Sunday, February 10, 2008

Las Vegas: Part One

I flew into Las Vegas on Friday morning and Cesar, Karla and Sam greeting me with flowers at the airport. Cesar is the lead organizer for OPEIU whom I met at the training in Santa Fe. Sam and Karla are shop stewards for the OPEIU taxi workers in Las Vegas who are taking a leave to work as organizers for their union. As we drove to the office the group give me the low-down. There are seventeen taxi companies in Las Vegas. Unlike in New York, the Transit Authority (the government body that regulates the taxis) only issues medallions to taxi companies and not individual drivers. There are seventeen cab companies in Las Vegas. OPEIU represents the drivers at five large companies; the Steelworkers represent the drivers and four large companies. The remaining eight small companies are unorganized. About two years ago OPEIU and USW formed a partnership called the Alliance for Taxi and Limousine Drivers. The two unions organizer independently but coordinate on industry-wide issues.

Unfortunately, Nevada is a Right-to-work state so not all workers at an organized employer have to join the union. This makes collective action especially challenging. At OPEIU's largest company, Yellow Checker Star, about a thousand drivers are in the union and six hundred are not. Caesar was recently given ninety days to sign-up one hundred and fifty new members at YCS so he brought on Sam and Karla to launch an internal organizing campaign. The union is currently in contract negotiations with YCS so it is important that the workers build as much support among themselves as possible. The organizers have been struggling to sign up new drivers because many don't see the union as a source of power in the face of the Transit Authority. About a year and a half ago the TA began authorizing a flood of new medallions so that there is an excess supply of drivers on the road. Many drivers who used to earn a decent living from the job are now struggling to make ends meet. The workers are trying to bargain a contract with YCS but at the same time a fighting among themselves to create a strong union.

Our task for the day was to sign-up new members at Yellow Checker Star and also get the contact information of drivers who are interesting in participating in an action for a better contract. Organizers are not allowed on company property so we opened up shop outside of the parking lot where the employer keeps the taxis. We sent up a table and stopped drivers as they were pulling in and out of the lot. Karla, Sam and I must have stopped three hundred cars over the course of the day. We were able to sign up a few and compiled a long list of contacts but we still spoke to so many drivers who were angry with the union and angry with the TA.

My day in the field with the organizers reminded me a lot of working at NYHTC. Like hotel workers, cab drivers come from all over the world. Management too takes advantage of cultural divisions as uses it to divide the workers. The cab drivers shared a lot of the same frustrations as the workers at Local 6, just as the staff here face a lot of the same challenges as the staff in New York. Cesar ended up offering me a job with the Alliance. I kindly declined but would recommended this challenging yet exciting position to anyone out there who is looking.

I was exhausted from yacking on my feet by the end of the day, though it was an eye opening opportunity. I really value learning from the different organizing experiences out there.

Cesar, Karla, Sam at Alliance office; Sam with my sign from the airport

Stopping cabs as the leave the lot

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