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Know the West

The drive to organize


Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

"In solidarity we will survive." The slogan is splashed in red paint across the white and blue cement walls of the Culinary Workers' Union hall, an unimpressive building in the older part of town.

Inside, I meet with Geoconda "Geo" Arguello-Kline, a small woman with dark skin and smiling eyes who is one of 100 organizers for the union.

"Organizing is the life for the union," she says. "It is the only way the union will stay strong and keep growing. Even hotels that already have union contracts need organizing on the inside to teach workers their rights."

Arguello-Kline knows a lot about fighting for her rights. Born in Nicaragua, she and her family moved to Miami in 1979. Twelve people lived in a two-room apartment.

"When I lived in Miami, I made $5.50 an hour as a maid. I had no health insurance and no language skills to find a better job," she says. Hearing of the good wages and benefits in Las Vegas, Arguello-Kline followed her brother West.

"The workers have a voice here; we build this high standard of living together. It is completely different."

Arguello-Kline worked as a maid at the Frontier for seven years, but when the union went on strike from 1991-1998, she wasn't daunted.

"I fought for what I believe during those six and a half years; I believe I need that health benefit for my family." She now works full time for the culinary union, which means that, in addition to recruiting, she teaches workers why a union makes sense.

Arguello-Kline says she often speaks to workers from Mexico in Spanish. She tells them that they have a right under federal law to organize and that no one in management can ask questions about this activity.

It would be easier, she says, to talk to workers in a nonunion hotel all at once, during a coffee break or in the hotel lobby, but that's illegal because workplaces are private property. So organizers like Arguello-Kline visit people after work.

"We go to their houses and explain all the benefits of a union contract. Usually, they see that there is no comparison, and they want to be in a union," says Arguello-Kline. With the constant deluge of newcomers moving to town, there is always someone new to sign up.

But some say they don't think union dues of $32.50 every month are worth the money. At the new nonunion Venetian casino, cocktail waitresses and money makers walk around the floor between slot machines and roulette tables.

"I worked downtown at the Horseshoe for seven years and the union never did anything to help me," says a cocktail waitress, who serves drinks wearing an outfit that leaves little to the imagination and a lot to be desired. "I just don't think it matters if you work in a union hotel or not."

Solly, who makes change for gamblers, has worked at the Venetian since it opened last spring. "I went to the union to train when I moved here two years ago, but why would I want to keep paying $32 a month when I have to wait until I'm 65 before I get any of that money back?" she asks.

"It all depends on who you work for," says a waitress who has been in Vegas for nine years. "If the management isn't that great, it doesn't matter if it's union or not. I make good money here; I love my job."

Sheldon Adelson, owner of the Venetian hotel and casino, told the Las Vegas Sun that his workers have no reason to complain because his "pay and benefits package exceeds standard union contracts."

However, Arguello-Kline says that without job security, a nonunion hotel worker has no rights.

"It's very difficult to know that OK, I've got my job, but you don't really have a job because (even) after five years you can get fired for no reason," says Arguello-Kline. "In a union hotel, the company needs a good reason to fire workers."