LAS VEGAS -- Geocanda Arguello-Kline arrived in Miami in 1979 at the age of 24 as a political refugee from Nicaragua looking to escape the war-torn Central American country's revolution.
She had a small child and few job prospects.
Fast-forward to today and Arguello-Kline, who drove trucks in South Florida and made beds in downtown Las Vegas hotels, is now one of Nevada's top organized labor officials.
Earlier this month she was elected the leader of Culinary Workers Local 226, the state's largest union.
Arguello-Kline spent seven years as a hotel housekeeper at the Fremont Street hotel-casino originally known as the Sundance. (The property was renamed Fitzgeralds and is now known as The D Las Vegas). She has spent the past 22 years in union leadership roles.
But she doesn't see herself as a trailblazer, even though her election shattered most of the Culinary's glass ceilings.
"I think my position reflects more on the members (of the union) not me," said Arguello-Kline, 57. "I know what it is like to work in the (casino) industry. I'm proud I come from the industry."
Arguello-Kline is the first woman to become secretary-treasurer of Culinary 226, replacing D. Taylor, who resigned at the end of November when he was elected president of UNITE HERE, the Culinary's New York-based parent international organization.
Secretary-treasurer is the top elected role in the Culinary's hierarchy. She had served as the union's president since 2002. Her term runs through 2014.
Arguello-Kline is also the first Hispanic to lead the union, where a majority of the labor organization's 60,000 hotel workers and restaurant employees are minorities.
"We represent people from 84 different countries," said Arguello-Kline, who became a naturalized U.S. citizen in the early 1990s. "That makes us stronger. That's what we are."
The Culinary is facing challenges on several fronts in the new year.
Contracts with downtown casinos, where economic portions of the union agreements were reopened earlier this year, have not been resolved.
Meanwhile, citywide contracts expire June 1 at hotel-casinos where the union has agreements, except for the two Wynn Resorts' properties, where the deals are in place through 2015.
Also, the Culinary has no plans to let up on its campaign to organize a large portion of workers at the Station Casinos properties.
"We are committed to all these efforts," Arguello-Kline said. "The contract negotiations are important."
She will have help when contract talks reopen with the gaming industry. Taylor will lead the discussions but Arguello-Kline will be next to him on the negotiating committee.
Having Taylor at her side gives her some comfort.
"I worked with D. for 22 years," Arguello-Kline said. "He's an incredible leader."
Arguello-Kline left Managua, Nicaragua, for Miami as her home country grew less safe. She spent four years in South Florida before he brother convinced her to come to Las Vegas because it offered a better working environment.
Arguello-Kline was employed as a guest room attendant when the Fitzgeralds' then-ownership got into a contract dispute with the union. She was asked to become part of the leadership committee.
After the contract issues were resolved, union leaders asked her to move over to the labor organization's headquarters as an organizer.
With Spanish as her primary language, Arguello-Kline built ties with the growing union membership.
"Our members understand the importance of having decent wages and good benefits, such a health care and a pension," Arguello-Kline said.
Her language skills also helped her on the picket line at the New Frontier on the Strip, where she helped lead one of the longest strikes in U.S. labor history - six years, four months and 10 days. Her picket line shift lasted from noon to 6 p.m. during that time.
"Not one striker crossed the picket line," Arguello-Kline said. "It made us stronger."
Since coming to the U.S., Arguello-Kline has ventured back to Nicaragua once, but that was almost two decades ago.
Her husband works for UNITE HERE as a director in the gaming division and her children are grown.
"This is my country now and this is my home," Arguello-Kline said. "I love this country."
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