Women hospitality workers take the lead

Across the US, the women who make restaurants, hotels and casinos run have shut them down to win fair contracts. They are a spark of labor’s revitalization.

Feb. 3, 2024, workers took to the picket line in Las Vegas. PHOTO: Culinary Workers Union Local 226
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Lately, the real action at many entertainment venues has not been at the blackjack tables, but rather on the picket line.

Four years ago, the Covid-19 pandemic shuttered the hospitality industry. Overnight almost 95% of the workforce was without work. Then the 2023 post-pandemic economic recovery delivered record profits to corporate coffers.

But the workers who sacrificed to keep the industry afloat did not share in the windfalls. So in 2023 they struck. They were part of a massive strike wave that had twice as many picketers as the 2022 walkouts.

Women at bat

Despite the fact that 77% of prime work-age women are employed, they are ghosted from the media and labor news.

Because women face multiple layers of discrimination, they bring both labor rights and human rights to the table. Demands focus on lifting current and future generations out of poverty.

Recently, an army of multigenerational, multiracial, predominantly female workers walked off the job and took up picket signs at casinos, hotels and restaurants across the U.S. In Detroit, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas the slogan is “One Job Should Be Enough.” Contract demands include safety, full staffing, significant pay raises, healthcare, retirement, and protections for immigrant workers. Strikers also fight for an end to job losses due to technology, guarantees that union contracts will stay in place, the right to honor picket lines around nonunion restaurants on hotel property, and respect for the physically demanding, valuable work.

Last summer hotel employees hit the LA streets. In what has become the largest hotel workers strike in U.S. history, the city’s unionists have held over 130 “rolling” or pop-up strikes. Actions range from camp-ins at hotels to traffic stopping mid-street sit-ins.

Solidarity can win

Hotel workers are joined by their families, other unionists, and community supporters on lively and loud picket lines. To date, about half of LA hotels have signed contracts — those refusing to settle land on the boycott list.

Many of the holdout hotels are managed by the notoriously antiunion Aimbridge Hospitality firm, nicknamed “Shamebridge” by strikers.

The Hyatt Regency LAX, one of the “rat” hotels managed by Aimbridge, is owned by the Southwest Carpenters Pension Fund. Most union carpenters would be outraged that retirement funds are being used to break the strike. The Hyatt Regency LAX should have been the first to sign a fair contract. Strong solidarity between carpenters and hotel workers could raise the standard of living for much of the LA area.

In October 2023, 3,700 members of the Detroit Casino Council walked out and closed all three casinos/hotels. Besides the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union (UNITE HERE), the Casino Council includes United Auto Workers, Teamsters, Operating Engineers and Carpenters.

Two hotels settled after a 30-day strike. The MGM Grand Casino stonewalled for 47 days. MGM bosses bet and lost $1.7 million in revenue every day they refused to settle. In all casinos strikers won the largest pay increases since the venues opened in 1997, maintained healthcare and retirement benefits, gained Juneteenth as a paid holiday, and won workload reductions for housekeepers and other classifications.

“Both my son and I have been on strike together, so the fight to protect our healthcare and win better wages was always about something bigger for my family and the next generation,” Alicia Weaver, room attendant and UNITE HERE Local 24 member, told the publication Eater Detroit.

It happens in Vegas

Gambling and entertainment is the main industry in Las Vegas. Hospitality workers are experienced strike organizers and have unionized every hotel/casino on the Vegas Strip. Culinary Workers Local 226 is the largest Latinx/Black/AAPI/immigrant organization in the right-to-work state of Nevada. Fifty-five percent of the members are women, and 45% are immigrants.

After almost 90 years of organizing and many strikes, Vegas hospitality workers make twice the industry average wage. Both bosses and workers remember the 1991 Frontier Casino battle. It lasted six years, four months and 10 days. Not one worker crossed the picket line, and no one was fired. The casino was picketed 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Union President and Frontier strike leader Hattie Canty, an Alabama-born African American mother of 10, working as a room attendant, championed union jobs to lift families out of poverty. Community and labor organizations actively participated in the effort.

In a union weakened by internal divisions of racism, sexism and job classification, President Canty promoted class solidarity. It worked.

Almost 30 years later, in September 2023, tens of thousands of workers, now affiliated with UNITE HERE, packed a Vegas convention center and voted to authorize a citywide strike to start Feb. 2, 2024. It was clear the workers could and would shut down the 2024 Superbowl. Strike supporters included the Raiders’ football players association. The Casinos “folded” and signed the contract. The union has announced a campaign to organize 10,000 restaurant workers

Women hospitality workers are showing how unions can hit home runs. If labor takes the cue, we can change the future. It will take ironclad solidarity and militant shop floor organizing.

Send comments to the author, a former HERE member, at FSnews@socialism.com.

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