Immigrant workers, casino owners wage war of words over unionization efforts

The World

Employee unions have been under attack in recent years.

There were the government employee union fights in Wisconsin and Ohio. And in Michigan, auto workers have struggled to preserve their benefits.

But there’s a less publicized union fight brewing in Las Vegas right now as well. Most casino workers on the Las Vegas strip are part of a union. And many of those union members are first-generation Americans.

Some non-union casino workers, many of whom are immigrants, are saying they too want to be part of a union. But some say they’re being targeted for speaking out.

People have long come to Las Vegas to try and make it big at the poker or blackjack table. Vegas has also been a beacon for many immigrants. It’s a place where you can build a middle class life without much formal education and limited knowledge of English.

Many who’ve built that life say being part of a union was a key. Hilary Wrona came here from Poland in 1983.

“My house is paid, my car is paid, I can afford to have my daughter right now in the second year in pharmacy school, which is a private college," she said. "Most of my counterparts who are non union, have not even had what I had.”

Ovidio Aquino from Guatemala has one of those non-union jobs. He worked as a cook for 22 years for Station Casinos. Two years ago, he started organizing his co-workers to join a union. He said his bosses began harassing him. One day he was preparing fried rice and suddenly found himself without a job.

“This recipe I’ve been doing for years, the same way, but one time the chef he said he doesn't like it," Aquino said.

They told him, he said, that his poor performance on the rice was why he was being fired.

He said he’d never had any problems at work.

"If I had been in trouble before, why (didn't they) fire me before? If I’ve been working for 22 years it’s because I’m being a good worker," he said.

Others tell similar stories: employees showing up to work wearing union buttons, then being fired for being three minutes late.

Aquino wants to join the Culinary Union, Local 226. They represent workers in casinos associated with Caesars and MGM.

“We represent 55,000 people. It’s the bus persons, the cooks, the cocktail waitress, bartenders, food servers," said Geocando Aguello-Kline, the union president.

They also represent people who clean hotel rooms and wash the sheets.

About 42 percent of union members in Las Vegas are Hispanic. Many are immigrants. Aguello-Kline herself is originally from Nicaragua. She came to the United States and worked as a chamber maid.

“I came in 1979, living in Miami," she explained. That was before she joined a union. "I don’t have no benefits, no good wages, and anything."

Then she moved to Las Vegas.

"I got the knowledge here was a strong union. It was a huge, incredible difference for me. I could feel secure, my family will be take care (of)," she said.

She wants non-union casino workers to have that same security, along with pensions, better wages and annual raises.

Joining a union also provides non-economic benefits for immigrants, says Ruth Milkman, a sociologist and labor expert at the City University of New York.

“Historically labor unions have been an avenue of assimilation into the mainstream of American society," Milkman said. "They open a lot of doors to civic participation of various kinds, anything from registering to vote, which is the simplest form of that, but also perhaps getting more involved in the political process in a more intense way.”

She says many unions also help new American arrivals with community issues, like lobbying for improved housing or schools. Unions also represent workers when labor laws are violated.

In Vegas, Station Casinos was recently found guilty of 87 counts of labor law violations. Nearly 80 percent of those violations involved Hispanic workers.

The Culinary Union took out a full-page ad in Billboard Magazine that read “Station Casinos Fired Latinos.”

Lori Nelson, director of corporate communications for Station Casinos, rejected the union's claims.

“Absolutely, incredibly false information by the Culinary Union. They are all technical violations. None of them are discrimination," she explained.

Nelson said the local Culinary Union has engaged in a campaign of distortions to smear the company’s name.

She said the company offers competitive wages and benefits. It assists employees in the citizenship process and offers free access to English as a second language software. Nelson asks: If this weren’t an attractive place to work, how could the company employ 13,000 people?

“Fortune Magazine has named our company one of the 100 best companies to work for four years in a row," she said. "There’s never been a gaming company and there has never been a culinary union-represented property that has ever received that kind of recognition before.”

Nelson also takes offense at the union’s tactics — the union has contacted convention organizers, concert performers and people planning weddings, recommending they take their business elsewhere.

Station Casinos hit back with advertisements critical of what they say are union practices of calling and harassing brides who book their weddings at Station Casinos.

The recurring theme running throughout several advertisements is the same: The union is trying to swell its own ranks at the expense of the local economy.

Both the union and Station Casinos seem prepared for a long fight. The union needs 50 percent of the employees to vote to join their ranks.

Milkman said, generally, it’s an uphill battle. Workers are afraid of their bosses.

“They might fire somebody who they have identified as an activist or an organizer, which is illegal, but it happens every day," she said. "People get scared, they don’t want to lose their job. They’ve seen somebody else just get fired for supporting the union, right?”

When stories circulate like the union organizer from Guatemala who says he was fired for making rice incorrectly, the story can have a dual effect. It can galvanize people to action. Or persuade workers to keep their heads down.

Station Casinos argues if workers are keeping their head’s down it’s for another reason: because they’re satisfied employees.

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