LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — A tough job got tougher for Culinary Union leaders as the COVID-19 pandemic descended on Las Vegas.
Taking care of Local 226’s workers wasn’t going to be enough to get Las Vegas back on track.
As the state’s biggest gaming employers — MGM Resorts International and Caesars Entertainment — put together plans for their resorts, the union took a wider view. The union pushed for health and safety guidelines that would protect all workers — not just their own membership.
And along the way, leaders realized it couldn’t stop there. Customers would play as big a role as workers if everyone was to be safe. And businesses would have to enforce the rules, or all bets were off.
When Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak signed Senate Bill 4 (SB4), the union’s stamp on the state’s solution was unmistakeable. Geoconda Argüello-Kline, in her eighth year as Secretary-Treasurer for the Culinary Union, joined Sisolak and MGM CEO Bill Hornbuckle in a video conference for the signing ceremony.
Also on hand was Irma Fernandez, daughter of Adolfo Fernandez — a union member and utility porter at Caesars Palace who died of COVID-19. Irma’s father became the namesake of the legislation.
Argüello-Kline says the union “family” — members and their family members — has lost 42 people to COVID-19 to date.
Now, looking back on what it took to craft a solution that protected union and non-union workers alike, Argüello-Kline sees it clearly.
“We were completely concentrating on how we would have that type of protection — for union or non-union. Because we are focusing on union or non-union. Everybody is a person … everybody has a family. We feel like for the first time we have that type of protection,” Argüello-Kline says.
“We were representing the hospitality industry, and we feel proud about the focus we had will protect a lot more people. To have all the things they need — their masks, their gloves, everything they need when they go back to work. It’s a tough, tough situation.”
Las Vegas is a long way from business as usual.
Hospitality is at the core of the state’s economy, and Nevada probably took the biggest economic hit in the nation during the COVID-19 pandemic. Figure in the continuing toll on hospitality workers, and there’s no question Nevada continues to struggle out of the biggest hole.
The recovery continues, and with it, the return to work.
“My concern during the pandemic,” Argüello-Kline says, “we knew we would have thousands and thousands of people laid off, and then thousands and thousands would come back to work. And the first priority for us, well, how are we going to protect their health? How are we going to protect with regulations where they can have protection — like mandatory testing — before they open the places? How are we going to have quarantine pay if someone is COVID-19 positive?”
A week ago today, the union answered those questions with agreements struck with MGM and Caesars. A list of benefits and protections is in place for 36,000 union members. And Culinary 226 has vowed to continue to work with employers to secure rights and benefits for its remaining 24,000 members.
And Culinary continues to work as part of a coalition of unions, joining forces with Teamsters, the Service Employees International Union and others to protect workers who face conditions they’ve never dealt with before on jobsites.
“We’re going to have this legislation. It’s going to be enforced,” Argüello-Kline says. “That’s the great thing. We feel like that part, we still had a lot to learn. The job stewards got training with the Adolfo Fernandez bill — what is in the bill, what are their rights? You know, like they can report anything with no fear of retaliation because it’s in the law. We know that companies can be fined if they aren’t doing things right.”
Is the union stronger today, on Labor Day, than it was on March 17 when resorts were closing?
“It’s the way to see things,” Argüello-Kline says, sidestepping the word power.
“The union has always been strong because of the rank and file leaders. Very, very strong,” she says. “We have thousands that haven’t returned to work. But through this pandemic, these leaders have been showing incredible leadership to protect their families, their union. And they are in solidarity with us. Together. All together. All together.”