Hattie Canty rose from an Alabama girl to a maid to an African-American labor activist. She was the maid who fought back, the maid who eventually ensured that Las Vegas workers in the hospitality business made a living wage.
Hattie Canty was born in 1934 in St. Stephens, Alabama. She graduated high school and married. They divorced. A single mother with two children, she moved to San Diego and took a job as a cook, then as a private maid.
She remarried in 1961, moved to Las Vegas, and had eight more children. Her husband worked for Silver State Disposal. She stayed home to care for her ten children. By 1972 she returned to work, this time at the Thunderbird Hotel.
Her husband died of lung cancer in 1975. And then she was a single mother again, this time with eight children still at home. She worked as a janitor, a maid, and then in 1979 got a job as a maid at Maxim Casino. In 1987, she earned a promotion to the better paying job of a uniformed attendant.
She joined the Culinary Workers Union 226, an affiliate of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union. The union helped her get health benefits and a pension. And she learned to fight for her rights. After she discovered that six hotels didn’t have union representation she became more active. She walked picket lines on her days off. And she refused to take a scab to work, even if he was her son’s friend.
In 1984 they elected her to the executive board. That year, Local 226 staged a 75 day walkout on Las Vegas Casinos. They wanted better insurance for culinary workers… and they got it. Union organizers and members noticed Canty’s dedication and leadership skills.
They elected Canty union president in 1990. Canty helped dissolve racial animosities in the ethnically diverse union and convinced members that solidarity in the labor organization could bring about tangible gains. She headed the union when 550 culinary workers walked off the job at the staunchly anti-union Frontier casino in 1991. The protest against unfair labor practices by the casino’s owners became the longest labor strike in American history. It ended six and a half years later when the Frontier’s new owners settled with the union.
She was re-elected president of the union in 1993 and 1996 by landslides. Canty sought living wages for employees so they could support themselves and their families. She worked to integrate the union and get minorities into higher level jobs. And she went to jail at least six times while striking.
“…coming from Alabama, this seemed like the civil rights struggle… the labor movement and the civil rights movement, you cannot separate the two of them.”Hattie Canty
In 1983, she established the Culinary Training Academy in 1993. It continues to teach the skills needed to work in the hospitality industry.
Hattie Canty died in Las Vegas in 2012. Her legacy includes thousands of people of color who can make a living wage and send their children to college. She was proudest of the Culinary Training Academy, which still trains workers today.
She Fought Back
Hattie Canty was the maid who fought back against unfair labor practices. She fought for her rights, for minority rights, for hospitality workers’ rights. Despite her lack of education, despite racial prejudices, despite hardships—she made a difference. She was a strong woman. Had you heard of Hattie Canty before?