Lifestyle & Belief

Immigrant Workers Engage in Union Fight in Vegas Casinos

Employee unions have been under attack in recent years. There were the very public union fights in Wisconsin and Ohio. In Michigan, auto workers have struggled to preserve their benefits.

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There's also a lesser publicized union fight brewing in Las Vegas. Most casino workers on the Las Vegas strip are part of a union. And many of those jobs are staffed by first-generation Americans.

Now, 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.

The World's Jason Margolis has more from Las Vegas.

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 English.

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

Wrona: "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, which 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 says his bosses began harassing him. One day he was preparing fried rice.

Aquino: "This recipe I've been doing for years, the same way, but one time the chef he said he doesn't' like it, and that's why the reason they gave to me to fire."

He says before he was fired, he'd never had any problems at work.

Aquino: "Because if I had been in trouble before, why they don't fire me before? If I've been working for 22 years it's because I'm being a good worker."

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. Geocando Aguello-Kline is the union president.

Aguello-Kline: "We represent 55,000 people. It's the bus persons, the cooks, the cocktail waitress, bartenders, food servers."

As well as people who clean hotel rooms and wash the sheets. 42 percent of the union members in Las Vegas are Hispanic. Many are immigrants. Aguello-Kline herself is originally from Nicaragua. She came to the US and worked as a chamber maid.

Aguello-Kline: "I came in 1979, living in Miami. I don't have no union at all. I don't have no benefits, no good wages, and anything, and 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 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. She's a sociologist and labor expert at the City University of New York.

Milkman: "Historically labor unions have been a kind of avenue of assimilation into the mainstream of American society. So 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 — again, that's the non-union casino group — was recently found guilty on 87 counts of labor law infractions. 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 directs corporate communications for Station Casinos.

Nelson: "Absolutely, incredibly false information by the Culinary Union. They are all technical violations. None of them are discrimination."

Nelson says the local Culinary Union has engaged in a campaign of distortions to smear the company's good name.

She says 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 grow to 13,000 employees?

Nelson: "Fortune Magazine has named our company one of the 100 best companies to work for four years in a row, and 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 like this.

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 Vegas economy.

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

Sociologist Ruth Milkman says, generally, it's an uphill battle. Workers are afraid of their bosses.

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

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 just keep their heads down.

And 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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    Palace Station Casino, part of the Station Casinos group. (Photo: Jason Margolis)
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    Ovidio Aquino and Mario Medina (right). Both men say they lost their jobs at Station Casinos becuase they support joining a union. (Photo: Jason Margolis)
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    Red Rock Casino, adjacent to the Station Casinos corporate headquarters. (Photo: Jason Margolis)

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