Day Twenty Four: The Mirage ($99)

“What do you think about an effigy?”

The union worker’s colleague looks puzzled. “I’m not sure what that is.”

Up until now I’ve been standing quietly, listening to their conversation. But now I can’t help myself: “It’s like a paper-mache model of a person. Generally speaking, they’re burnt. You haven’t really arrived until you’ve been burnt in effigy.”

“Oh, ok. Uh. Let’s talk about that later.”

Yeah, probably best table that discussion until there isn’t a journalist being given a tour of the union hall.

I love unions, and I don’t. A child of the 80s, I grew up in the UK at a time when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (“the Iron Lady”) was doing all that she could to de-unionize the UK, including triggering the 1984 (coal) miners’ strike which devastated entire communities and cost the UK economy something in the order of 1.5bn pounds ($2bn+). Later, I began what I still wryly refer to as my journalistic career writing for the Guardian newspaper, which, on union matters, is only slightly to the right of the Socialist Worker.

And yet, as if proving Churchill’s maxim that “if you’re not a liberal at twenty you have no heart, if you’re not a conservative at forty you have no brain,” the older I’ve become, the more conservative I’ve turned on the subject. That natural rightward drift was hastened during my years living in London where Bob Crowe’s National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) shut down the London Underground every time they decide they need a pay rise. There’s something a bit perfect about a union fighting to improve the lot of its 80,000 members by preventing millions of other London wage-slaves from getting to work. See also the Communication Workers Union who once had to call off a proposed one-day strike in order to allow their workers to deliver postal ballots, to facilitate a future strike.

More recently, on this side of the Atlantic, I’ve been vocal in my opinion of the Newspaper Guild and their demand that all Huffington Post writers, even the shit ones, be paid for their work. Accordingly, I am not paid for my work at the Huffington Post.

So it was with those mixed feelings, trending against sympathy for unions that I arrived at the union hall of Culinary Workers Union (Local 226), the largest union in the state of Nevada – representing over 60,000 Las Vegas hotel and cassia workers.

The union’s political director, Yvanna Cancela, had contacted me with an interesting proposal: how would I like to go behind the scenes of one of the strip’s biggest hotel and casinos, to talk to some union workers, maybe meet some employees and generally understand what life is like for the countless thousands of hotel workers in Las Vegas?

There was just one condition. As if to underline the constant cold-war between unions and hotels, my visit would have to be undercover. Under no circumstances could I mention the name of the hotel in any of my coverage, and if we were stopped by hotel security, I’d have to lie. Would I feel comfortable with that?

It’s a pretty basic tenet of journalism, in America at least, that a journalist should always identify himself as such. To pretend to be something I’m not — in this case, a brother unionist visiting from London, would violate every journalistic code. And what if workers told me things they wouldn’t share with a reporter? The moral implications were so complex they made my brain hurt.

“Sounds fine,” I said. It doesn’t do to over-think these things.

First though, Yvanna offered to give me a tour of the union hall — a sprawling set of buildings on South Commerce Street — to explain the structure and mandate of the union that represents many of Las Vegas’ culinary workers, porters, valets, GRAs…

“What’s a GRA?”

“Guest Room Attendant… a housekeeper”

“Ah.”

… GRAs, bell desk workers… in fact, almost every job that keeps hotels working smoothly. “Except security guards — they’re not unionized. But they want to be, so they’re usually nice to us.”

Let’s hope.

Lining the hallways of the union hall are photographs of the union’s great victories. “This is the Frontier strike,” says Yvanna, “that was one of our big successes.” The Frontier? I’m not sure I’ve been there. “It’s gone now.” Uh huh.

A cynic might note that disproportionate number of the Culinary Workers Union’s big victories seem to be in either securing or retaining recognition for the union within hotels. But that cynic would be doing the union an injustice: in the space between the photographs, are pasted posters offering members assistance with everything from health insurance, to alcohol awareness training, to becoming homeowners to obtaining citizenship — your permanent resident card does not fully project you.

It’s easy for me as an overpaid, over-educated whiteboy to question the value of union membership, but judging by many of the snippets of conversation I hear as I walk around the union hall, for many members, Culinary 226 is all that stands between them and the breadline. The American Prospect’s Harold Meyerson credits the union with “boost[ing] wages and transform[ing] dead-end jobs into middle-class careers in the very belly of the casino economy.” And according to the Associated Press, even the president is a fan: during his election campaign, then-senator Obama addressed the union’s membership “telling them he was ready to walk their picket lines should their current contract talks turn sour.”

“We have representatives in all of the hotels on the strip,” says Cancela, “except Venetian and Pallazo.” What’s different about those? “They’re owned by Sheldon Adelson — and he’s a horrible human being.” This from the National Journal:

Adelson’s “anti-union views are of a piece with a much broader extremist ideology that he employs for his own financial benefit,” says John Wilhelm, one of two presidents of UNITE HERE, the key union of casino and hotel workers in Las Vegas. “The economic growth in Vegas has been made possible by a very positive relationship between the unions and all the other major gaming companies except his.”

(Adelson is apparently not horrible enough to be burnt in effigy though; that potential honor is reserved for Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval, who “is trying to destroy education in the state” by diverting hotel room tax revenue away from education.)

“So what’s to stop all of the hotels on the strip following Adelson’s lead and de-unionizing?” I ask, disingenuously.

“We represent so many essential workers in the hotels and we can bring them all out on strike. Hotels would lose millions of dollars in business if we did that.”

Certainly there doesn’t seem to be much sign that Las Vegas will be de-unionized any time soon. The front page of the Winter 2010 issue of the union’s in-house magazine, The Culinary Worker, trumpets the news that “by a huge percentage, more than 4,500 workers in Culinary and Bartenders classifications from CityCenter’s Aria signed on to be members of the union.” Recruitment is helped by a ‘neutrality’ agreement between the union and many of Las Vegas’ hotel operators, including MGM which owns Aria. “That means we can go inside the hotels to talk to staff and recruit members.”

Speaking of which…

“I’ve got a letter that says you’re visiting [Hotel X] on union business,” says my guide; a senior union official who — for obvious reasons — I’m not going to name. “That’s all we need if security stops us.” Seriously, I’m filing all of this stuff away for my heist.

As it turned out, neither the letter or my paper-thin cover story were required. Gaining backstage access to a mid-four-figures room casino is as simple as walking through a door marked “no admittance, staff only”. If anything, management and security gave us a wide berth: a senior union representative in the hotel can only mean trouble. “Actually, we have a really good relationship with the management here, with very few complaints. They realize that keeping a happy workforce means they’ll give better customer service and everyone will be better off.” Careful readers will have deduced that we weren’t touring the Riviera. (Nor, for the avoidance of doubt, were we in the Mirage, where I stayed last night).

Still, we’re barely ten paces inside the building when the first petitioner approaches. “Can I ask you a question?” he says to my guide, with no more introduction than that. He doesn’t ask who I am, and I don’t volunteer the information.

The worker — a porter or bellman judging by his uniform — has an issue with the hotel’s lateness policy. Until a decade ago, the policy was informal: employees who showed up persistently late were given warnings and then dismissed. But different managers had different levels of tolerance for tardiness — some workers were dismissed after six episodes of lateness, others after twenty. The union spent an inordinate amount of time complaining about the inconsistencies, so the hotel introduced a more formal policy, based on points. For every incident of lateness, the employee “earned” half a point. For every unauthorized absence, without some kind of doctor’s note, they scored a whole point. Ten points in any given year, and they’re out. Every year, employees with fewer than eight points have their slate wiped. Those with eight or more have to have six months without incident for their record to be similarly expunged. What could possibly be clearer?

“I has two minutes late to work yesterday and was given half a point,” complains the worker. My guide nods sympathetically, and waits for the question.

“Is that right?” asks the worker “I was only two minutes late.”

“9:02 is still late,” explains my guide, patiently. “Some managers will be lenient if it’s just a couple of minutes, but technically it should still be half a point.”

The worker walks off, still frowning at the injustice of it all.

“A lot of my job is trying to coach workers on which fights are worth having and which aren’t. That guy was late, and he got half a point. It’s fair, and it’s explained in the handbook that every employee receives, but people will always complain,” she says. “Isn’t that a problem with unionization?” I ask – that you train people to complain about every injustice, and very soon everything turns into a grievance.”

“Actually things have to be a step one before they’re escalated to a grievance.”

It seems I’ve accidentally blundered into some union speak. A grievance is part of the formal complaints process agreed between hotels and unions to ensure that serious gripes are dealt with by the right people, while minor quibbles are handled by the shop stewards — regular hotel employees who volunteer to take on union duties. Shop stewards also monitor relations between staff and managers, including ensuring that staff who have made complaints are not victimized by their bosses. Above the shop stewards are volunteer organizers with more formalized duties: 12 hours a week or unpaid administrative work to help the union. Then there are the more senior representatives, like my guide, who have overall responsibility for union activity in the hotel.

Eventually — having been stopped by three or four more petitioners, we arrive at the employee dining room — or ‘EDR.’ This is the hub of the hotel workers’ community, where bread is broken, war stories are shared and — looking around the vast room — naps are taken. The EDRs are where you realize what a monstrously large operation a Las Vegas hotel is. I have to be careful giving hard numbers, but each day at Hotel X, the EDR chef serves 1000 more meals than the hotel has guests. And the food looks good: really good, actually — spanning Asian, American, Italian and French cuisine, including a “healthy” counter which, curiously, contains both apples and cakes.

To my earlier question — “The EDR here is one of the best on the strip. At other places employees are lucky to get spaghetti and some garlic bread. But still we hear complaints that the food selection here isn’t as good as it used to be. Again, I try to explain how it’s important to pick fights.”

From the EDR, we move on to a meeting with a shop steward representing two workers with a fight worth picking. The employees have been “terminated” by the hotel for theft, after being caught removing some schwag left behind by a conference. “When an employee is given something by a guest, she is supposed to get a letter from her manager authorizing her to remove it from the building. Ideally she’ll also get a note signed by the guest, so if the guest comes back alleging theft, we have proof that it wasn’t.” Throughout the example, my guide used the pronoun ‘she’ even though both of the people involved in today’s case are male. Perhaps it’s more common for female members of staff to receive gifts from guests. In any case, the two terminated employees have filed a grievance with the union, and it’s my guide’s job to brief the shop steward on how to get them their job back.

I listen as she explains how the employees’ fate rests on whether the property left behind at the hotel is considered trash (belonging to no-one) or whether it remains the property of the guest or the hotel. If it’s the former than an employee taking it home is guilty of a simple policy violation, subject to the usual escalating system of warnings and final warnings pre-dismissal. If it’s the latter, then it’s theft, which is a casino hotel is a one-strike-and-you’re-out crime.

“You need to argue that it’s just a policy violation,” says my guide, pausing to ensure that the shop steward has understood. Then she turns back to me. “That’s assuming, of course, the employees are telling the truth — that’s something I’ve learned to say: ‘assuming they’re telling the truth.’”

After all, as I’m always telling my colleagues back at my entirely fictitious union back in the UK, nobody likes a liar.