He helps give labor the edge

D. Taylor is anxious, pacing irritably as the rabble-rousing continues.

About 150 workers have gathered at the Culinary Union headquarters here to rally and make signs for a Friday night caravan. Their plan is to clog traffic outside the big casinos to protest lagging contract talks. Many are just off the day shift, small children in tow.

Taylor, head of the union local, fidgets as Culinary organizers fire up the crowd. "When you bring kids you've got to get started," he mutters to no one in particular. Then he claps his hands and begins hollering: "Let's go. Let's GO. LET'S GO!!!" The rhetoric ends. The sign-making begins.

Nevada has assumed new prominence in the presidential race because, for the first time, its caucuses will be held in January, right after Iowa starts the nominating process. That, in turn, has created a new set of political power brokers; few in Nevada are more important than the leader of Culinary Local 226, which represents a majority of those who make the beds, fry the eggs, serve the steaks and bus the dishes in America's adult playground.

Their support, and the union's organizing muscle, could be a huge boost for some favored White House contender.

At more than 60,000 members and growing, the Culinary Workers Union is a rare labor success story, defying decades of decline that have thinned union ranks nationwide and diminished labor's clout. To Taylor, Las Vegas represents the once-and-future America, a place where a blue-collar employee, a housekeeper, say, can work hard and obtain the middle-class dream: a home, a car, college for the kids. "What we represent is what a unionized service economy can be," said Taylor, who goes by just his first initial. "Our folks aren't rich, but they're doing OK."

The same might be said of Taylor, 50, a model of inconspicuous consumption, with his crumpled khakis and open collars, cheap lunch haunts and aversion to executive power perks. He has no entourage, no office wall covered with celebrity photos (the closest he comes is a picket-line snapshot with Cesar E. Chavez), no reserved parking spot. "Listen," he says, "if you can't find a place like anyone else, something's wrong with you."

Democrats awarded the early presidential caucus to Nevada partly to give labor, a longtime ally, a bigger say in choosing its nominee. (Republicans, eyeing the action on the Democratic side, have set their vote for the same Jan. 19 date.) For Local 226, the biggest union and most powerful political organization in Nevada, the vote provides an opportunity to promote its agenda -- higher wages, pro-

labor job rules, a pathway to citizenship for immigrant workers -- well beyond Las Vegas.

"We want to talk about issues affecting our workers across the country," said Pilar Weiss, 31, the union's political director. "We want that language and those issues injected into the campaign all through the 2008 cycle."

Taylor is key to that effort, though he strongly denies it. The union prides itself on being a member-driven, bottom-up organization. (There are 500 people on its bargaining committees.) That approach saved the union by restoring morale after years of misrule and a crippling 1984 citywide strike.

But Taylor is no idle observer, as demonstrated by the way he cuts off speeches and gets sign production started at the headquarters rally. Venting is fine, but Taylor prefers action and, even more, results. "I like to find solutions," he says. "Statements and platitudes really don't mean much."

The bottom line is the bottom line. Consider: A union cook in Las Vegas makes $16.20 an hour, better than 60% above the national average; housekeepers earn $13.07 an hour, or 50% more.

"The union's delivered," said University of Nevada, Las Vegas, professor William N. Thompson, an expert on the gambling industry. And not just for its members. Businesses throughout the Las Vegas area pay more because "they know if they want to avoid turnover, they have to keep up" with wages in the big casinos, Thompson said.

The union won't be wasting its endorsement on symbolic gestures like the last time it backed a presidential candidate. In 1992, Jerry Brown got the nod over Bill Clinton simply for joining picketers outside the Frontier hotel-casino.

"In politics, there's a lesson I learned," Taylor says. "It's not like a horse race, where you can still make money on second and third place. In elections, you either win or lose."

D. Taylor once thought of being a spy.

Growing up, he loved the novels of John le Carre and Frederick Forsyth, and he thought it would be "very cool and intriguing" to work for the CIA.

The youngest of four children, Taylor was the only boy. He was named after his father, a lawyer and judge in Williamsburg, Va., but his mother said one Donald per household was plenty; thenceforth he was simply D. His parents divorced when he was 12. Taylor and the youngest of his sisters moved with their mom from the countryside to a two-bedroom apartment in town.

The three lived one payday to the next. There were no vacations, and dining out was a rarity. "Nothing nice or fancy," Taylor recalls. He earned his first paycheck at age 14, at a Kentucky Fried Chicken, and worked through college, attending Georgetown University on and off as money allowed.

Taylor's notion of a spy career ended during his freshman year, after he read Philip Agee's "Inside The Company," an account of dirty tricks and other intelligence abuses. "I thought it was there to help democracy, not suppress people," Taylor says of the CIA.

Disillusioned, he took classes in social studies and history, an abiding passion. He waited tables, alternating between Washington during the school year and two summers in Cape Cod. He still remembers late Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo visiting one season and tipping $3 on a $78 check.

Taylor joined the restaurant workers union in 1979 and became a shop steward. Part of the reason was his austere upbringing. It bothered Taylor to see his mother work full time and still struggle financially. "No institution is perfect," he says, but organized labor was "the only institution I saw that allowed workers to have a better say."

In 1980, he graduated from Georgetown's School of Foreign Service. (Not bad training, he jokes, for a union with members from 87 countries.) In fall 1981, he was hired by the Culinary Union to organize workers in the Lake Tahoe-Reno area. He was dispatched in 1984 to Las Vegas, where he helped see the local through a disastrous two-month strike.

Taylor sits in his modest office at union headquarters as he relates this history. The space is dominated by family photographs (a wife, two daughters), Boston Red Sox memorabilia (another passion) and various portraits and keepsakes celebrating the labor movement.

The building itself, in an industrial area just off the Las Vegas Strip, is a worn, jury-rigged complex sprawling over 36,000 square feet. Long corridors are intersected by narrow, alley-like passageways. Reaching the second floor requires a trip outside. Blue-and-white placards direct traffic, like signs around a road hazard.

The feeling, even with cheery member photos lining the walls, is decidedly low-rent. But after a history of corruption tied to organized crime, the modest quarters make a statement: Our money goes into organizing, not opulence. (Law enforcement and corporate ownership of the big casinos eventually drove the mob from Las Vegas; there hasn't been a hint of scandal surrounding the Culinary Union in years.)

Taylor makes $140,000 a year as head of Local 226 and vice president of its labor parent, Unite Here, leading its national gaming division. He was part of the team that helped purge the organization and rebuild its strike-thinned ranks. A turning point came in 1989, when the union reached an agreement that led to spectacular growth. In return for work-rule concessions, including one making it easier to broaden job responsibilities, the major casino owners agreed not to fight organizing efforts. Because of this, membership grew by leaps -- it has roughly tripled since 1984 -- as the Mirage, Treasure Island, Bellagio and other mega-resorts opened. Over the next decade, the union is projected to add 20,000 to 30,000 members.

Taylor's assignment was supposed to last six months. He never left, but not because Las Vegas is his favorite place in the world. The desert summers are brutal -- "I'm a water person," he says. The 10-mile commute from his two-story tract home northwest of the city -- "Stucco-land," Taylor calls it -- has more than doubled to 45 minutes.

And the overt sexuality -- just stand along the Strip and witness the rolling billboards of semi-clad women -- makes for a challenge raising daughters. But there is, Taylor says, no better place in America to represent the interests of working men and women.

ONE after another, the Democratic presidential candidates have come to pledge their allegiance to Local 226.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York tells members the IRS should quit badgering people who work for tips and pursue corporate scofflaws. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson calls for unionizing Indian casinos. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware pledges to be labor's best friend since Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The Culinary Union is months away from making its endorsement. Leaders are adamant the process remain open, even though former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina is friendly with John Wilhelm, head of Unite Here. "We're looking forward to having our members meet with all of them," Taylor says of the Democratic candidates.

The endorsement process hasn't even been set, though it promises to be exhaustive.

"We're not going to have a scorecard: He answered three questions correctly and two wrong. She answered four right and one wrong, therefore she gets the endorsement," said Weiss, the union's political director. "We're going to take a lot of time and make sure when we endorse, the members will follow through." (Republican candidates have been invited to address union members, but none has taken up the offer.)

Taylor, of course, will be deeply involved. Though members will ultimately decide whom to endorse, "it takes a little leadership on my part to come to that," Taylor said. "Figuring out the questions that need to be asked, the kind of real tests that need to be done.

"I'm going to be part of the process," he adds. "I'm not a sheep."

THERE is the "work D" and the "home D." The one at home, his wife says, smiles a lot more.

At work, Taylor has mastered the bland expression and measured response. When things grow testy, he may allow a shrug here, a lifted eyebrow there. He plays rough.

Last fall, the Culinary Union joined the Las Vegas Police Protective Assn. and hired a private investigator to snoop on Clark County Commissioner Lynette Boggs, a political enemy. She lost her reelection bid and was indicted after surveillance raised questions about her residency. Taylor shrugs: "You reap what you sow."

But at home, the steel core melts.

The bare-knuckle political brawler has been banished to the far end of the soccer field after yelping once too often at Gray, his 12-year-old. The tough talker lapses into Old English to entertain Chenault, 18, a fellow Shakespeare buff. The tough bargainer yields to his wife and surrenders his cherished "Beavis and Butt-Head" soundboard (push the button, and it goes "heh heh heh") after Gray began parroting the crude characters.

At 6-foot-2, Taylor has a loping stride, receding gray-brown hair, deep-set eyes and a stone face perfect for poker -- except he never gambles. (He swore off it more than 20 years ago after losing bets on the Washington Redskins football team.)

Though revered by members -- at a spring rally featuring several White House hopefuls the cheers were longest and loudest for Taylor -- he receives more grudging respect in Las Vegas' corporate suites.

His wife, Bobbette, works for the union's health fund. The couple has been married for 19 years, following a courtship that began on a Washington, D.C., picket line at 5:30 on a winter morning.

She smiles at her husband's hard-nosed reputation, telling how the women at work, knowing his serious sweet tooth, ply him with flan and sweet potato pie, and how his girls keep Dad wrapped tightly around their pinkies. Taylor, seated off to a side, grins, then does something unexpected -- he giggles.

With all the sweet talk from candidates, Taylor is asked sometimes whether he has any interest in seeking political office himself. His response is the same: a smile, polite refusal. He is perfectly happy where he is.

As his wife puts it, "Not many people get to make a career out of something they believed in as a 22-year-old."

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mark.barabak@latimes.com

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