- Associated Press - Monday, December 17, 2012

The future of the American labor movement may lie just off the Las Vegas Strip, inside a squat building huddled in the shadow of the Stratosphere casino.

That’s the home of the Culinary Workers Local 226, a fast-growing union of hotel and casino employees that has thrived despite being in a right-to-work state and a region devastated by the real estate crash.

More than 90 percent of Culinary’s 60,000 predominantly immigrant workers opt to be dues-paying members, even though Nevada law says they cannot be forced to pay unions for their services.

As a result, housekeepers in most Strip hotels start at $16 an hour with free health care and a pension. Culinary’s track record gives a dispirited labor movement some hope even as it hemorrhages workers and reels from the approval of a right-to-work law last week in union-strong Michigan.

“National unions need to look at what some of the folks out here have done,” said Billy Vassiliadis, former chairman of the Nevada Democratic Party. In a right-to-work state that for years was relatively conservative, “they had to be smart. They had to be nimble.”

As a result, he said, “labor here is a big pillar in the political debate.”

But that’s less true on a national scale. American labor has been on a downward trajectory for decades: Unions represented 30 percent of the workforce when the federal government first began tracking membership in the early 1980s. Now they represent less than 12 percent.

Michigan’s adoption of a right-to-work law follows a string of recent setbacks in the industrial Midwest for labor unions. Indiana passed a right-to-work law early this year, and Wisconsin effectively ended collective bargaining for most public workers last year.

The American union member once was typified by the white Michigan factory worker who was hoisted into the middle class by the United Auto Workers’ package of good pay and benefits. Now Culinary’s service worker membership — largely Hispanic housekeepers, line cooks and hostesses at casinos — may be the new model.

“Manufacturing jobs used to be horrible, until they got organized,” said D. Taylor, who just stepped down as Culinary’s secretary-treasurer to run its national organization, Unite-HERE. “Service jobs used to be the same — horrible jobs until they got organized. Nevada’s not some magic place. Those jobs just got organized.”

Culinary has almost quadrupled its membership since the 1980s, but Nevada unions still struggle against national headwinds. The percentage of workers in the state who belong to unions is down to 14.6 percent from its 1996 peak of 20 percent — though much of that decline happened in the past four years after the real estate crash wiped out thousands of union construction jobs.

Danny Thompson, head of the state AFL-CIO, says right-to-work has hobbled Nevada labor. But he’s mulling going on the offensive and asking voters to overturn the law, which passed narrowly in the 1950s.

“There’s no question that this is a strong union state,” he said.