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The Road to the Presidency Runs Through the Kitchens of Las Vegas

You won’t find an industry association that does a more effective job of representing the interests of its members than the National Restaurant Association. It ably stands up for restaurant owners in many different venues, and its NRA-PAC (National Restaurant Association Political Action Committee) doles out funds judiciously in every congressional election. The NRA’s Go-Network (Grassroots Opportunities) group of politically active restaurateurs and its SAFE Fund (Save American Free Enterprise), which disburses funds to political efforts at the state level, also contribute mightily to fight anti-business legislation and initiatives on such issues as wages, health care and menu labeling.

Ned Monroe, vice-president of political affairs for the NRA, oversees these efforts. His background in Republican Party politics–he was executive director of the Republican Party of Florida and has held positions with both the Republican National Committee and the 1988 George Bush for President campaign—makes him a natural for his post. He’s definitely in the right spot, because the pro-business nature of the NRA means that it typically supports Republican candidates.

Culinary Workers Union Local 226 in Nevada resides at the opposite end of the political spectrum. It bills itself as “one of the fastest-growing private sector unions in the United States.” It numbered 18,000 members in 1987 and has grown to 60,000 members today.

Nationwide, only 12 percent of full-time workers in the U.S., or 15.4 million people, belonged to unions in 2006, says the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s a drop-off of 12.5 percent from 2005.

But union membership is booming in Las Vegas. Local 226 members work in foodservice at casinos in Las Vegas and Reno. Their job titles include cooks, kitchen workers, cocktail waitresses, bellmen, housekeepers, porters and laundry workers. These are, of course, growing job categories in Las Vegas.

Local labor publication the Las Vegas Gleaner sums up the union’s achievements this way:
“The Culinary in Las Vegas is the most successful example of organized labor’s strength, growth and positive economic influence on a community in America in the last, oh, 25 years…. The Culinary is the reason that Southern Nevada has a middle class and is not just a couple of gated communities surrounded by vast swaths of high desert ghetto.”

Local 226 has already demonstrated the ability to mobilize its membership when the occasion calls for it. But why wouldn’t its members turn out? Their union notes that “Workers covered by a Culinary Union contract benefit from one of the best health insurance plans in the country—and it’s free. Workers pay nothing out of their paychecks for health coverage for themselves, their spouse and their children.” There’s also an employer-paid union pension fund, a 401K, an 11,000 sq. ft. culinary training academy for new hires, even citizenship assistance. No wonder members, who seem to know a good deal when they see one, rally to the cause when asked.

Noting the group’s growing political muscle, the Obama, Clinton and Edwards campaigns have all been courting Culinary 226 for at least a year. Obama got the endorsement, the announcement of which was broadcast live on CNN and Fox News. A labor endorsement hasn’t received this kind of coverage since the days when Walter Reuther would announce the backing of the United Automobile Workers for one candidate or another, or Jimmy Hoffa would reveal whom the Teamsters would be backing in the next election.

This week we’ll see if the culinary workers can really deliver Nevada on Obama’s behalf. If it does, Culinary 226 could well propel the next president into the White House—and demonstrate to other culinary unions around the country just how much political power they might actually possess.

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