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September 01, 2003

Why Unions? Human Dignity

I am going to do a series this week on why progressives should be more committed to promoting unionization as the key to progressive social change. I'll detail how unions promote higher wages, a stronger economy, more progressive and democratic politics, and how unions have been key to fighting race and sex discrimination.

You can start at the AFL-CIO's own site on Why People Join Unions for some basic information.

But I'm going to start today with a more personal story of why I came to be so committed to labor unionism.

Going to Las Vegas: My first job out of college in the late 80s was as a union organizer in the casinos of Las Vegas. This was a time when the union was facing an all-out assault by the new corporate-owned casinos seeking to destroy the union and hoping to open the coming era of mega-theme casinos non-union.

But it was a tough set of union members there, despite being in "right to work for less" Nevada. And as I got to know different folks, often sitting in the employee cafeteria, I found that some of the most militant unionists were the cocktail waitresses who served drinks to the high-rolling gamblers at the gaming tables.

Not exactly your classic stereotype of a Vegas cocktail waitress- a gaggle of Norma Raes?

There was a reason.

If you pay attention, especially in the longer-established casinos like Caesar's Palace, you'll notice that the waitresses at the fanciest tables are pretty but rarely that young. You'll find the young things dishing drinks to the regulars pulling the slots. To handle drinks at the expensive tables, where the tips flow large, you had to have been at the casino for many years.

And that had been a battle to achieve.

Fight for Dignity: Early on in Vegas, the casino owners wanted to stick the youngest waitresses on those tables, so if you aged a few years as a cocktail waitress, you often found yourself consigned to siberia in the casino. Or worse, you had the best positions handed out by supervisors based on who would do "favors" for them.

At least they couldn't be fired just for getting old because of the basic union contract -- and this was true before age discrimination legislation was passed in Congress -- but the indignity of sex discrimination in all its forms was harshly at play for Vegas cocktail waitresses.

So they organized.

They first had to kick the butts of their own then-male labor leaders back in the early 1970s to take the issue seriously, but the union took up the cause and forced changes into the union contract. From that day forward, all "stations" in a casino would be bid on based on seniority. The best spots would go to the waitresses with the longest tenure, no favoritism or age discrimination allowed.

That is what unions get you-- the right not to be told you are too old to be presentable in public. The right not to have a supervisor play favoritism and demand you degrade yourself in order to feed your family.

Not for Sale: In unionized casinos, a rich high-roller can buy himself the fanciest penthouse in the hotel. He can buy the fanciest food. He can buy almost anything.

But when he sits at the craps table, the one thing he can't buy is that the woman serving his drinks be replaced by the youngest girl in the house.

'Cause in a union shop, human dignity is not for sale.

It's a small story but it's repeated millions of times over in many different ways for workers using unions to find a voice at work and escape from arbitrary work conditions. And it's why I'll be a union person til the day I die.

Posted by Nathan at September 1, 2003 11:15 AM