According to "The Coffee Pot Wars," an essay by Annette Bernhardt, Laura Dresser and Eric Hatton in the new Russell Sage Foundation study of low-wage work, the median hourly wage of the American hotel dishwasher in 2000 was $7.45 -- a little better than the housekeeper's $7.09. Even luxury hotels seldom pay their low-end employees much more than the minimum wage. And while wages have stagnated, hours have declined, from 40 a week for low-end hotel workers in 1960 to 31 in 2000. At one hotel they studied, the authors concluded that 60 percent of the kitchen staff held down two jobs.
Garcia holds just one, but his hourly wage at the Luxor is $11.86 -- $4 higher than the industry average. He is paid for 40 hours every week, even if the company actually needs him for fewer. He has family health insurance paid for entirely by his employer. He has a defined-benefit pension. He has three weeks of vacation every year, which he likes to spend hunting in Canada.
Far from a life of quiet desperation, Garcia's seems full of noisy exaltation. On the evening I visit him, three grandchildren are careening around his house, a six-bedroom home built in 1988. Garcia's next-door neighbors are an attorney, a minister and, over the back fence, an air-conditioning mechanic. A legion of his fellow hotel workers inhabits the surrounding blocks.
How did this happen?
Something is right with this picture, so right that in an America where Wal-Mart and a thousand other unnatural shocks drive working-class living standards downward, we can scarcely account for it. The picture is incomprehensible unless you understand the role that a union -- Culinary Workers Local 226, the Las Vegas local of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union (HERE) -- has played in the lives of its 48,000 members, their families and the city as a whole.
Local 226 is probably the largest -- and surely the most remarkable -- local union in the United States. While most unions have been shrinking or struggling to hold their own over the past several decades, and while hotel union membership has declined from 16 percent of the hotel workforce in 1983 to 12 percent in 2000, Local 226 has grown by 30,000 members since its low point in 1988. It has done that by organizing virtually every hotel on the Vegas Strip, so that roughly 90 percent of the jobs in the city's major hotels are unionized. Considering that Nevada is a right-to-work state where employees can work in unionized workplaces without joining the union, this is a breathtaking achievement.
The key is "union density" -- the unionized share of total jobs in a local occupation or industry. The authors of the Russell Sage study conclude that hourly wages in the hotel industry are $3 higher in cities with high union density than they are in ones where it's low. Even in unionized cities, however, the authors write that the union effect is minimal on work schedules or career ladders for such dead-end jobs as housekeeping. "This industry doesn't focus on mobility," one hotel executive told Bernhardt, Dresser and Hatton. "We've done a really poor job of recognizing talent and building our own."
Anyway, read it all.