Because a Better World Is Possible: Women Casino Workers, Union Activism and the Creation of a Just Workplace

Article excerpt

Based on a re-analysis of data from a qualitative study of the work experience of 36 women casino workers, this article examines the contributions and personal characteristics of the 13 women in the sample who described themselves as committed union activists. These women, all leaders in the Hotel Employees, Restaurant Employees Union, were proud that collectively they had improved wages, benefits, and the conditions of work in Nevada casinos, and had created an environment that reinforced pride in a job well-done, provided job security, and promoted strong families and communities. These women's workplace experience serves as a reminder to the profession of the importance of collective power in the creation of a more just and humane world.

Keywords: women, work, women workers, casinos, unions, union organizing, union activism

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Like I said, it's a right-to-work state. They can let you go for anything, and they can make any kind of bogus thing up. You don't ever know.... When you have a union hotel, you have protection in the union. You have shop stewards that will protect you, and they will fight for you.... It's like having a public defender and a good lawyer.

Mary, cocktail waitress in a union casino (1)

I think employees have a little more backbone [when] they're protected by the contract and.... management has to go through procedures to fire them. [When] they can't just walk up and say, "you're tired" ... or "I don't like the way you look today" ... or "you've put on too much weight." And that's the difference ... at a union house you have a little bit more respect and dignity than you do at a non-union house.

Betty, cocktail waitress in a union casino

For a good part of its professional history, social work has had an uneasy relationship with work, particularly with the experience of workers in the workplace and with workplace organizing (Straussner & Phillips, 1988). Its interest in workplace issues has tended to be limited, relatively narrow, and often has centered on factors that inhibit a worker's job performance, like substance abuse (Goldmeier, 1994; Lawson, 1987; Madonia, 1985; Strauss, 1951). Employee assistance programs have been one of the profession's primary concerns, which is not surprising since clinical social workers have played a major role in providing EAP services (Bennett & Lehman, 1997; Heyman, 1971; Root, 1997). If social work's relationship with the workplace has been tenuous, its relationship with unions has been even more so (Straussner & Phillips, 1988). Social work's reticence in this area deserves a study in its own right and is beyond the scope of this article, but certainly the profession's close association with government bureaucracy, on the one hand, and corporate funders, on the other, is at issue, as is the profession's historic striving for professional status.

In the context of this general neglect, however, there have always been social work scholars and practitioners drawn to issues of class, workplace conditions, and union organizing. The profession's early history was characterized by deep commitment on the part of progressive social workers to workers and their struggles. For example, trade unions were a central feature of work at Hull House. Florence Kelley, a socialist, sophisticated international theorist and experienced trade union activist, energized the Hull House collective upon her arrival in 1891 with her commitment to the working class. She investigated sweatshops, inspected factories, and founded the National Consumers League, which advocated for a minimum wage and a limitation on the working hours of women and children. In 1903, with Jane Addams, Mary Kenney, Mary McDowell, and Sophinisba Breckinridge, Kelley established the Chicago Women's Trade Union League, whose main objectives were to educate women about the advantages of trade union membership and support women's demands for better working conditions. …