Unions aren’t dead, but they’ll have to fight to stay alive.
That’s the view of the legendary labor activist Dolores Huerta, who appeared in Las Vegas last week to promote Dolores, a documentary about her life. Grammy-winning musician Carlos Santana is executive producer of the film, which debuts in September.
Huerta, 88, is best known for co-founding the National Farm Workers Association in 1962 alongside Cesar Chavez, and for organizing the Delano grape strike in California in 1965, which negotiated better conditions for workers.
Prospects today aren’t as hopeful. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, union membership has fallen from 20.1 percent of wage workers in 1983, the first time that data was collected, to 10.7 percent in 2017.
“The labor movement is in serious jeopardy in our country because of the laws being made to curtail labor,” Huerta says, pointing to the Supreme Court case Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. The case, to be decided this summer, would stop public unions from collecting fees from non-union members who benefit from union negotiations. The ruling is viewed as the biggest threat to organized labor in years, and could drastically reduce union funding and membership in the 22 states where the law applies.
Nevada is not one of those states; however, the Las Vegas-based Culinary Workers Union Local 226 could be preparing to strike. The 50,000-member union will hold a strike vote May 22 and the Thomas & Mack arena. If the measure is successful, a strike could take place as early as June 1, affecting as many as 34 Strip properties.
Huerta said she hadn’t been following the story, but wants the union to succeed. “It’s really good to know that the people that are waiting on you, that they have a decent wage, that they have a health plan, that they’re going to have a retirement plan when they stop working,” Huerta says. “Hopefully everyone is conscious of that, and I hope that if the workers do have to go on strike that the communities here will support them.”
Huerta says it’s imperative to elect pro-labor politicians if unions are to survive. “If we do not have labor unions, you do not have a middle class,” Huerta says. “If you do not have a middle class, you do not have a democracy. So, the threat of fascism in our United States is very, very real.”
Santana, who has a residency at the House of Blues at Mandalay Bay and now lives in Las Vegas, says he wanted to make the film because he’s always been inspired by activists, naming Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Huerta as a few.
“I grew up in San Francisco, ground-zero for consciousness revolution … Now I’m at a place where we call ourselves world change agents … It means that you recognize that no matter your profession, your vocation or your direction, you are here to uplift consciousness." And if Dolores has a say, unions could use a lift, too.