LAS VEGAS, Nev. - Neon signs whirl and sparkle high above the street, while on the sidewalk, non-native English speakers gather in knots, handing out fliers for prostitutes. Television screens the size of Range Rovers flash the gyrations of rock stars as bumper-to-bumper traffic crawls by - even at 3 a.m. At the bottom of the boulevard, a downsized Statue of Liberty bares her armpit to the visitors who stroll the sidewalks.
This is the Strip: an adult Disneyland that has become the fastest-growing tourist economy in the West. The city boasts twice as many hotel rooms as New York City. It hosts more than 4,000 conventions a year.
At a time when cities across the nation are seeing a swiftly growing disparity between rich and poor, Las Vegas still retains the American dream. In fact, this city based on fantasy is also one where working people have a chance to climb into a burgeoning middle class. The fastest-growing city in the country - some 4,000 people move here every month - Las Vegas offers the promise of home ownership and a rising standard of living if you just work hard enough. Neighborhoods of pink and beige stucco houses with two-car garages spiral out beyond the Strip; last year alone, 21,216 new homes were built and sold.
"This is the last place in the United States where you can have no skills and make a middle-class wage," says Hal Rothman, a history professor at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas.
If tourism is Las Vegas' industry, then casinos, some with as many as 5,000 rooms, are its factories. And these "factory" workers aren't struggling to survive on minimum wage. In Las Vegas, a playground laughingly called "Lost Wages," a maid can make $14 an hour, buy a home and a car, and send her kids to college. Elsewhere in the West, service workers struggle to earn a living wage; they rent mobile homes and commute long distances.
Despite its atypical history and what some think is an unsavory present, could Las Vegas be a model for resort workers in towns like Sun Valley, Idaho, or Breckenridge, Colo.?
What can those workers learn from the place sometimes called Sin City?
Meet Peggy Pierce
Peggy Pierce talks with wit and dry humor about waiting tables. A tiny woman in her early 40s, her hair is the color of the decaf coffee she's drinking in an empty diner. Pierce moved to Las Vegas 11 years ago to take a gamble on a career as a lounge singer. It didn't pan out. But Pierce says that life is good: She owns her home, she has health care and a pension. As a waitress, she earns $9.35 an hour, plus tips. Her life, like that of most workers in Vegas, isn't glamorous; she has a cat, goes to the movies on Sunday afternoons, and volunteers for the Sierra Club. The stability of her life, she says, is due to her union card.
The Culinary Workers Union has organized 90 percent of the casino work force: that's waiters, cooks, bus boys, maids - virtually every type of casino worker except dealers. With strength in numbers over 50,000, members can demand good wages, job security, health care and pension plans.
"Why do I love my union? Because I know if I woke up tomorrow and the union was closed, by 10 a.m., I would be making minimum wage. It's that simple," says Pierce. Working as a banquet server at the Desert Inn, she makes $7 more than the just-over $2 an hour minimum wage for waitresses elsewhere in the country.
"The truth is, an individual up against a corporation gets squished like a bug. The only way not to get squished is to be in a union."
Pierce, who says she was raised to speak up about injustice, found union leaders among maids, cooks and porters who were willing to talk to their co-workers about the need for unity and handling grievances on the job.
"These workers are the union in that workplace," says Arnodo. "They are our backbone."
Although the union is stronger now than ever before, Arnodo is quick to say it will always struggle to survive. It needs constant organizing, he says; without that, the union would falter and with it the healthy standard of living it supports for service workers.
Alan Feldman, a spokesman for Mirage Resorts, a corporation that owns three casinos on the strip, including the recently built $2.1 billion Bellagio, agrees. In just one day, he says, the average casino on the Strip can make over $1 million. Sharing some of that pie with workers creates better business.
"The unions have brought professionalism and stability to the workforce," he adds. "The modern Culinary Workers Union has established a standard of service that has served everyone well."
The preamble to the contract Mirage Resorts holds with the union states that it will build a business that builds opportunities for workers. "We have crafted a partnership with the union on every level," says Feldman. "We plan our kitchens with the culinary union. We ask the cooks, 'How can we make your job easier?' " When Feldman talks about John Wilhelm, the president of the international Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union, he does so with obvious respect, and he says he wants to continue to work together as a team.
"There is no town yet that I know of where the streets are paved with gold, but there are great success stories left and right here," says Feldman. "Together, we're chipping away."
A union country?
Many workers in resort towns throughout the West resemble workers in Las Vegas. They have a high school education, perhaps, and are often immigrants. They are more likely to be fluent in Spanish, Russian or Polish than in English. They come to tourist towns like Vail, Colo., or Jackson, Wyo., for the same reasons that some move to Las Vegas - to make a better life for themselves and their families, and to work in the burgeoning service industry.
With these fundamental similarities, why haven't service-worker unions in Las Vegas translated to small tourist towns throughout the Intermountain West?
George Avila, a Spanish-English translator for Keystone Resort in Summit County, Colo., supplies one answer: "A union? I've never even thought about it." Avila moved to the United States from Aguas Calientes, Mexico, seven years ago to make money.
When Avila first arrived at Keystone, he washed dishes for $7.50 an hour. Since then, he has gotten visas for his parents and eight siblings, and now all work in nearby resort towns.
"The standard of living is much better here," he says. "It's hard in Mexico; you only make 30 pesos a day. That's equal to $3."
He says that even though the cost of living is high in Summit County - Avila pays $500 a month for a one-bedroom apartment in employee housing - he thinks Keystone Resort has reached out to its service workers: Health care is offered on a sliding scale, and affordable housing exists for workers who don't want to live in the dormitory buildings.
But many workers continue to struggle. Although their situation here is better than where they came from, it remains a far cry from the cars and the pink stucco houses owned by maids in Las Vegas. The majority of resort workers who don't have employee housing cram into trailer parks.
"Over 2,000 people from our mobile home park take the bus to work in Avon (the town where Beaver Creek Resort is located)," says Sister Annette Carrica, who at 70 has a clear gaze and a steady voice. Carrica lives in one of the 367 trailers clumped together in Edwards, Colo., a town 30 miles down the interstate from Beaver Creek and Vail Resorts. She moved here eight years ago as part of a Catholic effort to help the growing population of immigrants, and helps translate at the doctor's office and the courthouse (HCN, 4/17/95: The New West's servant economy).
"I asked the kids who come to see me for religious classes, and all of them told me they share their trailer with 10 or 12 other people. It's amazing. I cannot understand it; a lot of times four kids and the parents will all live in one room."
Carrica says that she has never heard anyone talk about a union. "You talk union around here and you're in trouble," she says. "I mean, people just don't talk about it."
Aldona Sobiecki, a Polish immigrant, has also never heard talk of a union. Sobiecki, who moved to Breckenridge, Colo., four years ago, opened a deli last November, where she sells Polish sausage and Eastern European crackers and condiments. As she chatters in Polish with two customers, she laughs with ease. Sobiecki says the situation here is much better than in Warsaw, where she used to live.
"The situation was bad," she says. "There was no future, no jobs, no food, and no housing. People have to live with their parents until they're old. To own a cow is a dream for people."
Sobiecki says that although she thinks some in the Polish community here in Breckenridge believe unions resemble communism too closely, she likes the idea.
"I would go to a union - I think it's a good interest," she says. "But there isn't one, so what can I do?"
Sobiecki shouldn't hold her breath, according to Kristy Price, who works for Summit County, where service industry employers fell 2,000 workers short this year. She doesn't think unions will be coming here any time soon.
"Unions usually grow out of unrest, but because the demand is so much greater than the supply, employers and the county are having to be responsive to workers' needs," says Price, who is working to establish a multicultural center. She says that in this county, where 11 different languages are spoken at the high school, there is a growing need to cater to a population that is here to stay. "We plan to offer homework help, immunizations, English as a Second Language classes and free medical clinics on certain nights," Price says.
But although employee-short businesses offer some benefits to workers, few maids in the West's ski towns make $14 an hour.
Jim Felton of Vail Resorts says it's just not practical.
"We have an obligation to our employees to be profitable, so that we can continue to have a viable business for them to work in," says Felton, who moved to Summit County to be a ski bum 16 years ago. In the face of the high cost of living in resort towns, even a decent wage can seem inadequate. Even he, a director at Breckenridge, cannot afford to live in town. He owns a house in Frisco, nine miles away. But he says wages are not a problem for workers because of the services his company provides.
"We subsidize housing, clothing, food, recreation, health care and child care," he says. "Workers have more leverage now than ever before. If I'm the employer of choice, providing better advancement opportunity, and if people are treated better here than someplace else, why would they think about building a union?"
But even if service worker unions were in demand, word throughout the West is that organizing workers in small rural communities is a completely different game of cards than in Las Vegas.
"Vegas is a template, but translations of that template are difficult," says Rothman. "People go to Montana and Wyoming to hunt and fish. It's hard to get there, and it's an individual experience. There is no other form of low-pay, high-scale business that's profitable in the West besides casinos."
Rothman adds that few companies turn a profit like Las Vegas casinos.
"The rental rates for retail space in Aspen are comparable to Fifth Avenue in New York," says Michael Kinsley, a former Pitkin County commissioner in Aspen, Colo., who now heads a sustainable economics program at the Rocky Mountain Institute. "Many places pay close to $25,000 in rent per month; you've got to sell a lot of T-shirts to make that work. These locally owned businesses are getting squeezed by greedy landlords and they don't have the money to pay union wages."
It is also a matter of history, says Duane Smith, a professor of Colorado and mining history. While Las Vegas has always struggled to be a union town, Colorado has been anti-union since the turn of the century, when a number of mining strikes failed, sometimes violently (see Bulletin Board on the Ludlow Massacre, page 8).
"No one remembers the history anymore, but the heritage has been passed on," says Smith, who has taught at Durango's Fort Lewis College for 36 years. "There's still a stigma against unions here."
In Jackson, Wyo., there's a different rationale.
Colleen Dubbe, the Jackson manager of the Wyoming Employment Resources, says she thinks it's hard to organize small businesses. Unlike Las Vegas, where one casino and hotel needs as many as 5,000 maids, Jackson businesses are small-scale and hire small numbers of workers.
She says because there is nothing raising the wage floor, service workers in Jackson work long hours in order to make enough money.
"We have a higher percentage than anywhere in the rest of the state of people working two jobs in order to support themselves," says Dubbe. Instead of trying to live in Jackson, she says many workers commute 70 miles from Afton, Wyo., or 32 miles over the pass from Driggs, Idaho.
There's still another barrier to unions, says Peter Ripson, county commissioner in Ketchum, Idaho: Many Sun Valley locals don't want working-class neighbors.
"They think they are inferior people, and that it would decrease the value of their homes," he says, which is one reason Ripson doubts that unions could ever set up shop. "People would go ballistic if there was a union here; it's just how anybody is in this town."
A matter of law
In Washington, D.C., Ken Paulsen has heard all these anti-union arguments before. The director of organization for the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union, which oversees unions such as the Culinary Workers Union in Las Vegas, Paulsen says federal law makes organizing tough in small towns.
"American labor laws are not designed to help workers in small resort communities," he says. The National Labor Relations Act exempts companies making less than $500,000 annually in gross sales from having to admit unions, he says, so many small restaurants and hotels are excluded from union organization.
The law also discourages a prompt union election; it enables employers to impose a 30- to 90-day probation period for its workers before a union campaign can start, and it also allows them to delay an election for as long as eight weeks. That means an election usually won't take place until the fifth or sixth month of a campaign. Paulsen says that in a seasonal economy, that bars a union effort.
"It is a long, long process to get the employer to the bargaining table, and people don't want to blow the whole work season if it's seasonal," he says. "Workers want the unions, but they don't want all the red tape associated with the process."
Paulsen, who has been organizing unions for 26 years, says the only way to bring unions to tourist economies in the West is to speed up the process and give workers more voice in negotiations. That means an overhaul of labor laws. And, he says, "I don't get the impression that it's a priority in the current political campaigns."
In the meantime, Paulsen says he can't justify the time and effort to organize workers in small towns like Vail, when urban tourist areas like New Orleans aren't union towns.
In Las Vegas, Arnodo agrees, but with this caveat: "We can't afford to exist only in Las Vegas. Name any city in the country - we need to be there."
Rebecca Clarren is an assistant editor at High Country News.
The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:
YOU CAN CONTACT ...
- Dave Parker, National Labor Relations Board, 1099 14th St. NW, Washington, DC 20570 (202/273-1991), www.nlrb.gov;
- Ken Paulsen, Hotel Employees/Restaurant Employees Union, 1219 28th St. NW, Washington, DC 20007 (202/393-4373), www.hereunion.org; firstname.lastname@example.org;
- Culinary Workers Local 226, 1630 S. Commerce St., Las Vegas, NV 89102 (702/385-2131);
- Kristy Price, planning coordinator, Summit County Multicultural Center, 970/668-4167, KristyP@co.summit.co.us.