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Vegas union makes ’08 power play

Times Staff Writer

They have poured in by the thousands from across the United States, from Mexico, Russia, Ethiopia. They change sheets in hotels, flip pancakes for 3 a.m. buffets and carry highballs to the blackjack tables. To visitors, they are quickly forgotten.

Suddenly, many political analysts believe, these faceless low-wage workers are about to play a pivotal role in selecting the next Democratic nominee for president. The 60,000 maids, waiters and waitresses, cooks and other service workers are members of the Culinary Workers Union Local 226 -- in a state where organized labor still has clout -- and likely presidential candidates are already courting them.

The Democratic National Committee, looking for more diverse voices in choosing the party’s next presidential nominee, recently bumped Nevada to the front of its 2008 election calendar; its caucus is scheduled for Jan. 19, between the first contest, in Iowa, and New Hampshire’s fabled primary later that month.

To political oddsmakers, there are a number of potential beneficiaries, including the state Democratic Party; Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat who lobbied for the change; and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a potential presidential candidate who has a presence in the region and could use a strong showing in Nevada as a springboard for his campaign.

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But analysts say the most evident beneficiary is Local 226, whose humble, bustling headquarters is in a stretch of Las Vegas known as Naked City, which is otherwise home to cheap hotels full of strippers and down-and-outers, tattoo parlors and funky art galleries.

Unlike primaries, which typically involve large numbers of voters, caucuses are often intimate affairs in which a small slice of the electorate -- usually party activists -- participates, so much so that they have been criticized as ineffective gauges of public sentiment. They often become exercises in retail politics and old-fashioned organization.

For Nevada Democrats, labor is a leading force in political organization, and Local 226 is far and away the largest and most powerful labor union in Nevada -- nearly three times bigger than the second largest, the teacher’s union, which represents about 24,000 members.

In many other pockets of the country, the clout of organized labor has faded with plant closings and outsourcing. But labor has grown increasingly powerful in Nevada, particularly with the rise of the gambling, hotel and tourism industries in Las Vegas, which require a vast army of service-level employees.

As a result, Nevada boasts the largest percentage in the region of union members among its working population -- 13.8%, said Pilar Weiss, the union’s political director. That is also higher than the national average of 12.5%.

Local 226 has been credited in recent years with tipping the scales in several local elections. Now -- while it continues to focus on local issues, including a proposed minimum wage increase and a labor contract renegotiation -- the union is preparing to do the same thing on a national stage.

Union members vote in large numbers, are active in the Democratic Party and are organized by political supervisors renowned in Nevada for their research capability and their ability to route money into elections, said Jon Ralston, Nevada’s leading political commentator.

“We can be a very good ally,” D. Taylor, the union’s secretary-treasurer, said in his office on a recent morning. “And we can be a very bad foe. Working people are going to have a real place at the table.”

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Potential presidential candidates have already begun flocking to Nevada to meet with union members. Those meetings will culminate, late next year, with an endorsement. Once that happens, the union’s organizers are expected to flood their membership into the civic halls, school auditoriums and living rooms where the caucus results will be tabulated.

With a growing membership -- the union is expected to top 70,000 members before the election -- and so few others who take part in caucuses, “They can dominate,” Ralston said.

That newfound influence, said state Sen. Maggie Carlton, “is the way it should have been all along.”

The Las Vegas Democrat was first elected to the part-time Legislature in 1998, when she stunned the political community by ousting an incumbent after the union staged an aggressive campaign on her behalf. Carlton still works as a coffee shop waitress at the Treasure Island Hotel and Casino, where she earns about $11 an hour. She is still a member of the union.

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“We built this town,” she said. “And the next person who wants to be president of the United States is going to answer to us -- working-class folks.”

The union’s endorsement is expected to influence not only the caucus itself but the issues that candidates are forced to address on the campaign trail. Members are planning to grill candidates on issues that have a more immediate effect on their lives: the rising cost of college tuition, for example, and the state of workplace pensions.

“This is a city and a state where people work,” Weiss said. “We don’t have a Silicon Valley. People work hard here, and people will want them to talk about why it’s getting harder and harder to get ahead.”

Too often, Weiss said, national candidates restrict their discussion of labor to criticism of outsourcing -- because it has unencumbered appeal to the working class.

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“But that is completely irrelevant to the voters of Nevada,” Weiss said.

An example of an issue that is of greater relevance to the union’s members is the movement among some corporate executives to broaden the adoption of so-called “tip credit,” which allows companies to pay some workers less than the minimum wage, under the assumption that their tips will make up the difference. The recipient of the union’s endorsement probably will be expected to join the union’s efforts to block that movement.

“There will be IOUs, and they will be called,” said Fred Lokken, a professor of political science at Nevada’s Truckee Meadows Community College and one of the state’s leading political analysts. “This union can have a profound influence.”

scott.gold@latimes.com

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