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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, June 20, 2002

Hispanic women shift balance of power in Vegas union

By Lisa Snedeker
Associated Press

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.

Luxor housekeeper Rosemary Garcia, on her way to work on the Las Vegas Strip, had to overcome her fear of facing her boss at the negotiating table.

Associated Press

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 their demands — although tourism still hasn't recovered from the slowdown that followed the Sept. 11 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 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 some 159,000 since 1992, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says. Of the 5.8 million Hispanic women who were 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 make 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.

In 2001, 93,000 women joined unions and 42,000 were Hispanic.

Union leadership positions also 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, AFL-CIO executive vice president, who is one of the labor federation's top three leaders.

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, the secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 350 in San Francisco.

Maria Elena Durazo, the 49-year-old 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, who Navarette calls "the future of the labor movement," joined her local's leadership in 1987 hoping 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.

In Las Vegas, Hispanic women started joining the hotel workers union as the 1990s building boom added such megaresorts 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 foodservice 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, who holds a housekeeping job at the Luxor hotel-casino, is part of the trend. 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."

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