainbow mask can’t cover her irrepressible enthusiasm. Since she joined the union, she’s received free training for a new job at the union-affiliated Culinary Academy; she took a leave of absence from work to help with union business, a benefit guaranteed by her contract; and she bought a house, with help from a union housing program that provides mortgage assistance and training for first-time homebuyers.
She also got Covid in 2020. For four weeks, she was out of work, sick and in quarantine. It made her think. “It’s really scary,” she says. “You’re alone, and nobody’s with you in the room. But having an organization like the union, that protects and fights for our rights, our protection, it makes you feel strong.
“That’s how I feel — I’m not alone. So let’s do this.”