Picket lines for progress: Exhibit tells the story of the Culinary Union

The Culinary Union exhibit in the Lied Library spans all the way down a hallway at UNLV on Tuesday, December 9, 2014.
Photo: L.E. Baskow

A picket line in front of the Desert Inn in 1970, just one image from UNLV Lied Library's Line in the Sand exhibit chronicling the Culinary Union's history.

By the time Alabama-born Maxim Hotel maid Hattie Canty was elected president of the Culinary Union Local 226 in 1990, she’d long been a key union member, organizing at work and fighting to lessen economic disparity in Southern Nevada. That a black woman would lead the largest union during the ’90s resort boom and the infamous Frontier strike served as a sharp contrast to the demography of corporate management, and signaled a new era in the racially tense labor industry.

In a 2000 interview with Claytee White, director of UNLV’s Oral History Research Center, Canty discussed her inability to mentally separate the civil rights movement from the labor movement. “Anytime I fight for anything in this labor movement, it benefits me in the civil rights movement,” she said, later explaining the then-racial discrepancy in well-paying jobs and how the Culinary Training Center could help level the playing field.

Culinary Union Exhibit in Lied Library at UNLV

At UNLV’s Lied Library, the legacies of Canty and others tell the story of the ongoing and often contentious give-and-take between labor and casino bosses—a relationship dating back 80 years, further inflamed when the industry became corporate. The exhibit Line in the Sand: The People, Power and Progress of the Culinary Union is about the backbone, literally, of the tourist industry (there are 55,000 Culinary Union members today). Amid photographs, stories and memorabilia—including a 1970 image of the Desert Inn picket line and items from the six-year Frontier strike—is an emphasis on the multicultural/multiracial makeup of labor here, highlighting immigration issues and the fight for equality for African Americans, women and the LGBT community.

The project began when graduate students in UNLV’s Public History program catalogued the union’s collection of evocative buttons, T-shirts and signs from past conflicts. The exhibit, curated by Hannah Robinson, pushes into the present, addressing the current conflict between Station Casinos and its workers. It’s a compelling glimpse into the reality behind the lights of Las Vegas and the labor disputes that made history here, and continue to.

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