What the Democratic Party Can Learn from Nevada Casino Workers, Cooks, and Housekeepers

The Culinary Workers Union has mastered political organizing. Can what happens in Vegas be replicated nationwide?

Eighty-nine days before the November election, Ashenafi Hagezom is up before dawn. From his two-bedroom house in northwest Las Vegas, which he shares with roommates, it can take up to an hour to reach the Bellagio, the faux-Italian luxury hotel and casino in the heart of the Strip. He parks in the employee garage out back and passes through the air-conditioned doors just after 7 a.m., before the graveyard shift begins to trickle out and gives way to the army of guest-room attendants, prep cooks, and porters who keep the casino humming for another day.

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Dressed in business casual, with a casino-issued ID badge on his button-down shirt, Hagezom—“Ash” to his friends—could pass for any one of the hundreds of employees coming and going through the halls, were it not for the stack of papers he carries and the union pin that explains why he’s there. Hagezom is a political “LOA”—an organizer on a leave of absence from his day job—with the Culinary Workers Union Local 226, which represents nearly 60,000 workers, almost all of whom are clustered in the Las Vegas metropolitan area. And he and his colleagues have no small task: to make sure that the voting bloc local political analyst Jon Ralston calls “the most potent force in Nevada politics” shows up en masse in November.

Hagezom, the 27-year-old son of Ethiopian immigrants, carries a list half an inch thick containing the names of Culinary members, where they work, what they do, their home addresses, and whether or not they vote. His job is to find them and start a conversation. Sometimes it’s just a few minutes. Sometimes it’s half an hour. He walks members through their new contracts, helps them fill out voter registration forms, and listens to whatever’s on their minds. During this particular week, organizers are signing up workers for the union’s annual citizenship fair, a weekend workshop where lawyers help green-card holders navigate the maze of government paperwork—a push that’s taken on new urgency in the Trump era. And with every member on his list, he makes sure to talk about the November election. If a worker asks about Dean Heller, the state’s Republican senator, Hagezom brings up Heller’s initial silence on family separations—a story that’s been rippling through the union’s predominantly Hispanic workforce. He isn’t making a push for specific candidates yet; the purpose is to plant a seed that will germinate by the fall, when hundreds more members will take leave from their jobs to help out.

The work performed by Culinary organizers like Hagezom, for as many as 12 hours a day, six days a week, is political organizing at its most intimate—colleagues lobbying colleagues, over lunch or on their front porches, in whatever language they’re most comfortable with. Hagezom’s fellow organizers often start their conversations in Spanish; he carries flyers in Amharic for the union’s growing membership of Ethiopian immigrants.

The results are impossible to ignore; over the last decade, Democrats have scored win after win in the critical swing state, in large part by turning out the kinds of voters—mostly nonwhite, disproportionately first- or second-generation, often non-English-speaking service workers with unusual hours—who often stay home everywhere else. “What Culinary does, and the way they organize in Nevada, is the model for voter mobilization in the country,” says Frank Sharry, executive director of the immigrant advocacy group America’s Voice. “They have figured it out. They get people in a room, they methodically organize targets and coordinate who’s gonna take what precincts. They hold each other accountable and they deliver.”

If Las Vegas and its sleepless extravagance sometimes feel like America at its most chaotic, what the Culinary Workers Union has built behind the scenes of those very same buildings is the inverse of that, an industrial-strength, 24/7 exercise in civic engagement that connects a massive, diverse, and ever-changing constituency—and plugs them into the democratic process at every level. Each election cycle Culinary preps thousands of members and their families to become citizens, registers thousands of them as new voters, and trains hundreds to become organizers. If Democrats in the rest of the country could turn out voters like Culinary, says Tick Segerblom, a state senator from Las Vegas, “Hillary would be president.”

Instead, what happened in Vegas during the last election was a glimpse of what could have been. Nevada Democrats made sweeping gains even as the rest of the blue wall tipped red. They elected the first Latina to the US Senate—Catherine Cortez Masto. They flipped both chambers of the state Legislature. Culinary’s fingerprints were all over two key House races in Clark County, which includes Las Vegas. Democrat Ruben Kihuen, the son of an MGM Grand housekeeper, knocked off a Republican incumbent, and Rep. Jacky Rosen, a onetime Caesars Palace waitress and union member, took an open seat once held by a Republican. The union triggered a mini blue wave without purchasing any TV ads. In 2018, with every major statewide office on the ballot and perhaps control of the Senate on the line, it aims to do it again.

Culinary has thrived in an environment that is designed to squelch union participation. Nevada has been a right-to-work state since 1953, meaning that employees in union shops are not obligated to join the union or pay dues. Those workplaces are in turn owned and operated by some of the most notorious conservative political figures in the country—including President Donald Trump and Steve Wynn, who was forced to resign as finance chair of the Republican National Committee after hotel employees accused him of sexual assault. (The only nonunion hotels on the Strip are owned by Sheldon Adelson.) One essential component of Culinary’s success is that it is engaged in a state of perpetual conflict with management that churns out skilled organizers and forces it to consistently deliver results to its members.

The union views contract disputes as fertile recruiting ground for paid organizers like Hagezom, who had never registered to vote until this year. In March, he and his co-workers at Hudson News, where he manages five stores and worked as a shop steward, found themselves at an impasse in their contract talks. After they went three and a half years without a new contract, a Culinary organizer intervened and got them a deal in weeks. “After that I was like, I gotta learn more about this,” Hagezom said with a laugh. This spring, the union asked him to take a leave of absence from the airport and work full time as an organizer.

At the end of his week at the Bellagio, Hagezom catches up with other LOAs at a breakfast meeting in a small white building amid a complex of Culinary offices in the shadow of the Stratosphere hotel and casino. A Culinary staffer asks each LOA to report in, making note on a whiteboard of how many conversations each organizer had, how many workers they signed up for the citizenship training, and how many people they registered to vote.

Rosa Bustillos, a 51-year-old guest-room attendant at the Cosmopolitan, rattles off her numbers. She spoke with 20 workers at her casino the day before—12 were registered voters and six workers signed up for the fair.

A native of El Salvador who immigrated to the United States when she was 17, Bustillos is bilingual, a major asset for a Culinary organizer. Culinary’s membership is filled with what are known as low-propensity voters, working-class people of color, many with recent immigrant backgrounds, who do not historically vote with the same frequency of, say, affluent white retirees. The union boasts that its members come from 173 countries and speak 40 languages. The membership, predominantly female and disproportionately immigrant, is typified by Geoconda Arguello Kline, the union’s secretary treasurer, who started out as a guest-room attendant after fleeing political violence in Nicaragua. The union doesn’t give out a breakdown of just how many of its members are immigrants, but the one-day tally offers some indication—it’s a lot. Out of 271 total conversations in one day, 62 members signed up for the citizenship training or signed up a family member; by comparison, 52 registered to vote. (One hundred and twenty-six were already registered.)

“It could be duplicated. It just takes the time and energy to do it,” Segerblom, the state senator, says of Culinary’s methods. “At the end of the day, it’s literally just a mechanical process. You know who’s registered, you know where they work, you know who their shop steward is, and you go from there.” But it takes a union to do that. American union membership has been cut in half over the last four decades in the face of a sustained, coordinated attack. That decline has clear electoral consequences. One recent study showed that passage of right-to-work legislation correlated with a 3.5-point boost for Republican candidates—and a decline in overall voter turnout. Wisconsin has lost 40 percent of its union members since it ended collective bargaining for most public employees in 2011. The resulting void can’t easily be filled, because at the most basic organizing level, there are things a union can do that a political campaign can’t. No one is more acutely aware of this than the campaigns themselves. Ahead of the 2016 Nevada presidential caucuses, Bernie Sanders organizers were so desperate to court Culinary workers they donned fake union pins to infiltrate employee dining rooms. (Sanders’ campaign manager was forced to apologize.)

Nevada is an outlier: The only longtime right-to-work state where more than 10 percent of workers are unionized, it has the fourth-highest rate of private-sector union membership in the country. “I think their success at the bargaining table facilitated their involvement politically,” says Ruben Garcia, a professor of labor law at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. That success was hard-won—the war room where Hagezom and his colleagues met was adorned with faded photos of the strike against the Frontier resort during the 1990s, which lasted more than six years, the longest in the Strip’s history. In the end, management blinked. Now, Garcia argues, Culinary’s focus on citizenship and protections for immigrants—it bills itself as the largest immigrant rights organization in the state—shows “a path forward” for organized labor, because it forces those unions to take on an identity beyond the workplace; the work done by organizers like Hagezom is sowing political power among communities that aren’t otherwise catered to, by providing services that other groups aren’t. (Culinary contracts also mandate that workers can take time off to sort out their immigration paperwork.)

It doesn’t always work so smoothly. The union’s business comes first, and when big contract fights overlap with election season—as they did in 2014—or when the union doesn’t believe politicians have delivered on their core issues, the election operation can be underwhelming. When Culinary isn’t engaged, Democratic candidates pay a price. And the model is not replicable in every way. Culinary’s political machinery is greased by the fact that it’s a lot easier to vote in Clark County than it is almost anywhere else. You can vote at any polling location you want, and there are polling locations everywhere. At the mall. At grocery stores. Polling sites stay open late, seven days a week, for two weeks before Election Day. (Thirteen states don’t have any early voting.) On the last night of early voting in 2016, a small army of mostly Latino voters, including a Culinary member still wearing her housekeeping uniform, waited in a line that stretched into the parking lot of a local store until after 10 p.m. to cast their votes.

Mobile voting centers traverse the county to collect ballots. There’s no discriminatory voter ID law, and an initiative on the November ballot would automatically register people to vote when they get a driver’s license. Las Vegas is like the Las Vegas of voting.

After the meeting, the group splits up. Hagezom and Bustillos hit the streets, a preview of how they’ll be spending more and more of their time over the next three months. Canvassing in Las Vegas in August, in 107-degree heat, is an endurance event. As they walk through a Latino neighborhood of single-family homes, Hagezom periodically takes a spray bottle that’s hooked into the pocket of his camo shorts and aims a few bursts at his colleagues.

Their canvassing is multitiered because Culinary’s list includes a mix of citizens and noncitizens, voters and nonvoters, sometimes all in the same household. They have something to talk about with everyone. A teenager at one house, overrun with yapping Chihuahuas, can vote but her parents can’t—so they leave her with information about early voting and a flyer about the union’s upcoming citizenship fair and a phone number to call for more details. Then they update their list, so that when they come back for get-out-the-vote efforts—the short, focused visits during election season—they’ll know to leave the parents alone.

At one address, Hagezom and his colleagues are looking for a woman who works at the Flamingo. At another, it’s a worker from the Cosmopolitan. When they get to the home of a woman who works at the Wynn, she isn’t there but her husband is.

Bustillos introduces herself and launches into her pitch, but the man wants nothing to do with them. He says he voted for Barack Obama twice, but he was disappointed and isn’t planning to vote again. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, he says, “is shit,” because it doesn’t help enough people, and besides, his vote doesn’t matter. “What is important? One person or a hundred person or thousands?” he says in broken English.

“Nosotros con los millones,” Bustillos says. We are with the millions.

He’s not persuaded, but Bustillos persists, appealing to the man’s sense of solidarity with his fellow immigrant workers—if they stick together, they win. They have the money, we have the power, she says. He throws up his hands, as if to say, “What can I do?” The pitch falls flat. But they don’t come away empty-handed; they offer to drive him to the polls in November and leave a voter registration form for his wife, whose days off, they learn, are Sunday and Monday. Culinary will be back.