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This is the first installment of our Women in Workforce series, an initiative to highlight and celebrate the historical contributions of women in...
This is the second installment of our Women in Workforce series, an initiative to highlight and celebrate the historical contributions of women in workforce development and labor rights.
Hattie Canty was a unionist, labor activist, and one of the greatest strike leaders in U.S. history. She was born in rural Alabama in 1933. Canty’s early life was marked by racism and poverty. Her father died when she was 18 months old, leaving her mother and grandmother to care for her and her three brothers. She wanted to go to college to become a teacher, but she lacked the money for tuition and worked as a cook in Mobile instead.
Shortly after high school, she married and had two children. When she and her husband divorced in the 1950s, she moved with her two young children to San Diego in search of better opportunities. Canty worked as a maid, supporting her young family as a single mother. Her experiences during this time set the stage for her career as an activist.
“When I couldn’t go in the front door of houses I cleaned, I saw immediately that civil rights issues were linked to union issues, and why Martin Luther King had given up his life while trying to help the garbage workers organize.”
She met her second husband, James Canty, in California and had eight more children. James was a construction worker, and in 1969 the family moved to Las Vegas to follow the building boom that was happening due to the growing hotel-casino industry. While Canty primarily stayed at home to care for her children, in 1972, she worked as a powder room attendant at the Thunderbird hotel, despite her husband’s lack of support and attempts to keep her home.
“If a woman worked, he felt, she was trying to be the man of the family and that would mean she didn’t need a man."
In 1975, Canty’s husband died suddenly of lung cancer, ironically leaving her as the sole provider for the eight remaining children she still had at home. She worked as a janitor and private maid for a time but needed better benefits and health insurance to adequately care for herself and her children.
In 1979, Canty began to work as a housekeeper and then as a uniform attendant at the Maxim Hotel and Casino. The hotel was unionized with the Las Vegas Culinary Workers Union Local 226 (part of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union), allowing her access to health benefits, a pension, and higher-than-average wages.
Canty became very involved with the union, and in 1984, she was elected to the executive board. Six years later, she was elected president. She was the union’s first woman president and was reelected twice, holding the position for nearly a decade. Canty was highly devoted to the union’s cause and was well known for her fiery leadership. She spent most of her days off holding a picket line with strikers and was instrumental in leading multiple successful and highly publicized strikes. One story claims that Canty bought and released a swarm of cockroaches into a hotel that the union was picketing. She also went to jail at least six times for union-related civil disobedience.
In 1991, shortly after being elected president, Canty led the Culinary Union in what would become the longest strike in American history. 550 workers at the Vegas Frontier Hotel went on strike to protest unfair wages and treatment. For six years, the union held the picket line 24 hours a day, seven days a week. No worker ever crossed the picket line. The hotel’s owner, Margaret Elardi, was finally forced to sell. It is estimated that she lost a billion dollars thanks to the ordeal. The Frontier’s new owner promised to provide back pay, honor the union contract, and restore jobs to the strikers.
“… when there’s a strike like that, you’re not just striking for the benefits from that hotel. But you are learning to take up for yourself. You are learning to defend your rights. You are not letting people just run over you or you’re taking anything they give you.”
In 1993, Canty helped found the Culinary Training Center (now the Culinary Academy of Las Vegas), an organization dedicated to helping people receive the training they needed to advance their careers in the hospitality industry. According to Hattie, 90% of the students who went through the program secured employment on the other side.
The Culinary Academy of Las Vegas still trains thousands of people every year. Their mission is “to reduce poverty and eliminate unemployment by providing vocational and job-readiness training to youth, adults, and displaced workers.”
Hattie Canty died in 2012 in Las Vegas at the age of 79, leaving behind a legacy of reform. Under her leadership, the Culinary Union almost tripled its membership. By the mid-90s and early 2000s, unionized hospitality workers in Vegas could make more than double what workers in other cities were making. They could also afford to live middle-class lifestyles, including buying a home and sending their children to college. Her efforts and impact serve as a reminder of the power that individuals have to make a difference in their communities.
Culinary Workers Union Local 226 Las Vegas, Nevada Photographs, 1950s-2006. PH-00382. Special Collections, University Libraries, University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Las Vegas, Nevada. http://n2t.net/ark:/62930/f16g7f