African-Americans Blaze Trails in Nevada’s Largest Union
Las Vegas’ Culinary union Local 226 was chartered in 1935, with an objective of giving workers in the hospitality industry a voice for collective bargaining and equal rights in the workplace.
It is the largest union in the state, with a sizable membership representing a diverse ethnic population. African-Americans in the state of Nevada, who once were denied fair and equal employment opportunities, have been instrumental in the establishment and growth of the Culinary union, which has helped protect them and others from unfair employment practices. The union is comprised of employees in the Nevada hospitality industry working in such positions as bell captains, food servers, cocktail waitresses, convention porters and housekeepers — just to name a few.
One of Las Vegas’ most influential African-American trailblazers helped establish and diversify the union. James “Jimmy” Arthur Gay III was the first black hotel executive, serving as director of communications at the Sands in the 1950s. Even when his longtime entertainment industry friends — figures such as Sammy Davis Jr., Nat King Cole and Billy Eckstein — were not allowed to stay in Las Vegas hotels, Gay’s executive title gave him added strength to challenge the discriminatory practices of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. He served at the executive level of the Culinary union for 21 years, fighting for equal rights and justice for all Nevada workers. In those efforts, he worked alongside black religious leaders and many of Nevada’s civil rights pioneers, including, but not limited to onetime equal rights commissioner Bob Bailey; Nevada’s first black physician, Dr. Charles I. West; Dr. James B. McMillan, Nevada’s first black dentist; attorney Charles Keller; Ruby Duncan; and Margie Elliott.
Their desire for meaningful change at casino properties began to be realized in the 1960s, after civil rights and religious leaders warned that commerce would be disrupted if they were forced to march down the Strip to protest unfair treatment of African-Americans.
Said Leain Vashon, the union’s vice president: “I am not the first African-American to be on the Culinary union’s executive board. One of the first union presidents was George Williams, and the first black woman president was Hattie Canty [elected in 1990]. There have been several other African-Americans to hold executive leadership positions in the past.
“The Culinary union 226 exists to help workers’ rights in the workplace.. Workers in nonunion hotels might be denied affordable health insurance — and after 20-years-plus tenure as an employee, are not afforded a pension once they leave their job. If you work 20 years for a company and helped it become prosperous, you should have something to show for it. We work hand-in-hand with the union hotel casino properties to ensure that employees have … health insurance, retirement plans and fair working conditions. The Culinary union 226 represents 65,000 working families in Nevada. It is a matter of money and power why some nonunion hotels fight against their employees becoming union members. Most employees want to be members of the union, [because] helps assure their working value and pay in the hospitality industry.” Vashon said.