Unlikely reformer: Can sinful Las Vegas help change the West?

  • Union maid: Rallying for good jobs

    Kit Miller

The way people gamble, it's no wonder casino owners in Las Vegas build thousands of new hotel rooms a year. Take the man next to me at the roulette wheel in a run-down casino whose three-story marquee announced, "Where the locals play." He was betting his Social Security check on a system based on his Society Security number.

His was a lousy system - impersonal, almost bureaucratic - and he was quickly cleaned out. I was betting on my son's football jerseys: one chip on his high school number, 20, and five chips on his college number: 33. Even though he was only a wide receiver in college compared with a halfback in high school, I figured that whatever the position, a college number had more juice than a high school number.

I was right. After 25 losses, number 33 hit; I recouped my losses plus a few bucks more. I'd expected a jolt; but winning was as boring as losing. The fun was talking to the croupier about old-timers whose spin control let them hit a "sector ' - a cluster of adjacent numbers on the wheel. And I liked meeting another retiree, Mrs. Siegel - Mrs. "Bugsy" Siegel. Despite her nickname, Mrs. Siegel wouldn't join in. "I never gamble before I eat." Otherwise she ends up broke and hungry instead of just broke.

Outside, night had fallen. The daylight city of enormous vacant lots with huge, blocky buildings on the horizon had become extraterrestrial: volcanoes and pyramids and a towering guitar marking the new Hard Rock Cafe Casino. It was opening night at the cafe, and limousines were disgorging LA's elite, in town to hear the Eagles open the city's newest casino. I knew the people getting out of the limos were from LA because only a dozen or so tickets had been made available to Las Vegans. It is how LA keeps its colony from getting uppity.

It was alien turf, but I was made to feel at home by the casino's billboards: "Save the Planet." It was typical Los Angeles: squandering resources with one hand and scattering pieties with the other.

The sidewalks outside the cafe were lined with my cohorts - fellow members of the publishing industry, only these fellows were handing out booklets with pictures and phone numbers of women. A call, the booklets said, would bring a woman to my room in 15 minutes. Some booklets advertised a flat rate - $99 - for what sounded like a striptease, or perhaps just a strip.

All the booklets bragged that the women did not work for an "agency." They were in business for themselves - entrepreneurs, Lone Eagles of the New West, but without laptops or modems. Or much of anything else, judging from photos of women advertised as "just out of high school" or as "sexy thirty-something."

Burdened with literature, I made it back to the Alexis Park Resort, one of the few places in Las Vegas that doesn't have even a slot machine in the lobby. It had been chosen by Hal K. Rothman, history professor of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and organizer of this Eighth Biennial Conference of the American Society for Environmental History. Like the glitzier crowd at the Save the Planet cafe, we too were interested in the environment. But we wanted to save the planet while keeping Las Vegas at a distance. In place of the Eagles, our entertainers were professors lecturing on wise-users, on tourism, on grazing, on dams.

We were barricaded against Las Vegas because the city is not pretty close up. Not pretty but extraordinary: a vulture economy preying with great precision on our boredom and weaknesses. Its reputation is of a town with a cash register for a heart, but lately Las Vegas has been showing do-gooder tendencies. Earlier in the day, a few of us had cruised over to the opening of the new Sugar Ray Leonard athletic and job-training center on the city's black West Side. A fit-looking Sugar Ray was there, surrounded by the community's leaders, watching young boys box in the center's rings. The handsome structure was built with gambling dollars donated by MGM Grand Casino owner Kirk Kerkorian - a way, some think, to help keep the Grand non-union. Politics aside, it was a hopeful day in a community that doesn't have many such days.

We drove to the event in a rented Geo. It's a car so small I tried to put on the driver's safety belt even though I was in the back seat. Still, where but in competitive, efficient Las Vegas could you get an entire car for $13 a day? (At Rebel Rent-a-Car, to be specific). On the way back from the West Side, we passed a Burger King sign advertising HELP WANTED: $8 to $17/hour.

Those shocking non-New West wages exist because much of the city's service industry is unionized. A busboy or maid or change-cart pusher can own a home within an easy drive of work. And if they avoid the temptations of their industry, their kids can go to college.

Mike Davis, author of City of Quartz, told environmental historians that the 40,000-strong Culinary Workers Union "is far more powerful in Las Vegas than are the autoworkers in Detroit, the longshoremen in San Francisco, or even the municipal workers in New York City."

Obviously gambling and sex and sprawl and the spraying of water and neon light into the sky make Las Vegas immoral. But there are many kinds of immorality. Las Vegas workers live in the town they work in, and if they're unionized, they have year-round work and health benefits. Pretty mountain towns like Vail and Jackson Hole and Sun Valley have an unwritten rule: Workers must get out of town at shift's end. These service towns are built on low wages and worker helplessness; they practice economic segregation as rigid as the South's old racial segregation.

When it comes to the Ten Commandments-type of morality, Las Vegas is on weak ground; but economically, it deals strictly from the top of the deck. Las Vegas transactions are all free market: willing buyer-willing seller. Even when the mob ran the place, no one forced visitors or locals to drop coins in a slot machine, or to eat a 99-cent breakfast while losing $10 on Keno, or to get married in 10 minutes on The Strip.

By comparison, the small-town, rural West this paper reports on and roots for spends a sinful amount of time and energy trying to control natural resources through political means. Whether we are after cheap grass and logs, or cheap wilderness and parks, we use the Congress and federal land managers to get our way.

Las Vegas has another virtue - it is short of water. That's because the city is even more wasteful than Phoenix. But it is also because Las Vegas was late getting to the great barbecue of the West's natural resources. And the traditional West is reluctant to even think about changing how the West uses water. Las Vegas' first response to its lack of water was to grab for water out of rural Nevada. Then it threw a tantrum. Now it may be settling down to internal conservation and steady pressure on the other Colorado River Basin cities to reform water allocations.

In the wished-for world, there would be no Las Vegas; there would be happy, ski-bum workforces in our ski towns; our streams would have plenty of water and fish; and our hillsides would be covered with grass and big trees.

In the real world, a nightmare place none of us would willingly have made, we must take our allies where we find them. An environmentally sound West can only be built on a socially and economically progressive West. At the moment, Las Vegas holds out the hope of becoming progressive in two key areas: wages and water.

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