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Organized Labor in the 21st Century: The Las Vegas Hotel and Culinary Workers Union Local 226

In February 2008, the Las Vegas Hotel and Culinary Workers Union Local 226 emerged on the national political scene with their high profile endorsement of presidential candidate Barack Obama. The union itself has a much older history that goes back to the late 1940s and is tied to the aspirations of thousands of mostly black maids and other service workers in the Las Vegas hotels. In the following article historian Christopher E. Johnson briefly explores that history.

The recent ascendance of the Las Vegas Hotel and Culinary Workers Union Local 226 illustrates the continuing relevance of race and working class agency in the postindustrial economy of the twenty-first century.  Organized in 1947 to recruit workers for Las Vegas’ burgeoning casino resort industry, the Culinary Union evolved into a powerful bargaining agent for the city’s increasingly multi-racial workforce.

Through the 1970s and early 1980s, the union’s future looked bleak.  In 1977, union president Al Bramlett turned up shot to death under a pile of rocks in the Mojave Desert, a victim of his mob ties gone bad. In 1984, in the midst of an economic slump, casino owners attempted to back out of a long-standing fair-wage agreement with the union.  After a bitter strike, the Culinary Union reemerged as one of the most potent labor organizations in the nation.

The union’s resurgence began in earnest in 1987 when organizers from the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union helped mobilize Las Vegas’ large African American workforce for direct collective action.  Black workers had long been primed for union confrontation.  In 1960, local NAACP leaders planned a massive march on the Strip to protest segregation in the city’s booming casinos.  In response, paranoid executives and politicians quickly settled with black leaders in a landmark agreement to desegregate businesses in Las Vegas.  Well aware of the city’s sensitivity to blemishes on image, black residents continued to stage public protests through the 1970s.  By incorporating