Keeping up the Fight
With the worst recession in 80 years depriving thousands of workers of jobs and incomes the last thing D. Taylor, head of the 60,000-strong Las Vegas contingent of the Culinary Union, needs is a resurgent labor movement wracked by a battle for membership between UNITE HERE, whose 450,000 members include the Culinary, and the 2 million-member Service Employees International Union. Taylor sat down with Casino Journal Managing Editor Marian Green to discuss how despite the infighting the Culinary is staying focused on the needs of its members.
What happened with UNITE HERE and the controversy over Bruce Raynor, [who in April was suspended from his position as general president over allegations that he was trying to divide the union and deliver it to Andy Stern, president of the SEIU]?
Taylor: He wasn’t going to win re-election. It’s a democratic process, so when he figured out he wasn’t going to win he decided to try to blow it up. But it’s a democratic process, and we’ll have a convention and move on. The difference is the SEIU has been predatory. The real thing is that SEIU is trying a hostile takeover, like a corporate hostile takeover.
How does that affect what you’re doing here?
The same thing is going on here in this town. [SEIU] have contacted our members. They robo-call them. They do direct mail. They’ve contacted the employers.
Have they had much success?
I think it’s clear the SEIU is trying to raid, trying to take over the Culinary Union and the rest of our union. Any union that would try to divide workers in this environment is not much of a union. I mean, this is a tough time for everybody. Everybody’s scared. What they’re doing is unconscionable. It’s unprecedented in the labor movement.
Are those who are anti-union rubbing their hands with glee over this divisiveness?
I think it’s obviously beneficial for them. It’s not beneficial to the workers. I think it’s an example where Andy Stern and the SEIU … their claims of [UNITE HERE’s] failure have fallen on deaf ears. We have a much higher percentage of our industry organized than they do of theirs.
Would you characterize the merger [between UNITE and HERE] a success?
Yeah, I do. Will it sustain itself? Yeah, in some form it will.
What would you say are some of its successes?
Well, certainly the  Atlantic City strike was one. Certainly our level of hotel organizing across the country in food service, by far. Certainly our work in immigration. Those are some of the real tangible things that were successful. What I find distressing is somebody meddling inside our internal union democracy because unions are political organizations.
What do you point to as Culinary’s successes in the last year?
We have successes all the time. We get third-party [restaurant] operators to get people back to work. We negotiate contracts in other places, also here. Getting the Tropicana [contract] done. The Obama election, since we were “stupid” to endorse him, according to everybody, including the powers-that-be in this city.
What effect do you think the recession is going to have on your next contract negotiations?
I’m not looking at that. We are in the mode of trying to figure out how we help as many people as possible. This is a really, really difficult time. God knows when it’s going to be over, too, because in every bad statistic we lead in this city. Whatever [happens with the next contract negotiations], I know one thing: With those debt loads they’ve got to get a lot of customers through the doors. But they have a quandary, because if they cut back too much they can’t give customer service. It’s a real dilemma.
How is the recession affecting your work specifically?
I’d really like to figure out how I can build something, not just try to keep the fingers in the dike while this is going on in the economy.
How many of your workers have been laid off?
That’s a really good question. You see, people still might be working some. If you think more about hours I think we’re down 15 percent. Some people are completely laid off, and some people might be regulars on layoff status, and they work some extra work. But overall, yeah, it’s a tough time.
When you say “keep your fingers in the dike,” what does that entail?
Well, you have situations where people are losing health care coverage. They’re not working, so yeah, can they do self-pays; but that’s pretty hard to do when you’re not working at all. Even the COBRA subsidy in the stimulus package doesn’t help that much. So we’re trying to figure out some health care alternatives and trying to figure out what possibly we can do to help our members with housing. We had started a housing fund [before the economic downturn], but now we’re also doing workshops on foreclosures.
Are families on the street?
Sure they are. I think a lot of people have moved. People have lost homes, people have moved in with friends or relatives. A whole variety of things are going on. Our members have gotten sick. The problem is, safety nets are always countercyclical. Right when you need the help the most there’s less money to do it. It’s not like the state’s stepping up. This is a crisis, but you’d never know it from [Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons]. Where is he? All you ever hear from him is “No new taxes”. OK, I’ve got your campaign slogan, but what are we going to do for folks who are losing their homes, losing their health insurance? Because there’s no union in the world that can take care of everybody. That’s why you have that safety net.
Long-term, what will the sale of some casinos to new owners mean to the union and to Las Vegas?
Well, I think Las Vegas will be different. I don’t think there’s any question some assets will have to get sold. We’ll have some new owners in here. I don’t know what all that means, except that who would have thought Sheldon [Adelson]’s stock, which was at $140, and now what is it, $2?
Can you see any benefit to more owners and less corporate ownership?
No. It’s always going to be corporate now because the new owners are going to be corporations or be financed by Wall Street.
But will new blood be good or bad for the town?
I don’t think the town’s been bad with the present owners. At the same time, one of the great things about Vegas is competition. It makes you better. If it keeps up that way we’ll be fine. Right now it’s survival mode. I don’t think anybody would have predicted what happened in the last quarter of ’08. I really don’t know. I’m very optimistic, but I don’t know. I don’t think anybody knows.
What are the prospects for organized labor under the Obama administration? Is labor going to gain strength?
I don’t know. No one’s gaining much strength until we get this economy going. This is a frightening time for people. They’ve got houses in play. Their health care’s in play. Their jobs are in play. Their certain livelihoods are in play. Their retirements are in play. Politically, people are looking for answers, and they want change. At the same time, it look us a while to get in this mess. It’ll take us a while to get out. There are no quick fixes.