Hispanic women energize unions

AP, The Baltimore Sun, 23 June 2002

Organized hotel maids force Las Vegas casinos to improve pay, benefits.

LAS VEGAS—When hotel workers won new contracts with big hotels on the Las Vegas strip last month, the deals represented a triumph for a growing force in the American labor movement: Hispanic women.

Many of the union members at the bargaining table were Hispanic and female. The union, Culinary Local 226 of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union, forced casino operators to agree to its demands—although tourism still hasn’t recovered from the slowdown that followed the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

They got the most expensive contract in history at a time when the industry could least afford it, said Mike Sloan, a senior vice president and general counsel for the Mandalay Resort Group, a major Las Vegas Strip operator. They played hardball, and they won.

What happened in Las Vegas reflects the power Hispanic women are gaining in labor across the country. Nationally, the number of working Hispanic female union members has risen by about 159,000 since 1992, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says. Of the 5.8 million Hispanic women employed in the United States last year, more than one in 10 were union members.

Women have outpaced men as new members of unions for the last 20 years, said Kate Bronfenbrenner of Cornell University.

The growing number of Hispanic women in the work force makes them critical to the future of labor, which has seen its overall numbers decline during the past decade, said Lisa Navarette, spokeswoman for National Council of La Raza, the nation’s largest Hispanic civil rights organization.

Last year, about 93,000 women joined unions, and 42,000 were Hispanic.

Union leadership positions are being filled by Hispanic women with a desire for more say over their working conditions and a growing concern about health care, job security, retirement and equal pay, said Karen Nussbaum, an AFL-CIO spokeswoman.

This kind of militancy among Latinas is why you are seeing more Hispanic women leaders at the local levels and higher up, she said, referring to Linda Chavez-Thompson, who as executive vice president holds one of the AFL-CIO’s top three leadership positions.

At the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, 40 percent of the National Hispanic Caucus’ 12-member board of directors are women, said President Robert Morales.

I think it’s a reflection of the diversification of the Teamsters, said Morales, secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 350 in San Francisco.

Maria Elena Durazo, 49, a daughter of Mexican migrant farm workers, is the hotel employees union’s general vice president and president of its Local 11 in Los Angeles. Durazo, whom Navarette calls the future of the labor movement, joined her local’s leadership in 1987 to give immigrants a voice.

She’s savvy, politically astute and an excellent organizer, Navarette said.

And for the first time, a Hispanic woman, Geoconda Arguello-Kline, is president of the hotel workers’ Las Vegas union, Culinary Local 226.

John Wilhelm, international president of the hotel workers’ union, said the rise of Hispanic women has altered the negotiating process.

I think it’s a source of strength, and the emergence of Latinos and Latino women, I think, is a source of renewed vigor, he said.

In Las Vegas, Hispanic women started joining the hotel workers union as the 1990s building boom added such mega-resorts as the Mirage, Luxor and Bellagio and thousands of hotel rooms, creating a huge need for housekeepers. Maids now make up one of every five members of the union local that represents about 47,000 bellmen, cocktail waitresses and food service workers.

As the ranks of women swelled to 9,000 in Local 226, they brought new issues to the bargaining table. For example, today’s larger and more luxurious hotel rooms changed working conditions.

There is a lot more stuff inside the rooms and a lot more things to clean, said Arguello-Kline, an immigrant from Nicaragua and former housekeeper at Fitzgeralds hotel-casino downtown. The bedspreads are heavier, and there’s a lot more glass and brass. It creates a lot more work, and the workers feel the difference.

Rosemary Garcia holds a housekeeping job at the Luxor hotel-casino. The 39-year-old mother of two wears a back brace as she loads her cart with clean towels and linens.

Until recently, many housekeepers weren’t vocal about their concerns. But Garcia was one of the union members at the negotiating table last month.

I do it all for my kids, Garcia said, explaining her work and her union activism. I do not want my daughter to have to clean toilets and make beds.

For the women who sat at the table with union and casino bosses, the bargaining provided a lesson in democracy and a reminder of why they came to the United States.

I think a lot of them had lost hope that things weren’t going to get any better in terms of their working conditions, said Glen Arnodo, the Las Vegas local’s political director. It’s an amazing thing to see when something awakens in people where they can make a difference.

Garcia said she was nervous when she found herself across the table during negotiations from her employer Tony Alamo, a senior vice president for Mandalay Resort Group, which owns the Luxor.

I was scared that something might happen to me if I spoke up, said Garcia, who was born in Guatemala and came to the United States with her family when she was 16.

The talks resulted in five-year deals with the biggest hotel-casinos in Las Vegas including Bellagio, Caesar’s Palace and Mandalay Bay that mean the average wage and benefits package for the union members will rise by $3.23 1/2 to $17.40 1/2 per hour by 2007. Hotel operators also granted concessions to reduce workload for maids.