Working for the Union Label

The Nevada caucuses are over, following on the heels of the Michigan primaries. This schedule calls to the mind the striking contrast between the way Detroit greets air travelers and the way Las Vegas does it. If you fly into Detroit Metro Airport and catch a ride east toward the city itself, you have to go a stretch before a gigantic tire welcomes you to the Motor City. But far be it from Las Vegas to show such reserve. At its airport, just after you exit the jetway, slot machines greet you in the terminal.

As different as it is from Detroit, however, Vegas has imitated it in one respect: Detroit used to be a place where a person with little education could still get a good-paying job. With the contraction of the auto industry in Michigan, and the expansion of the gambling business in Nevada, Vegas has become the town that beckons with this opportunity.

In Nevada, the average hourly wage of a worker with no more than a high school diploma is $23.30, the highest of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. On this count, Michigan is now 10th.

Nevada isn’t on top by accident. It’s there because the vast majority of the state’s workers hold jobs in the Las Vegas area and, though Nevada is a right-to-work state, Las Vegas is nonetheless a union town. In fact, as Hal Rothman reports in Neon Metropolis, his insightful book on Vegas, it is now “the most unionized city in the United States.”

Its largest local union is Culinary Workers Union Local 226. This is the 60,000-member local that endorsed Barack Obama last week. Caucuses aside, though, this union is also a possible model for the future.

The typical hourly wage of a 2008 worker with at least a four-year degree is higher than the typical hourly wage of a 1973 worker with a four-year degree — but the typical wage of a 2008 worker without a degree is lower than the typical wage of a 1973 worker without a degree. Moreover, two of three of today’s workers do not have a degree.

One reason why the non-college jobs of today don’t pay as well as the non-college jobs of 35 years ago, it has been claimed, is that a lot of the 1973 jobs were in manufacturing, and a lot of the 2008 jobs are in the service sector — and rank-and-file work in the service sector, unlike such work in the manufacturing sector, is inherently low-wage work.

But the paychecks of the Culinary Workers Union members rebut this claim. As working stiffs in the gambling industry — hotel maids and fry cooks, busboys and cocktail waitresses, laundry workers and card dealers — they do menial work in the service sector. But they do not have to do it for menial pay. In part, this has to be because unionization has given them some leverage.

To be sure, the pay levels for rank-and-file workers in manufacturing have been higher than those for such workers in the service sector. But this isn’t because there is something in the nature of manufacturing itself that makes for higher pay. It’s because it has been more unionized. An old issue of Life magazine tells the story of a steel worker whose pay jumped by 260% in 10 years. This was chiefly because, at the beginning of the 10-year-period, the steel workers across the country unionized.

Much of the workforce can be divided into two groups. One group is the workers who can build a brand for themselves as individuals, such as the best-known real estate agent in a small town. Because such workers stand out from the crowd, they hold bargaining power as individuals, and get paid well.

The other group is the crowd: the workers who are generic. They have little or no bargaining power as individuals. In the way of pay, they often must take what the job market offers to workers like them. If they want to earn more, they can try to brand themselves. Or they can bargain not as individuals, but en masse. It worked that way in Cadillac plants. It works that way in resort hotels.

Ralph Whitehead Jr. is a professor of Journalism at UMass Amherst.

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