As New Orleans officials prepare a new strategy to try to alleviate the city's longstanding problems of economic and racial inequity and lift more residents upward, some workers in its economic lifeblood, the tourism industry, are taking matters into their own hands.

Earlier this year, hundreds of workers at the Hilton New Orleans Riverside, the city's largest hotel, voted to unionize, a rare development locally that labor leaders think could give them a long-sought foothold in the city's mostly low-wage but critical hospitality industry, which employs nearly 80,000 workers.

The Hilton's roughly 500 unionized employees joined about 1,500 other workers whom Unite Here represents in the area, including at Harrah's Hotel and Casino, which joined in 2014.

The recent spate of activity, though still a small sliver of the industry's local numbers, marks a striking turn after decades during which unions made little headway at the city's hotels.

For many years, the city's lone unionized hotel was the Fairmont. In 2004, the Loews Hotel on Poydras Street became the second, but having two didn't last. The Fairmont, which closed after it was heavily damaged during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, reopened four years later as the Roosevelt, without a union.

Unite Here represents 270,000 apparel, hotel, casino and restaurant workers in the U.S. and Canada. Other local shops include Harrah's, Louis Armstrong International Airport and the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center.

Some big U.S. tourism cities, like Las Vegas and New York, have long had strong union presences, which supporters say have helped maintain solid wages and benefits and allowed more hospitality workers to live comfortably middle-class lives.

Although New Orleans hasn't traditionally had that mindset, local labor leaders and Hilton officials say discussions on the union's first contract with the hotel have gone smoothly, although they've dragged on for much of the year.

"I think both the workers and the company have a lot of the same goals, in terms of retaining staff and making these places good places to work, as well as providing good customer service," said Peter Tappeiner, a lead organizer for Unite Here.

For the Hilton, the new union presence could offer a tangible benefit beyond appeasing its staff. That's because some organizations that put on events or conferences are more apt to book their business at unionized hotels.

At a press conference last week, Unite Here credited that approach with recently steering $4.2 million in business to the Hilton. That includes the Louisiana Democratic Party's annual gala, held last week.

Attending the press conference, Paul Scott, the Hilton's general manager, didn't address the ongoing union negotiations, but he described hospitality workers as the "backbone" of the city's tourism industry.

Despite that often-heard claim, many workers in hotels, restaurants and bars say it's tough to cover their bills on their incomes.

In 2013, the federal poverty threshold for a family of four was $23,545 per year. But a 2015 report by the Data Center and the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program estimated that the same-size family would need to earn $44,491 annually in the New Orleans area to get by.

"Post-Katrina has pushed that a little bit, because the living situation is a whole lot more expensive," said David Negrotto, president of Teamsters Local 270, which represents about 4,000 workers in south Louisiana, including about 200 at Harrah's. "It's more expensive to live. We've got a lot of people moving in from outside, and it's making our economy different."

Some labor experts believe that a strong union presence could change that.

"If New Orleans had a larger labor presence, then a lot of the jobs that we now see are people scraping by would become middle-class jobs," said David Sherwyn, a professor at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration and academic director of the Cornell Institute for Hospitality Labor and Employment Relations.

Historically, the hospitality industry was not seen as a prime target of organized labor, he said. These days, though, it's viewed as the "holy grail," especially as U.S. manufacturing has declined in recent decades.

And in New Orleans, he said, "It makes so much sense, because it's a city where tourism stirs the drink."

Rebecca Waxman, who works as a barista at the Hilton's coffee shop, is a member of the committee that's brokering the union's initial contract.

When talk of unionizing began about two years ago, Waxman said, she and her colleagues discussed how they were struggling to keep up with daily expenses, like car payments or buying groceries.

"None of us had what we needed," said Waxman, who lives in Gentilly. "I work at the coffee shop, and it costs nearly $4 to get the smallest cup of coffee. When we think about what customers are paying and how much money the hotel is making, I started thinking about what it would look like if we actually were able to get a fair share of what the company is making."

Though she wouldn't discuss key proposals under negotiation, some issues focus on scheduling, like cutting down on how often workers have to work late one night and be back early the next morning, or arranging shifts to have consecutive days off.

Meanwhile, some groups are applauding the workers' move and showing support with their wallets.

"We all know that by these guys pulling together, they're going to see better wages, they're going to have a more fair working environment for them, and that to us is something that we feel is vital and rewarding, and that is why we're here" at the Hilton, said Louisiana Democratic Party Executive Director Stephen Handwerk.

Likewise, Netroots Nation plans to bring its annual conference for progressives to the hotel next summer. The event is expected to draw about 3,000 visitors to New Orleans, where they will also spend money in the city's stores, restaurants and bars.

"We have been wanting to come to New Orleans for 10 years. However, without a union hotel, it just wasn't possible," said Eric Thut, Netroots Nation's interim executive director, explaining that the Loews isn't large enough to host the event.

Given that state law restricts New Orleans and other Louisiana cities from setting a local minimum wage, at least one observer sees unionizing as "the best vehicle to raise wages in the city's largest industry."

"There's no question that strong unions would help lift wages and improve working conditions for hospitality workers in New Orleans," said Jan Moller, director of the Louisiana Budget Project, a left-of-center nonprofit in Baton Rouge. "And if you can get enough critical mass of union shops, then the benefits are going to filter down even to non-union shops."

New Orleans hosted 10.5 million visitors last year, its highest number since 2004 and up nearly 7 percent from 2015, according to a study by the University of New Orleans. Moller believes that tally — and the $7.4 billion those visitors spent — is a sign that a unionized hospitality industry could work here.

"The industry is large enough to support strong unions, and certainly the New Orleans brand is strong enough that people are going to continue coming here," he said. "The question is: How do we ensure that the workers who serve those tourists are fairly compensated?"

Stephen Perry, president and CEO of the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, did not return a phone call seeking comment on the union issue. 

Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.