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UNLV Project Documents Culinary Union’s Frontier Strike

By Michael Yunkin on September 22, 2016 7:49 AM | Permalink

Culinary union image
In honor of the 25th anniversary of one of the longest modern day labor strikes in American history, the Culinary Workers Union, Local 226, and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas University Libraries are continuing work to preserve and document this important historical event.

On Sept. 21, 1991, 550 workers from five unions walked off their jobs at the Frontier Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada to protest unfair wages and treatment. The strike line was maintained 24/7 and not one striker ever crossed the line during that time. The Culinary Workers Union and four other locals - Bartenders 165, Teamsters 995, Operating Engineers 501, and Carpenters 1780 - organized the strike.

The Frontier Strike ended 6 years, 4 months, and 10 days later on Feb. 1, 1998, when Phil Ruffin bought the resort from Margaret Elardi and promised to restore the original workers to their jobs, honor union contracts, and provide back pay and benefits for the strikers. During the course of the stike, 17 strikers died and 107 children were born.

Today, this history lives on the UNLV University Libraries Special Collections. In 2015, the Culinary Workers Union formed a partnership with the UNLV University Libraries to preserve and provide access to more than 35 boxes containing approximately 40,000 photographs and film negatives.

“Before the Culinary Union donated these photographs, there was very little historical documentation about labor in Las Vegas since the 1960s,” said Michelle Light, director of Special Collections at the UNLV University LIbraries. “This collection fills in a major gap in the historical record about organized labor in our region and provides a great deal of evidence about the Frontier Strike and the union’s other activities. Once accessible online, this photograph collection will be a great resource to the public and for educational research.”

The visual archive documents a variety of activities, including demonstrations from the mid-1980s to the mid-2000s and other public events dating back to the 1960s. The majority of the photographs depict the 6.5-year strike against the Frontier Hotel and Casino.

“The Frontier Strike was a major victory for working men and women in Nevada,” said Geoconda Arguello-Kline, secretary-treasurer for the Culinary Union, who was a lead organizer during the historic strike. “I will never forget the courageous strikers - who with blood, sweat, and tears - sacrificed and maintained that picket line every day.”

Library faculty, assisted by UNLV students, have organized, rehoused, and described the photographs, and are now digitizing the entire collection for public access on the web. 

“The wealth of images that document the union’s history are really most valuable as a whole,” said Emily Lapworth, digital special collections librarian, who is supervising the team of students digitizing the archive. “We are using new rapid capture equipment to get this collection online must faster and more efficiently than ever before.”

Founded in 1935, the Culinary Union is one of the most recognizable labor organizations in the country.

“I’m so incredibly proud to see 81 years of Culinary Union history preserved and archived,” said Bethany Khan, director of communications and digital strategy for the Culinary Union, who curated and facilitated donation of the collection to UNLV. “It has been exciting to see thousands of photographs of workers fighting for fair wages, job security, and good health benefits throughout the years digitized and available online.”

Two UNLV student employees have already digitized 25 percent of the collection, or more than 9,000 images.

“Prior to working on this project, I had not learned about the Frontier Strikes,” said Cindi Mercado-Rosas, one of the students. “Being able to work with these historical photographs has given me a personal insight into the dedication it took to fight for employee rights.”

The digitization project is funded by private donations. The UNLV University Libraries is raising funds to finish the project and make the images available online. For more information on how to contribute to the project, contact Anne Hodge, director of development for the UNLV University Libraries at anne.hodge@unlv.edu or 702-895-2239.