LAS VEGAS, NV - The future of the American labor movement may lie just off the Las Vegas Strip, inside a squat building huddled in the shadow of the Stratosphere casino.
That's the home of the Culinary Workers Local 226, a fast-growing union of hotel and casino employees that has thrived despite being in a right-to-work state and a region devastated by the real estate crash.
More than 90 percent of Culinary's 60,000 predominantly immigrant workers opt to be dues-paying members, even though Nevada law says they cannot be forced to pay unions for their services.
As a result, housekeepers in most Strip hotels start at $16 an hour with free health care and a pension. Culinary's track record gives a dispirited labor movement some hope even as it hemorrhages workers and reels from the approval of a right-to-work law last week in union-strong Michigan.
"National unions need to look at what some of the folks out here have done," said Billy Vassiliadis, former chair of the Nevada Democratic Party. In a right-to-work state that for years was relatively conservative, "they had to be smart. They had to be nimble."
As a result, he said, "labor here is a big pillar in the political debate."
But that's less true on a national scale. American labor has been on a downward trajectory for decades: Unions represented 30 percent of the workforce when the federal government first began tracking membership in the early 1980s. Now they represent less than 12 percent.
Michigan's adoption of a right-to-work law follows a string of recent setbacks in the industrial Midwest. Indiana passed a right-to-work law early this year, and Wisconsin effectively ended collective bargaining for most public workers last year.
The American union member once was typified by the white Michigan factory worker who was hoisted into the middle class by the United Auto Workers' package of good pay and benefits. Now Culinary's service worker membership — largely Hispanic housekeepers, line cooks and hostesses at casinos — may be the new model.
"Manufacturing jobs used to be horrible, until they got organized," said D. Taylor, who just stepped down as Culinary's secretary-treasurer to run its national organization, Unite-HERE. "Service jobs used to be the same — horrible jobs until they got organized. Nevada's not some magic place. Those jobs just got organized."
Culinary has almost quadrupled its membership since the 1980s, but Nevada unions still struggle against national headwinds. The percentage of workers in the state who belong to unions is down to 14.6 percent from its 1996 peak of 20 percent — though much of that decline happened in the past four years after the real estate crash wiped out thousands of union construction jobs.
Danny Thompson, head of the state AFL-CIO, says right-to-work has hobbled Nevada labor. But he's mulling going on the offensive and asking voters to overturn the law, which passed narrowly in the 1950s.
"There's no question that this is a strong union state," he said.
The Nevada model, however, is difficult to duplicate.
Michael Chamberlain, a Republican political consultant in Las Vegas, notes Culinary has thrived in a heavily regulated industry. If casinos, which must be licensed by the state, pay their workers high wages, it's difficult for competitors to offer less. And cleaning, cooking and card-dealing jobs cannot be shipped overseas.
"They have the ability to limit competition, and that allows the unions to develop their power," Chamberlain said.
Even Nevada's formidable construction trade unions have had most of their success in casinos along the Strip, and less in private suburban projects where wages are competitive, Chamberlain said.
Indeed, many of labor's remaining success stories come in areas where competition is limited, said Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at the University of California Santa Barbara.
He pointed to unions representing port workers in Los Angeles and Long Beach, as well as unions representing professional athletes in Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League. Like with Las Vegas casinos, those jobs cannot be moved to lower-wage locations.
Still, there are other pockets that show Nevada-like efforts can be replicated. As Culinary regrouped from a series of 1990s setbacks and started to grow again, unions in Los Angeles organized immigrant garment workers and janitors. Now labor is the predominant political power in once staunchly anti-union Southern California and one reason that state is a Democratic stronghold.
Vassiliadis said unions in the Southwest win loyalty by helping immigrants enter the middle class and turn low-wage jobs into stable sources of health insurance. In the Rust Belt, he said, labor is trying to maintain generations-old victories.
"They've done a heck of a job at being the ones who brought Latinos into the mainstream, provided them health insurance and pensions," Vassiliadis said. "In the Rust Belt, you're looking at third- and fourth-generation auto workers, folks who have always had health insurance. They never had to fight for these things and over time (unions') relevance has faded."
The union isn't afraid to play hardball. It famously went on strike for six years and ended up closing a casino that resisted organizing. It's now trying to organize the Station casinos off the Strip in a campaign that could last as long. But Culinary also has generally warm relations with the gambling industry and helps defend its interests.
In partnership with the casinos, Culinary created an academy that trains workers to become housekeepers or sommeliers and offers English classes. The new head of Culinary, replacing Taylor, is a Nicaraguan immigrant and former housekeeper.
Taylor cited Culinary's track record and member outreach as the reason so many workers pay dues.
"They know," he said, "that, together, they have more strength."