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Mother Jones: “What the Democratic Party Can Learn from Nevada Casino Workers, Cooks, and Housekeepers”

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In a new must-read story in Mother Jones, reporter Tim Murphy highlights the efforts and successes of the Culinary Workers Union in Nevada to mobilize the diverse voters found there. For those asking how best to mobilize Latino, Asian-American and other working class voters, studying what Culinary and their many partners do in Nevada seems like a good place to start.

Key excerpts are below with the full story available online here:

Eighty-nine days before the November election, Ashenafi Hagezom is up before dawn. From his two-bedroom house in northwest Las Vegas, which he shares with roommates, it can take up to an hour to reach the Bellagio, the faux-Italian luxury hotel and casino in the heart of the Strip. He parks in the employee garage out back and passes through the air-conditioned doors just after 7 a.m., before the graveyard shift begins to trickle out and gives way to the army of guest-room attendants, prep cooks, and porters who keep the casino humming for another day.

… The work performed by Culinary organizers like Hagezom, for as many as 12 hours a day, six days a week, is political organizing at its most intimate—colleagues lobbying colleagues, over lunch or on their front porches, in whatever language they’re most comfortable with. Hagezom’s fellow organizers often start their conversations in Spanish; he carries flyers in Amharic for the union’s growing membership of Ethiopian immigrants.

The results are impossible to ignore; over the last decade, Democrats have scored win after win in the critical swing state, in large part by turning out the kinds of voters—mostly nonwhite, disproportionately first- or second-generation, often non-English-speaking service workers with unusual hours—who often stay home everywhere else. “What Culinary does, and the way they organize in Nevada, is the model for voter mobilization in the country,” says Frank Sharry, executive director of the immigrant advocacy group America’s Voice. “They have figured it out. They get people in a room, they methodically organize targets and coordinate who’s gonna take what precincts. They hold each other accountable and they deliver.”

… Nevada is an outlier: The only longtime right-to-work state where more than 10 percent of workers are unionized, it has the fourth-highest rate of private-sector union membership in the country. “I think their success at the bargaining table facilitated their involvement politically,” says Ruben Garcia, a professor of labor law at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. That success was hard-won—the war room where Hagezom and his colleagues met was adorned with faded photos of the strike against the Frontier resort during the 1990s, which lasted more than six years, the longest in the Strip’s history. In the end, management blinked. Now, Garcia argues, Culinary’s focus on citizenship and protections for immigrants—it bills itself as the largest immigrant rights organization in the state—shows “a path forward” for organized labor, because it forces those unions to take on an identity beyond the workplace; the work done by organizers like Hagezom is sowing political power among communities that aren’t otherwise catered to, by providing services that other groups aren’t. (Culinary contracts also mandate that workers can take time off to sort out their immigration paperwork.)

… Their canvassing is multitiered because Culinary’s list includes a mix of citizens and noncitizens, voters and nonvoters, sometimes all in the same household. They have something to talk about with everyone. A teenager at one house, overrun with yapping Chihuahuas, can vote but her parents can’t—so they leave her with information about early voting and a flyer about the union’s upcoming citizenship fair and a phone number to call for more details. Then they update their list, so that when they come back for get-out-the-vote efforts—the short, focused visits during election season—they’ll know to leave the parents alone.

At one address, Hagezom and his colleagues are looking for a woman who works at the Flamingo. At another, it’s a worker from the Cosmopolitan. When they get to the home of a woman who works at the Wynn, she isn’t there but her husband is.

Bustillos introduces herself and launches into her pitch, but the man wants nothing to do with them. He says he voted for Barack Obama twice, but he was disappointed and isn’t planning to vote again. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, he says, “is shit,” because it doesn’t help enough people, and besides, his vote doesn’t matter. “What is important? One person or a hundred person or thousands?” he says in broken English.

“Nosotros con los millones,” Bustillos says. We are with the millions.

He’s not persuaded, but Bustillos persists, appealing to the man’s sense of solidarity with his fellow immigrant workers—if they stick together, they win. They have the money, we have the power, she says. He throws up his hands, as if to say, “What can I do?” The pitch falls flat. But they don’t come away empty-handed; they offer to drive him to the polls in November and leave a voter registration form for his wife, whose days off, they learn, are Sunday and Monday. Culinary will be back.