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Rod Smith

Expert: Las Vegas Could Benefit from Union Merger

27 February 2004

LAS VEGAS -- Las Vegas stands to get a lift from the merger of the Culinary's parent union with the retail, textile and laundry workers union, even though it could be challenging for the gaming industry, a UNLV professor said.

"For the city, it'll prove to be a good thing. With our changing economy, what's made Las Vegas livable is the high level of wages which has created a large middle class without equal anywhere," University of Nevada, Las Vegas professor Hal Rothman said.

"The expansion of the union will have spillover effects that will be good for real estate, homes sales and retail sales. It means more workers will have more discretionary income," he said.

Union leaders here and at the national level said the merger should strengthen the union's hand in negotiating with the local gaming industry.

"We're excited. We think the merger makes sense in this day of large corporations. It gives us a bigger critical mass so it'll help us organize (more workers and more hotel-casinos) and fight our fights," Culinary Local 226 Secretary-Treasurer D. Taylor said Thursday from Washington, D.C.

The Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees, called HERE, and the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees, known as UNITE, announced the merger Thursday.

The new union, with more than 50,000 Culinary members in Nevada and 440,000 members nationwide, pairs two similar unions that represent a large number of minority and immigrant workers in the growing service sector.

"They're our kind of members," Taylor said. "They clean the uniforms our members wear and they clean the sheets our workers change on the beds."

He said the merged union's added clout nationally and its broader local representation should increase the Culinary's ability to organize additional workers at hotel-casinos where it already has members and to organize other hotel-casinos that are now nonunion.

HERE national President John Wilhelm agreed the merger will boost the development of a solid middle class in Las Vegas.

"Las Vegas is unique because a room worker can realize the middle-class dream. This merger will help make it possible for laundry and other workers as well," he said.

"The whole goal is making sure the middle-class dream doesn't die and the merger advances that," Wilhelm said.

UNITE President Bruce Raynor, whose union has little local membership here now, said in a statement the merger will help in focusing organization programs, accelerating recruitment programs and adding to the earning power of the union's members.

MGM Mirage spokeswoman Cynthia Murphey said her company, which employs more than 14,000 Culinary members, welcomes the merger.

"From our perspective, we have an extremely favorable relationship with D. Taylor. My understanding is D. will continue to have a strong leadership role, and we consider that very constructive," she said.

Other major gaming operators declined to comment for the record, but said on background that union organizing increases their costs and makes expansion more difficult.

Rothman agreed that any added union presence can make it harder initially to hold the line on costs.

"It makes it difficult and cuts into profits. Still, there are places where management could have to rethink their strategies and become more creative. It all depends on where you sit," he said.

Unions are struggling for new members. Membership is at an all-time low, with just 12.9 percent of the work force belonging to a union last year. That's down from 13.3 percent in 2002, the Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics reports. In the private sector alone, only 8.2 percent of workers were union members last year.

Union sources said a big reason for the merger was HERE's struggling financial condition. The merger will open the union to considerable UNITE assets.

Raynor and Wilhelm are part of a faction of union leaders unhappy with labor's organizing efforts under the leadership of AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, and have formed a coalition called the New Unity Partnership.