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November 28, 2014

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Neon Eden:

Hunger strikes and happiness ‘pickets’: Two very different Vegas demonstrations

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Gregan Wingert

You can hire Delivering Happiness to teach your organization about happiness as a management principle.

I received a press release recently that read, “A team of approximately 40 community volunteers and Downtown supporters will ‘invade’ Downtown Las Vegas on Friday, April 20 to perform a Random Act of Happiness.”

Hey, I lived in the Northwest, and it was—wink-wink, nod-nod—4/20 and I’m hip to it, so I decided to see what fun Downtown activists had cooked up.

I arrived at the Beat Coffeehouse to find “volunteers” making homemade signs like “This place rocks!” and “We Heart LV shops.” I learned that Delivering Happiness is the for-profit venture that has sprung out of Tony Hsieh’s book of the same name. For profit? You can hire them as consultants to teach your company—or nonprofit or whatever—about “happiness” as a management principle.

I think there’s a Simpsons episode in here somewhere.

Most of the employees, I was told, live in the Bay Area, which became evident when the happiness people boarded the Delivering Happiness bus and went to City Hall, only to learn that Las Vegas City Hall is closed Fridays because of the recession and resulting budget crisis.

They got back on the bus and went to the Smith Center, where they marched around with their signs in a “reverse picket,” which is a fun, happy picket with no real demands. This was supposed to contrast with most pickets, which are usually so negative, an organizer said. Demanding an end to the war in Iraq or the right to sit at the same lunch counter as white people? Sooo negative.

It was so pathetic that I was amused, but I was also a little angry. It was an insult to activists everywhere, including the Downtowners who have worked hard to transform Downtown.

A few days later, I went to an entirely different kind of demonstration, this one at Palace Station, where the Culinary Union was demonstrating against Station Casinos by way of a seven-day hunger strike by 12 Station workers and five others.

The union has been trying to organize the locals giant for years and accuses the company of interrogation, surveillance and the firing and disciplining of workers involved in the union drive. A federal administrative law judge agreed last year and forwarded the charges to a three-member panel of the National Labor Relations Board. The company continues to dispute the charges, which it says are merely technical and part of a campaign of “ongoing harassment” by the union.

I talked to Mike Wagner, Ignacio Martinez and Norma Flores, all Station workers who took a week of vacation to sleep in a tent and not eat.

What’s really at issue is whether the company will submit to an organizing process known as “card check.” This means if a majority of the workers sign a card saying they want a union, they get a union. That’s how the union organized most of the Strip and swelled its membership to more than 50,000 workers.

The company wants a secret ballot election. “There’s no fairer process than the one federal law allows for, to allow employees to decide in private whether they want to be represented by the union,” said Lori Nelson, a company spokeswoman. The organizing drive is solely about increasing union membership, and, thus, Culinary’s coffers, she added.

She called card check “a one-sided process in which members are coerced into signing a card in front of their peers and the Culinary Union.”

That seems reasonable, except that during the past few decades, companies have mastered the techniques of subtle and not-so-subtle intimidation prior to the elections, contributing to a collapse in private sector unions.

But I’m getting deep in the weeds here. Through an interpreter, Flores, a kitchen runner at the Fiesta Henderson, talked about life as a single mother of six. She said she pays $217 per month for health care for her and her family. On the Strip, Culinary members pay nothing. Similarly, unionized Strip room attendants make 30 percent more than their counterparts at hotels in other cities.

Even with the recession, Las Vegas has a thriving middle class, thanks in large part to the union, whose members make good wages, allowing them to buy shoes from Zappos.

The Delivering Happiness people should have visited the Culinary hunger strike. Isn’t justice a prerequisite of happiness?

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