The Nevada Turnaround: Immigrant Workers Build Political Power

April 28, 2021   •   By Ruth Milkman, Deepak Bhargava

NEVADA POLITICIANS FEAR the power of Culinary Workers Union Local 226, whose most underappreciated strength comes from first-generation Americans working in the food service and maintenance quarters of the Las Vegas Strip. And the man who helped organize them is D. Taylor, the international president of UNITE HERE, a union whose 300,000 members work in the hospitality industry as well as a variety of other sectors across the United States and Canada. 

A majority of Culinary members are women and people of color, and many are immigrants, coming from over 170 countries and speaking 40 languages. After a bruising strike and membership losses in the 1980s, Taylor helped to rebuild and restructure the Culinary Union as a rank-and-file union whose diverse and growing membership increasingly took the lead in its organizing and political work. Today, immigrant rights are at the center of the union’s political action.

Through its Citizenship Project, the union has helped more than 18,000 Nevadans become US citizens, and Culinary members have registered tens of thousands of voters and knocked on hundreds of thousands of doors to support pro-immigrant, pro-worker politicians and policies. The Culinary Union was the driving force behind Nevada’s march from red to blue, decisively supporting Hillary Clinton in 2016 and making Nevada one of only two states to flip a Senate seat to the Democrats in 2018. Now with serious talk of the Nevada Caucus going ahead of Iowa to become the first presidential test in the nation, Culinary’s clout is only going to grow.

In this interview, Taylor discusses his union’s strategic and transformative commitment to immigrant rights, its success in developing immigrant leaders and leaders of color, and how its multiracial, robust rank-and-file model might be useful to other unions’ struggles for immigrant rights and progressive political change.

This interview is one chapter in the forthcoming book Immigration Matters: Movements, Visions, and Strategies for a Progressive Future.


RUTH MILKMAN: Let’s start with the history of your union and the role of immigrants in it.

D. TAYLOR: Our union was founded in 1891. The hotel and restaurant industries have always been gateways for recent arrivals to the United States, and today about half of our members are foreign born. In the early days, the workers were mostly Irish, Italian, and East European Jewish. But in the 1960s and ’70s, a new wave of immigrants came into the union from Asia, Latin America, and sometimes Africa. In the ’90s, we also had lots of refugees from places like Bosnia and Serbia. We also have had a lot of African American members for most of our history.

No matter where they are from, people who have immigrated mostly have come here with nothing, and they are tougher than nails. They’ve had to go through more crap than 90 percent of the people born in this country. Not only have they had to deal with poverty — they’ve had to deal with language; they’ve had to deal with culture; they’ve had to deal with status; they’ve had to deal with family issues and separation. So they’re a lot tougher than all of us. If you look at the history of the labor movement, its foundation and early growth was with immigrant workers, and many of them became leaders too. But later, the labor movement became pretty reactionary, viewing immigration as something that was undercutting labor.

Some unions had immigrants in their membership, but the leadership was not reflective of that. But it was different out west. Local 2 in San Francisco was always a very progressive union. And Los Angeles and Las Vegas were transformed in the 1990s in some big fights that were led by Latinas. That helped people see that this was our future.

After 9/11, and the backlash against immigrants, María Elena Durazo, who was the head of our local in Los Angeles, came up with the idea of the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride. The idea came from the 1960s Civil Rights freedom rides. We had all these buses converging on the Statue of Liberty in New York.

A lot of immigrant workers are natural leaders, but they are held back by their English and often feel like they can’t deal with management. To address this, we started an educational program in the union a few years ago. It’s been largely Latinos and African Americans, and some Asians, who have participated. We ease them into leadership roles. Are we where we need to be? No. But we’ve seen real improvement.

RM: How have you dealt with tensions between different groups of workers — immigrants, African Americans, and other US-born workers?

We have found that you have to unify people around their own economic self-interest. I’m not naïve enough to think that’s always easy. But in the union, you can get folks talking and working together. “Listen, both groups are getting screwed, so why fight each other?” That kind of talk is important, but if you actually work on something together, that’s when it really changes. When you’re in the trenches, and they’re shooting at you, you don’t say, “What color are you?” You join forces and try to win.

DEEPAK BHARGAVA: I remember when employers developed a preference for immigrants over African Americans, and UNITE HERE made an effort to try to counter that. What was the process?

First, we did surveys of our membership to show that the industries had systematically not hired African Americans. Then we negotiated changes using those statistics. We told management that we had to have a career ladder and a very specific target. We took away the excuse “Well, they’re not trained.” We made particular efforts to recruit and train workers from the African American community and get them into our training centers. The training center in Vegas is run by an African American, and it’s located in a heavily African American neighborhood.

RM: Let’s turn to Culinary Workers Local 226 in Las Vegas. Nevada is a right-to-work state, and yet the Culinary became an extraordinarily powerful and vibrant labor organization.

When I first came to Nevada, in the ’80s, it was called the “Mississippi of the West.” It was a cowboy town, completely controlled by a few families, and I’m not talking about the Mafia. Wall Street had already taken over. The workforce was changing, with many more Latinos joining the African Americans and whites, but whites still controlled the union.

We started building rank-and-file committees, and we tried to set up situations where people who didn’t speak perfect English had the chance to be leaders and speak. We decided that we were going to fight for all workers, whether they were black, brown, yellow, white, or purple.

The biggest change came in 2002. Geoconda Argüello-Kline had become president of the Culinary. I was secretary-treasurer. And we made the contract fight all about housekeeping workers, who by that time were predominantly Latino, with a fair number of Bosnians and Serbians too. The leaders were Latinas. Our chant was, “The housekeepers will take us to victory!” There was real empowerment in that.

DB: What are the ingredients in the culture of the Culinary? What’s the secret sauce?

For one thing, we’re really tough on accountability. Every week, we have a chart. If you’re a shop steward, your name is up here. Two, there’s a lot of attention to detail. If you don’t take care of grievances and problems in the workplace, you’ll never get to the external work because you’ll always have chaos on the inside.

Another thing in that sauce is no PR or fake wars. You have to have real battles. When I hear people say, “We have to build a movement,” I say, “Well, if you’re talking about it, then you’re missing the point. You have to confront the bosses, and you have to take risks.” At the end of the day, you’ve got to walk the walk and not just talk the talk.

Never underestimate how smart workers are. I don’t care where they’re from. They’re very practical. Sometimes we enter this with an ideological bent, and that’s a big mistake. Workers are practical, because guess what: they have to survive! They don’t give a hoot what you say; it’s what you do.

If you have faith in workers, you have an organizational structure, you hold people accountable, you expect a lot from folks, you work hard, and you figure out a strategy, not just a bunch of tactics, you can win.

DB: You’ve built a political powerhouse in Nevada. What was the path to do that, and how did it intersect with the labor organizing?

If we do politics separate from the union organizing, it’s a dead loser. We always make it about the union, because our members are no different than anybody else. They’re pretty cynical about politicians. That’s why we ran our own members. Our first member to run was Maggie Carlton. She was a waitress at the Treasure Island. In 1998, she won a seat in the State Senate, and she’s now over in the assembly side, chairing Ways and Means.

Our first really big race was in 1996, against a woman named Senator Sue Lowden, who owned the Santa Fe casino. She was fighting the union. So we went for it: “So long, Sue!” She was the only incumbent that lost that year. We also made a difference in the ’98 election, when Harry Reid ran against John Ensign and won.

DB: Reid went from being not so good on immigration to being a champion of reform — how did that come about?

Well, after the 1994 Contract with America, we had a meeting with him, and I said, “Senator, we’ve got to make a little bit of change here.” I remember telling him, “Senator, the future is not with those who voted for you in the past. The future is with who’s going to vote for you in the future. And they’re looking for somebody to be their champion.” Now, I’m not sure what that did or did not do, but around that time we put this Latina woman as the head of the Democratic Party in Nevada.

We do these big ground games; we always invite the politicians to come, and they look at the crowd, which is largely Latino. And we were getting voters who normally wouldn’t register, or normally wouldn’t vote, registered and to the polls.

Over the years, we’ve continued to do diligent work in Nevada, which has become a completely blue state. We were the first union in the country to endorse Obama. I remember that there was a big divide between our African American members and our white members, and our immigrant workers. But in the end, we brought them together. We accelerated that even more in ’16. We and New Hampshire were the only swing states that went blue for Clinton. That year we also elected the first Latina to the US Senate, and we changed the state legislature to all blue. In ’18, we elected another woman, Jacky Rosen, who beat a Republican who had never lost any election in his lifetime, and we elected a governor.

This had a huge payoff. For the first time, we got collective bargaining rights for some state employees. So we have won real reforms in Nevada, which you would not expect in what was known as the “Mississippi of the West” only a few years ago.

The immigrant vote was crucial in all this. We realized that there was no central place for people to become naturalized citizens, so we set up a citizenship project, which became the largest mover of folks into citizenship in the state. And it wasn’t just Latinos; we had Afghanis, Iraqis, Chinese. It’s been systemized over a long period of time; it’s an ongoing institution.

DB: What should we be doing in terms of the immigrant struggle in the next period?

We need to find a systematic way to lift up the immigrant story. I don’t think “Well, your grandparents were immigrants too” works. If it did, we wouldn’t have all the problems we faced in the Trump era. We have an opportunity right now, in this pandemic, when a large number of essential workers are made visible as immigrant workers or people of color. We’ve got to make them heroes. We should focus on these workers and lift up not just who they are but also the work that they do.

After 9/11, firefighters were the greatest people in the world, but that went away pretty quickly when the Republicans started going after public sector pensions. The same thing will happen here if we don’t seize on this opportunity. Let’s keep on reminding people exactly who helped save America. Then we can have a different conversation about immigration.


Ruth Milkman is distinguished professor of sociology at the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies, where she also chairs the Labor Studies department, and at the CUNY Graduate Center.

Deepak Bhargava is distinguished lecturer in urban studies at the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies. He is the co-editor (with Ruth Milkman and Penny Lewis) of Immigration Matters (The New Press, 2021).