Head of the 22,000 member Local 226 Culinary Union and the Nevada president of the AFL-CIO,
Al Bramlet was a symptom of a Nevada ailment: Labor unions and those who control them can become a necessary evil in an economy dominated by a single industry.
The young couple were hiking and looking for rocks. The morning was cool and there was a slight breeze. It was a great day for amateur geology, or rock hounding, as they liked to call it. They had just walked a short distance off a dirt road near the 5400 foot summit of Spring Mountain, when they spotted a strange formation in a shallow wash. The wash had been blocked at one point by a pile of rocks and weeds. Upon closer examination, and to their horror, beneath the layer of debris, the couple could distinguish the outline of a body...human. Shocked and repulsed, they ran back to their car and raced to the nearest phone to call the police.
When Sgt. Fred Anderson of homicide and his team arrived on the site, it took the investigators more than five hours to uncover the remains. That was Thursday, March 17, 1977. It didn’t take long to identify the bullet-riddled corpse that had been shot execution-style. Authorities had been searching the desert area a week for the body. Positive identification was made from fingerprints they had on file.
Al Bramlet, 60 years of age, was dead. Bramlet was the head of the 22,000 member Local 226 Culinary Union and the Nevada president of the AFL-CIO. He had vanished nearly three weeks before, after returning from a business trip to Reno. Al Bramlet’s car was still parked at McCarran Airport when the police began looking for the organizer of Culinary Workers.
Restaurant and hotel workers were first organized in the 1890’s, but unions did not become powerful until President Franklin Roosevelt signed laws in place that increased the bargaining power of unskilled workers, allowing them to join forces with craftspeople, such as chefs. The National Labor Relations Act, aka the Wagner Act in 1935, guaranteed them the right to strike.
Al Bramlet was born on an Arkansas farm around 1917 (the exact date is uncertain). At the age of fourteen, he went to work as a dishwasher in Joliet, Illinois. After a hitch in the Navy during World War II, he was discharged in Los Angeles and found work as a bartender. Al later became a business agent for a bartenders local union. By 1946, he was sent to Las Vegas, to help Culinary Workers Local 226. Eight years later, in 1954, the hardworking Al Bramlet became the local’s secretary-treasurer.
When 1963 rolled around, Bramlet had brought more than 8,000 workers into the local. The Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist, Jude Wanniski, estimated the city was “98 percent organized”, despite a state right-to-work law, and noted that Bramlet had been able to negotiate a steady increase in wage scale and benefits. Irwin Molasky, a co-founder of Sunrise Hospital, recalled that by the early 1960’s, Bramlet had a deal with the hospital to provide medical care to all the Vegas Culinary employees.
There is another, little understood force contributing to the allure of Las Vegas, a force often viewed as the casino industry’s archenemy…and that developed into the Culinary Local 226, otherwise known as “the Culinary.” It became the city’s largest labor union, an unusually successful union that did a spectacular job of catapulting thousands of dishwashers, hotel maids and other unskilled workers into higher levels of income. In many cities, these workers live near the poverty line. But thanks in large part to the Culinary, in Vegas they often own homes and have a Rolls-Royce health coverage plan, a solid pension, and three weeks of vacation a year. In Sin City, working couples from the culinary trades entered the middle class with never before dreamed of disposable income and the ability to send their children to college.
After taking charge in the early 50’s, Al Bramlet had built the Culinary Union from a small local with 1,500 members into a powerhouse of 22,000 members. Twice he was named “Las Vegas Man of the Year”. Some union members, on the other hand, were beginning to kick, because Al Bramlet was hogging all the power. A handful of political consultants complained that people just weren’t being treated fairly. Only a few people ran the Culinary, and there weren’t that many captain’s jobs, only a few good cocktail jobs where they could make great tips, and only a select group of people could get those jobs. Nevertheless efforts to replace Al Bramlet failed.
Even though Bramlet was proud of getting most of his contracts with few work stoppages, twelve downtown hotels in 1967 were closed for six days before reaching a contract. In 1970, Local 226 and Bartenders Local 165 struck the International (now the Las Vegas Hilton), the Desert Inn and Caesars Palace. Management then locked out the unions at 13 other hotels. Bramlet afterward told a reporter, “It was a showdown situation. It had come to the point that management would no longer bargain, because they didn’t think we would go out.” The walkout brought wage and benefit increases up by 31.5 percent over three years for 13,000 to 14,000 workers.
Another walkout came about in 1976, striking 15 resorts for 15 days. The strike paralyzed the Strip and shut it down. It occurred shortly after the Culinary joined Musicians Local 369 and Stagehands Local 720. Their key issue was a management demand for a no-strike, no-lockout clause. It was replaced with a clause that required members to ignore picket lines of other unions. Management had feared that Bramlet would use his Culinary Union influence to organize the dealers in the casinos.
Some newspapers published editorials that claimed that labor, and particularly the Culinary Union, ran the state government. Ralph Denton, an active member in the Democrat Party and a congressional nominee, said Bramlet was not a political kingmaker, because “Bramlet turned off as many people as he impressed. He was embarrassing for me when I ran for governor. He essentially put out orders that people had to vote how he told them. Well, of course people resented that, and I even resented him telling them that, because I knew it would hurt me more than it helped.”
On the contrary, Bramlet was part of the power elite of Las Vegas. He knew practically everybody…he was part of the “group.” He was a guy who loved a joke, mixed well at any affair, and was seen at all the charity events. When the City of Hope, a Comprehensive Cancer Center, chose Al Bramlet to be honored at its annual banquet, the sponsoring committee consisted of hotel executives. That same year, Bramlet’s union and the hotels reached a contract agreement without a strike.
Al Bramlet was a walking conflict of interests. He owned or had interests in private businesses that served the same industry that employed his members. A cleaning company got contracts to clean casinos and an interior furnishings company sold furniture to shops in Strip resorts. These cozy arrangements weren’t illegal, if disclosed to the National Labor Relations Board. Nevertheless, they resembled the practices of many Southern Nevada public officials of his time. One editorial of the day alleged that Bramlet had become a millionaire by way of his private interests. However, quite the opposite was discovered after his death. His estate was officially estimated at $300,000, with heavy claims by creditors against the amount.
Before his death, Bramlet was being sued by a group of bell captains, who claimed that he had negotiated away their traditional rights of arranging certain services for hotel guests, such as show reservations, and set up a company which provided the same services.
The Vegas Organizer was known to play rough. Hershel Leverton, the owner of the Alpine Village Restaurant, claimed that Bramlet showed up at his bar just before opening time in 1958. “Bramlet came in out-of-the-blue and said we had 15 minutes to join or he’d put me out of business. “Take your best shot,” I told him, and 15 minutes later, 20 pickets started marching, and never stopped, continuing for nearly the next 20 years (through Bramlet’s death). It was December of 1975 when two bombs were planted on the restaurant roof and went off about 30 seconds apart. It happened at 9 P.M. on a busy Saturday, endangering more than 400 patrons, employees and passersby. At about the same time as the 1976 strike, a few independent restaurants tried to decertify the Culinary Union. Firebombs were planted at the same restaurants, exploding, as before, while diners were inside. Bramlet denied any union involvement in what turned out to be his last interview.
An investigation in the mid-1980’s by the President’s Commission on Organized Crime discovered that infiltration of Chicago-area local unions had begun in the era and organization of Al Capone. As time went on, Capone’s heirs continued to wield power in the locals. The President’s Commission received testimony that Tony Accardo (Chicago crime boss and heir apparent to Al Capone and Frank Nitti) personally picked Ed Hanley as the international union’s president.
The Culinary of Vegas was part of that top down run organization. Bramlet was cherished by the parent union for his successes. The contracts he negotiated were used as models throughout the country. But he was also resented for his independence. One of Hanley’s major goals was centralizing local health and welfare funds, under the control of the international. Such mergers were legal, but had often led to abuses in various unions. Bramlet was determined to keep the funds in Las Vegas.
The restaurant and casino bombings occurred during years when the Chicago mob was trying to claim a larger share of Las Vegas. After Al Bramlet’s death, one of the men convicted of murdering him testified, that in 1976, a thug known to work for mob enforcer Tony “The Ant” Spilotro, told Bramlet he would be killed, if necessary, and made their point by knocking him off a barstool and stomping on him. In those days in Vegas, there were two well-known hit men by the names Gramby Hanley and his father, Thomas Hanley (unrelated to Chicago’s Ed Hanley). The Las Vegas Hanleys were contract bomb planters and arsonists, and according to Gramby, Bramlet became their best customer. On the morning of Jan. 12, 1976, a bomb blew up a non-union gourmet restaurant, David’s Place, located on West Charleston Boulevard near Rancho Drive. Two other restaurants involved in labor disputes with the union were also targeted on the same night, a year later, with the discovery of sophisticated booby-trap bombs placed in autos outside the Village Pub on Koval Lane and at the Starboard Tack restaurant on Atlantic Avenue. Both failed to detonate.
According to later testimony by Gramby Hanley, Al Bramlet balked at paying for bombs that didn’t go off.
Word was out for a couple of months, that father and son Hanleys were stewing quite indiscreetly over the injustice of Bramlet’s nonpayment. Even the police knew, forewarning Bramlet that Tom Hanley, “was out to get him,” Bramlet told his wife. She testified that it was the next evening that he got a phone call from one of the Hanleys and agreed to meet him two days later at the union hall and pay him. The drastic change in plans occurred on Feb. 24, 1976. The Hanleys and associate, Eugene Vaughan, waited for Bramlet in the parking lot of McCarran Airport. Bramlet had a permit to carry a .357 magnum caliber revolver, but federal laws and the airport metal detectors meant he would be unarmed upon arrival after a business trip to Reno. As Bramlet walked toward his car, Vaughan later testified, Gramby pointed a pistol at him and ordered, “Get in the van or I’ll kill you right here.” They took a ride into the desert after handcuffing and gagging Bramlet with duct tape. Tom assured Bramlet that he wouldn’t be murdered, but told him, “You’ve got to come up with some money or we’re all going to prison.” The group took a side trip to a pay telephone and Bramlet called Sid Wyman of the Dunes Hotel and asked that $10,000 in cash be delivered to the downtown Binion’s Horseshoe Club. It wasn’t until much later that it was learned that nobody showed up to claim the money. Heading back into the desert, thirty miles outside Vegas, the car stopped and they all got out. Tom Hanley said, “Hey, Al.” Bramlet turned and Tom Hanley shot him. Vaughan said that he was shot six times in all, including once in each ear. Gramby Hanley said years later that he had not expected Bramlet would be killed after cooperating. “Mr. Bramlet had as much right to live as anyone else. But I wasn’t about to get shot over him, with my dad and Vaughan both drunk and armed.” Bramlet’s body was stripped of clothes and buried under a pile of rocks. The Bramlet murder proved to be the Hanleys’ undoing. After a nationwide manhunt, the father-son duo was arrested in Phoenix. Seeking evidence, police tricked Wendy Mazaros (Tom Hanley’s common law wife and author of the book “Vegas Ragdoll” from SLV’s “Mob series”) into leading them to a stash of jewelry taken from Bramlet after he was killed.
Vaughan told the story to a woman friend, and eventually police learned of it. Gramby and Tom Hanley pleaded guilty and got life sentences without parole, while Vaughan got less, in return for his cooperation. Tom Hanley died after serving one year in prison, while Gramby lingered behind bars for two decades. Ben Schmoutey, a rumored associate of Tony “The Ant” Spilotro, took over as General Secretary of the union in a fraudulent election.
The Men Who Made Las Vegas is a series by Byron Craft chronicling the growth of Sin City and the men who made it possible.