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Is this Las Vegas hospitality workers union the future of American labor?

Organized labor in the American workforce has declined since the 1980s, with many unions struggling to attract workers as companies voice opposition to them. But in Las Vegas, one union has broken through to much of the city’s hospitality sector -- and done so by involving its membership in all of its operations. Paul Solman reports on how this new model of organization is driving results.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The heyday of unionization in the American work force is several decades old. In fact, unions are still struggling to get more workers to join, while many companies remain opposed.

    But, in Nevada, there's a case study of a union that has broken through.

    And this weekend, several presidential candidates will be participating in a town hall with those workers.

    Correspondent Paul Solman looks at what this union has done differently.

    It's part of our series on economics and business, Making Sense.

  • Paul Solman:

    Bathroom cleaning, kitchen prep, bed-making, that's the curriculum at the Culinary Academy of Las Vegas, a school run by 32 casino hotels and Local 226 of a thriving union, the Culinary Workers.

    Who learns what here, and why?

  • Steven Greenhouse:

    A restaurant busser can who makes $35,000 a year can take a course to become a waiter and make $60,000 a year, and then take another course maybe to become a bartender, sommelier, and make $90,000 a year. And these courses are free.

  • Paul Solman:

    For many years, The New York Times' labor reporter, Steven Greenhouse, is the author of "Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor."

    Since the 1980s, as union membership in the private sector has plummeted by two-thirds, Local 226 has more than tripled in its membership, to 60,000, and become a torch for the long-moribund labor movement.

  • Kate Bronfenbrenner:

    They're the model that unions should look to for representation and organizing.

  • Paul Solman:

    Cornell University's Kate Bronfenbrenner has been studying the union for decades.

  • Kate Bronfenbrenner:

    They have the most actively engaged membership of almost any union in the country. And they do that by involving the membership in everything they do.

  • Leain Vashon:

    We're not just a union that just sits in a building and collects dues. No, we're not.

  • Paul Solman:

    The union's vice president, Leain Vashon.

  • Leain Vashon:

    The people who are downtown at City Hall, screaming and yelling about, we want better schools, are culinary members, we want better water, are culinary members, we want better infrastructure, culinary members.

  • Debra Jeffries:

    We have a rank-and-file union. We're in on negotiations.

  • Paul Solman:

    Debra Jeffries has been one of the rank-and-file for 40 years, got more involved in the mid-'80s, when she objected to her casino's insistence that cocktail servers like her wear high heels.

  • Debra Jeffries:

    We did all the research, you know, how many miles we walk a night. I think it was like eight to 12 miles a night in an eight-hour shift. We lift anywhere from five- to 15-pound trays for eight hours. So we had a meeting, and we beat the issue.

  • Paul Solman:

    Thirty years later, 95 percent of Las Vegas hotel/casinos are unionized. As for the remaining 5 percent:

  • Leain Vashon:

    The only reason some hotels pay the same thing is to try to prevent them from becoming union. But they still won't be able to compete with that because of what we offer.

  • Paul Solman:

    Job security.

  • Leain Vashon:

    Job security most of all.

  • Paul Solman:

    Vashon is a bell captain at the Paris Hotel, one of Las Vegas' seven faux wonders of the world. As massive protests in the real Paris have recently shown, however, workers have a lot more heft in the old countries.

    Steve Greenhouse was stationed in Paris for The Times.

  • Steven Greenhouse:

    Unions in Europe are much stronger. In France, for instance, 90 percent of workers are covered by union contracts, whereas, in the United States, only 12 percent are.

  • Paul Solman:

    And in the private sector, just 6 percent.

    The reasons are familiar, from globalization, which invited competition from the low-wage workers of the world, to President Ronald Reagan, who in 1981 broke the air traffic controllers union that had supported his campaign, firing all its striking members.

  • President Ronald Reagan:

    They have forfeited their jobs and will be terminated.

  • Paul Solman:

    But the culinary workers bucked the odds.

  • Geoconda Arguello-Kline:

    Sign, sell, or shut it down. That was our picket sign.

  • Paul Solman:

    Geo Arguello-Kline, who rose from housekeeper to head of the union, was active in the Frontier Hotel strike, which began in 1991.

    And how long did the strike last?

  • Geoconda Arguello-Kline:

    Six years, four months, and 10 days.

  • Paul Solman:

    There was a picket line 24 hours a day…

  • Geoconda Arguello-Kline:

    Twenty-four hours.

  • Paul Solman:

    … seven days a week?

  • Geoconda Arguello-Kline:

    Seven days a week. And nobody crossed the picket line. People stick together, they fought, and when they sold the place, they back to work.

  • Paul Solman:

    It was the longest strike in U.S. labor history. The union won.

    Years later, the Frontier was torn down, and on part of the property, Trump International was built. It was non-union when it started.

  • Man:

    When I say union, you say power.

  • Paul Solman:

    But in 2015, says Steve Greenhouse:

  • Steven Greenhouse:

    The Culinary launched a huge unionization drive against the Trump Hotel, and a majority of the workers voted for a union. Yet Trump still wouldn't recognize the union.

  • Hillary Rodham Clinton:

    I wanted to come by and lend my voice.

  • Steven Greenhouse:

    Hillary Clinton even came and joined the protest. And, finally, Trump, facing a presidential campaign, not wanting the whole labor movement against him, sued for peace, rather than continue his war against the union.

  • Paul Solman:

    Even more striking is the union's success in Nevada, a right-to-work state, meaning all workers get whatever benefits a union negotiates, without needing to join the union at all.

    What do you say to a worker who says, I'm going to get the union benefits anyway, I'm not paying the dues?

  • Leain Vashon:

    I say, God bless you. We have still got you. And sooner or later, most of them come around.

  • Paul Solman:

    And why do they come around?

  • Debra Jeffries:

    Safety in the workplace, seniority, pension, guaranteed work week.

  • Paul Solman:

    But, above all, says cocktail server Debra Jeffries:

  • Debra Jeffries:

    We have a Cadillac plan, health and welfare, that is phenomenal. We're free of out-of-pocket costs for our medical insurance.

  • Paul Solman:

    Health insurance is the main reason why food server Tracy Gregrich helped organize the Palms Casino, newly part of the staunchly anti-union stations chain.

  • Tracy Gregrich:

    If we have to go to the emergency room, we have to pay $1,000 out of pocket. When you live paycheck to paycheck, that can take years to pay.

  • Paul Solman:

    Workers at the Palms, recently renovated to the tune of more than half-a-billion dollars, have voted in the union, 84 percent of them. But the parent company is challenging the vote.

  • Tracy Gregrich:

    It's harder and harder to get a contract. It's been a fight.

  • Paul Solman:

    Now, let's not romanticize unions. Over the years, many have earned their negative reputations for corruption, especially here when Las Vegas was built, for goldbricking, shirking on the job, for protecting unneeded workers, a practice known as featherbedding.

    How am I doing? OK?

    But as I learned at the Culinary Academy, you shouldn't romanticize the work here either.

    This is quite physical.

  • Nancy Cor:

    It is.

  • Paul Solman:

    Now, is one person supposed to do this?

  • Nancy Cor:

    In six minutes or less.

  • Paul Solman:

    And how many beds like this would I have to do in one shift?

  • Nancy Cor:

    You will have to make sometimes 30 of these beds.

  • Paul Solman:

    And what happens if I don't finish in time?

  • Nancy Cor:

    You're going to get probably a warning, a suspension, and maybe you're going to get terminated.

  • Paul Solman:

    More challenging than the work, though, may be the future of it in the face of technological disruption, even here in the epitome of the service sector.

  • Leain Vashon:

    Every job is under threat from technology. They have got machines that are making drinks now. They have got a machine that will deliver stuff to the rooms.

    I'm looking for putting information in every contract that says, when you come up with a new technology, a union worker will be involved in it. And you will train them to help facilitate whatever that's going to be.

  • Paul Solman:

    And, in fact, the new contracts do include such provisions.

  • Steven Greenhouse:

    The union reached a landmark contract with Caesars in which Caesars promised to work with the union to figure out ways to retain workers as much as possible, rather than have them replaced and bulldozed by new technologies.

  • Paul Solman:

    Admittedly, this union is not in a decaying city or waning industry, but Las Vegas is not the only labor success story venue these days.

    Look at New York, New York, the real one.

  • Steven Greenhouse:

    There's a great union in New York that represents thousands of janitors, and window washers, and doormen, and elevator operators. And, recently, they have added more than 10,000 airport workers.

  • Paul Solman:

    Making those who work at New York's modern-day ports of entry a little less tired and a lot less poor, if not quite as well-heeled as the visitors who book the Ellis Island Hospitality Suite back here in ersatz New York.

    One last question. Given its success, why don't more unions copy Local 226?

    Cornell's Kate Bronfenbrenner suspects she knows why.

  • Kate Bronfenbrenner:

    It is a lot of work to constantly engage the members, and involved members then want more say in the union.

  • Paul Solman:

    So, involved members are a threat to the union leadership?

  • Kate Bronfenbrenner:

    Yes.

  • Paul Solman:

    And yet, says Steve Greenhouse:

  • Steven Greenhouse:

    People are tired of the income inequality. They're tired of wage stagnation. They see Wall Street doing very well. They see corporate profits at record levels.

    And we're seeing a ton of people unionize. We're seeing adjunct professors, we're seeing graduate students, we're seeing nurses. Whether that will be enough to turn around the decline is another question. But there's something really percolating now.

  • Paul Solman:

    And it's on full boil here in Las Vegas, fantasyland for visitors, the workplace for those who serve them.

    This is "PBS NewsHour" correspondent Paul Solman.

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