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Las Vegas: An Unconventional History | Article

The Culinary Union

Strikers stop traffic. Courtesy: Las Vegas News Bureau

In the early 1970s, the Las Vegas dreamland began to clash with the real world. Ownership of the city's casinos and resorts was changing hands from the longstanding control of the Syndicate to the wealthy corporations of Wall Street. Evidence of this corporate transition was seen and felt throughout the city. Las Vegas' Culinary Union, in particular, felt the change.

Dishwashers, Maids, Cooks, Concierges
With 27,000 members in 1975, the union was the second major affiliate group of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union. Members of the union included dishwashers, maids, cooks, and concierges -- in short, the essential workers to Las Vegas' tourist industry.

The Mob and the Union
The Culinary Union Workers Local 226 was created in 1938. Although the union's interests had often been compromised by the relationships between union leaders and Syndicate members, casino owners recognized the importance of keeping the union members happy for the sake of assuring the smooth operation of their establishments.

Caught in the Middle
But as businesses like the Hilton Hotel Corporation acquired more and more casinos, members of the Culinary Union, led by General Secretary Al Bramlett, found themselves caught in a battle between members of the Syndicate and their corporate bosses.

Balance of Power
The Gaming Control Board recognized the power of the incomingĀ corporations. No longer relying on the business of the Syndicate, it could begin to crack down on known criminals. Meanwhile the Syndicate, trying to retain its influential grasp on the city, and recognizing the inherent power of the Culinary Union, attempted to force an alliance between the union and the mobsters.

A New Way of Doing Business
At the same time, the union was under pressure from the incoming corporations that were laying off workers in an attempt to increase profitability. In the past, resorts had viewed the entertainment they provided as lures for gamblers. The corporations, however, expected even their shows to make a profit; every aspect of the resort was expected to be profitable. When casinos didn't show profits, the corporations made layoffs. More often than not, these layoffs affected the Culinary Union.

Sixteen Days
Heightened tensions and the failure to resolve a new contract in 1976 provoked the Culinary Union to hold a massive labor strike. The union struck for sixteen days. Without workers, the resorts could not function properly and corporate managers were forced to accept the union's demands, which included a significant wage increase. The state and local government were forced to lay off hundreds of workers to make up for the severe loss of revenue from the strike.

A Shallow Grave
As the Syndicate struggled to stay a part of Las Vegas, mobster Tony "The Ant" Spilotro and his associates augmented their attempts to intimidate union members into compliance. In 1977 Bramlett's naked body was found buried in a shallow grave in the desert, roughly thirty miles from Las Vegas. With Bramlett's death, the union's power faded considerably. Ben Schmoutey, a rumored associate of Spilotro, took over as General Secretary of the union in a fraudulent election. Wendy and Tom Hanley were charged with the murder of Bramlett, later telling investigators that Bramlett had refused to pay them for bombing anti-union restaurants. The horrific death of Bramlett eventually cost the union 30 percent of its membership.

A Massive Strike and Big Layoff
Over time, the corporations overtook the Syndicate, but tensions between the union and corporate managers continued through the 1980s. Another massive labor strike was staged in 1984 when casino owners refused requests for a change in health insurance. Some 18,000 workers struck across Las Vegas. Like the strike in 1976, a dire need for workers forced casino owners to concede to union demands. But this time, the union faced severe damage in the form of layoffs.

Old and New Vegas
The struggle of the Las Vegas Culinary Union reflects the struggle between the "old" mobster-friendly Las Vegas and the "new" corporate-run Las Vegas. In time, the Las Vegas Culinary Union would regain power. The 1987 election of Jim Arnold was the first step towards improving contracts and working alongside casinos to increase profits. The union has a membership of over 55,000 members today.

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