A labor leader’s powerful legacy

Jim Arnold didn’t spend billions of dollars to build massive hotel-casinos along the Strip.

But the labor leader played an important role in the development and unprecedented growth of Las Vegas over the past three decades, just as much as any gaming titan.

Arnold, who died Sept. 27, oversaw Culinary Local 226 between 1987 and 2002, assuming the union’s leadership when the organization had just 18,000 members and was sagging in both respect and confidence.

By the time he stepped away for health reasons in April, the Culinary had more than 50,000 members. As new resorts opened, their hotel and restaurant workers became union members, ensuring that thousands of employees would have decent wages and proper health and welfare benefits.

The list is long: The Mirage, Excalibur, Treasure Island, Paris Las Vegas, Mandalay Bay, Bellagio, Luxor and others became union resorts during Arnold’s tenure.

In 1993, the MGM Grand opened as a nonunion hotel-casino. But Arnold’s leadership and resolve changed that.

His only loss during those 15 years was at The Venetian, where management paid salary and benefits far above union scale to keep the labor organization on the sidelines.

Arnold also led the union during a short strike at the Horseshoe, and in the six-and-a-half-year strike at the New Frontier, one of the longest labor disputes in U.S. history.

“Absolutely, he belongs among the individuals that helped transform Las Vegas,” said David G. Schwartz, director of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas’ Center for Gaming Research. “He laid the foundation for the union’s growth to where it is today. He’s one of those unsung, important leaders.”

Something tells me Arnold would be little embarrassed by such accolades.

Arnold and I met in 1987 when he ran for secretary-treasurer. The Culinary election was one of my first assignments after joining the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Arnold was a quiet and unassuming former Culinary business agent who had spent two years as labor’s representative on the board of a now-defunct state agency.

He grew tired of watching the Culinary lose membership and prestige. Following a divisive Strip hotel strike in 1984, the union’s influence waned. Members at several properties decertified the organization.

“I want the membership to take pride in their union,” Arnold said at the time.

After defeating the Culinary leadership’s handpicked successor and two other candidates, Arnold immediately set about repairing the union.

“Jim knew things had to change,” his former wife, Audrey Arnold, recalled last week. “His goal was to help the union members. There was such a terrible divide and he just wanted to make sure the workers were getting good benefits and wages.”

When he stepped down in 2002, he said the highlight of his tenure was giving control of the union back to its members.

Arnold was proud that he followed in the footsteps of his father, James Arnold, former head of the Southern Nevada Central Labor Council and Building and Construction Trades Council.

During that 1987 campaign, the senior Arnold stayed in the background. After his son was elected, he couldn’t contain his pride. I interviewed father and son one afternoon on the backyard patio of Jim Arnold’s suburban Las Vegas home.

“I didn’t push him to run, but I’m quite happy he chose to,” the elder Arnold said.

Every time I saw Jim Arnold over the years, he reminded me of that interview. He enjoyed being able to share a personal accomplishment with his father.

Jim Arnold’s son, James “J.A.” Arnold, didn’t follow his father and grandfather into the labor movement. But growing up, he gained an appreciation for his father’s accomplishments. As a teenager, he spent several Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays in the 1990s on the Culinary picket line at the New Frontier, serving meals to strikers and their families.

He also remembers when his father was arrested at the start of the strike, and the pride his father felt when the New Frontier changed ownership, ending the protracted walkout.

“You could tell he was happy with what he accomplished, but my dad wasn’t one to pat himself on the back,” the younger Arnold said.

In his final years, Arnold spent time restoring old cars, often winning prizes at automobile shows.

Even in retirement, Jim Arnold was still repairing things.

Howard Stutz’s Inside Gaming column appears Sundays. He can be reached at hstutz@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3871. He blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/stutz. Follow @howardstutz on Twitter.

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