LAS VEGAS – Despite the makeover that came with the new millennium, the Las Vegas Strip is still what it’s always been – a seedy place to spend a weekend and blow a lot of money. You can still smoke inside the casinos, but the drinks on the Strip are now meted out to you via the loyalty card you must insert into every machine, so that the computers whirring elsewhere unseen can calculate based on your wins and losses when’s the best time to comp you a drink.
Though offering shows, theme parks, and attractions geared towards youth, 65% of Las Vegas tourists are older than 40, and the average age is 48. Only 8% of visitors are under the age of 21. 16% of tourists are from abroad, but from what I saw, this consisted of mainly young British men out for a good time, fresh off a cheap Thomas Cook flight. They complain about the heat. They are stuck in a dream world of expectations. Elsewhere, later, drunks stumble down the streets at night and chain smokers huddle at blackjack tables until the early morning hours. You can lose the shirt off your back 24-hours a day.
The loud and flashing gambling floors in Las Vegas have been minor obsessions of Americana for many decades. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Casino, Leaving Las Vegas, and a number of other films are considered US cultural classics. There’s something about the sheer hucksterism, the futility of one’s visit, that continues to fascinate. But you know what you’re in for before you sit down at a table. You come here to get worked. No one said you would win here – read the fine print.
Labor is honest here. They are smiling and trying to make sure you have a good time. But this is a settlement in the middle of the desert. We’ve got the whole strip, one bartender tells me. If we walk, this entire city shuts down.
In a right-to-work state, the Strip enjoys almost total union density – 95%, according to Ken Liu of UNITE HERE Local 223. Downtown, the number drops to 76%. Outside of these two areas, the density drops to 2%.
While much of the country faces stagnating or falling wages, the average worker on the Strip makes $23 an hour.
Union leaders, organizers, researchers and rank and file gather on one hot Las Vegas night to celebrate the outcome of a secret ballot election at nearby Boulder Station Hotel and Casino. More than 570 employees will now be added to UNITE HERE Local 223 and 163’s membership rosters.
Vernisha Ward came from Los Angeles originally. She is a rank-and-file organizer, and works as a line cook at the airport, which is also unionized. When she transferred from LAX to McCarran airport in 2002, she saw her wages increase by $3 an hour and started receiving free health insurance. “I thought I seriously had some type of top-secret thing going on. I literally thought my pay rate was wrong.”
What makes Las Vegas so different from Los Angeles, or any other part of the country where people have lower wages?
“I think it’s the industry,” Vernisha says. “Basically, we’re needed. Pretty much. We make this city happen.”
She is correct. Forty-one million tourists visit Las Vegas every year. Casinos inside the Strip brought in $6.3 billion in 2015.
Vernisha and many of her colleagues, while catering to the needs of tourists, are afflicted by conditions such as arthritis, back and knee pain. She has conditions that require medical care because of her job as a cook. She shows me the scars and callouses on her hands. She is 37 years old, and feeding people has been her job for decades.
“It’s war. Because of this, I feel like I should deserve to be able to eat. I’m not asking to take over the world. I just wanna be able to provide.”
Vernisha says she believes the reason why union density has dropped in the US is because of companies going overseas. “The average businessman does not think of paying a high rate of pay, plus some insurance, plus a pension. They don’t think like that. So where you have states that have laws that help corporations to move and et cetera, that’s what breaks it down.”
What does she think of people who say they choose not to vote because they don’t believe that anyone represents them?
“I strongly believe that when an abundance of human beings get together, incredible things happen. We can move mountains, if we just get together. Those that feel that it’s a broken system, that they don’t want to be involved, I tell them that’s exactly what they want you to think. They don’t want you to use your power.”
She insists that people should keep casting their vote, even if they don’t feel like it’s getting them anywhere.
Looking out at the celebration, it’s easy to see how voting has won something in Las Vegas, for at least 570 workers at Boulder Station. This NLRB election has added to the 57,000 workers that UNITE HERE represents in Nevada. The members I speak with say that the reason why they have a strong union in a right to work state is because of strong organization and militancy, and that unions in other states can often lack these essential elements.
Yet, many union workers across the country are not allowed to strike because of “national security”. In a right to work state, unions are hamstrung as they are expected to represent workers who do not pay dues. In Las Vegas, you wouldn’t know it was a right to work state, as workers are proud of their leverage to shut down the Strip and cut into the $6.3 billion gamblers lose every year. Locals publish the names of “scabs” — members who refuse to pay dues but enjoy the benefits of a union job. There are geographical considerations. But rank and file organizers will be on point in the union hall. They are proud of their accomplishments. Their hard work has helped 570 people in the Las Vegas area gain union representation, and they will eventually receive free health insurance, a pension and a living wage.
At four in the morning, the bartender downtown – who makes an average of $21 an hour – is less optimistic. He doesn’t think it’s so simple. Maybe it’s the hour or the stale cigarette smoke hanging in the air. He has worked as a bartender for a long time. Originally from Pittsburgh, he moved out here to make better money after the mines closed.
“Steve Wynn owns this town. He’s trying to aim for a younger crowd, but they won’t even give you free coffee anymore.”
He speaks about the housing market, how it crashed here. Despite the 13,000 empty houses, there are at least 10,000 people without housing, leading to news stories worrying about squatters. Homeless people crowd the downtown area, asking passerby for food and money. Dozens dig through alley dumpsters on a Friday night.
“This country — this city was built on misery in a lot of ways. I’ve seen people pack up everything and have to just leave. We’re slaves. They do what they want with us.”
He slowly wipes down the bar. A coworker offers to take the rest of his shift so he can go home early. He’s been here for more than 20 years.