There Is Power in This Union

There Is Power in This Union

The Democrats’ midterm triumphs in Nevada would not have been possible without Culinary Workers Union Local 226.

Members of Local 226 in the run-up to the elections (Local 226 / Facebook)

The throng of workers, all clad in bright red shirts with the name of their local etched in thick black letters, half-walked, half-marched through the ridiculously wide corridors of Caesars Palace on the Las Vegas Strip. The members of Culinary Workers Union Local 226 laughed and chatted; occasionally, one would start chanting, “We vote, we win!” and a dozen or so of his or her comrades would keep the slogan going, loudly and gleefully, for a few minutes. They were headed for a ballroom at the hotel that looks like a gargantuan parody of the Roman Forum to watch the returns come in on election night.

When the Secretary of State’s office finally released them—waiting over two hours until the very last Nevadan waiting in line had a chance to do her democratic duty—the union chant was quickly transformed from wish into reality. By convincing margins, voters elected Democrats to every statewide office but one as well as three out of four congressional seats; they also ousted Republican Dean Heller to send Jacky Rosen to the U.S. Senate, in Tuesday’s only confirmed Democratic Senate pickup. Democrats increased their already healthy majorities in the state legislature, too. Nevada has now become the bluest state in the nation.

Without Local 226, that would likely not have been possible. The union—which represents 57,000 workers who provide hotel guests in Vegas with food and drink, clean their rooms, and carry their bags—is a formidable electoral machine in Clark County, where three of every four Nevadans lives. When the Democrats carry Clark by 10 percent or more, the white rural Republican base cannot muster enough votes to defeat them—even when, as this year, the rural areas that cover most of the state allowed GOP candidates to run up the kind of margins that overwhelmed the support urban citadels gave to Democrats who lost Senate races in Missouri, Tennessee, and Texas.

The union holds regular political education sessions for its members and rents buses to transport them to the polls. In the contracts it signed with hotels, it won the right for members to take a two-month leave from their jobs to campaign.

And 226 is a model of multiculturalism in action. Its 57,000 members hail from over 170 countries and speak more than forty different languages, according to the union. A majority are Latinx, and most are women. Local 226 has helped thousands to prepare for the citizenship exam; it also runs a pharmacy where members and their families fill their prescriptions—for free. The union thus projects an image of recent immigrants from south of the border that differs markedly from that put forth by the left, which sees them largely as victims of nativist bigotry, or the right, which curses them as job-stealers or criminals. These are immigrants who have won power on the job and know how to use it to defend their interests in government.

Senator-elect Rosen herself had been a member of the union forty years ago when, as a young woman, she waited tables at Caesars to pay for college tuition. In her victory speech Tuesday night, she shouted out, “226, 226, 226,” acknowledging how central the union was to Democratic victories in the state. (Full disclosure: my son was Rosen’s campaign manager.)

Union power of this kind, marshaled by workers who speak with foreign accents as well as regional ones, was critical to making what historians call the New Deal order. In the 1930s and ’40s, the CIO simultaneously broke the resistance of anti-union employers in the auto, steel, longshore, and electrical industries and turned once solidly Republican states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan into strongholds of pro-labor Democrats.

We are sadly familiar with the decline of manufacturing and the working-class institutions that once made it possible for men and women with only a high-school education or less to have a secure, decently paying job. But the men and women in Vegas hotels who make beds, clean rugs, and make and serve meals and drinks are engaging in as socialized a form of labor as bolting a fender on a Chevy or tending a blast furnace.

The power of Local 226 is built on a foundation of the collective service its members perform for tourists from all over the world and conventioneers from all over the country. As in the strong industrial unions of the past, it gives its members a sense of being part of a community of people who don’t just work together but teach one another the stakes of local and national politics and spend many hours fanning out around Clark County to elect men and women who, they believe, will protect and advance their interests.

Some on the left argue that the ascendancy of a new working class makes it not just possible but necessary to overthrow the cautious establishment figures at the top of the Democratic Party. But the success of 226 lies in organizing to elect every Democrat who wins his or her nomination, whether or not they share every policy preference of a socialist like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Bernie Sanders. While Jacky Rosen talked a lot about the need for bipartisanship, she also endorsed a $15 hour minimum wage, a strong public option for healthcare, a clean DREAM act, and aid for asylum seekers who make it to the border. Now, as during the heyday of the New Deal order, Democrats will only regain control of the federal government if their activists and officeholders can debate their differences without any side denouncing or seeking to purge the other.

And it would sure help if workers elsewhere emulated what 226 has accomplished. Without strong working-class institutions, progressive Democrats will always be vulnerable to Trump and the fearmongering right-wingers who will come after him. We organize, we vote, and we win.

Michael Kazin is co-editor of Dissent. 

This article has been updated to clarify the author’s connection to the Rosen campaign.