No strikes again

On labor in Las Vegas and the true costs of the Super Bowl

February 14, 2024

The strike was called off. In the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl, Las Vegas’s branch of the Culinary Workers Union, known as Local 226, had planned to strike over a dozen independent downtown properties—Circus Circus, The Mirage/Hard Rock, the Westgate, and the Plaza, among others—on Friday, February 2, a little over a week out from the game. The union sought to renew five-year contracts with these properties under the same terms negotiated with the Strip’s three largest companies—MGM Resorts International, Caesars Entertainment, and Wynn Resorts—late last year. Such terms include a 32 percent pay raise over the life of the contract. By the Sunday before Super Bowl weekend, Local 226 had reached a final tentative agreement with the Downtown Grand, marking deals with all but one property located on and near the Strip.

Erica Steadman, a guest room attendant at the Downtown Grand, shared a statement distributed by the union following the strike aversion. Steadman has been working in her current position for three years, which is also her first union job. She said, “I wouldn’t have the future I have for my children if it wasn’t for the union and this contract.” Claudia Coco, another worker and union member at Downtown Grand who’s been there for ten years, emphasized her gratitude to those who picketed in the weeks and days leading up to the tentative agreement. “Thank you to everyone who went out on the picket line,” she said. “I’m so proud of all of you.”

These agreements are a success and, per each five-year contract period, necessarily a stopgap for the next negotiation in 2029. However, in conversations I’ve had with locals both in and out of the service industry (though not in the union), some have characterized Local 226’s threatened—and averted—strike as characteristically toothless brinkmanship. After all, once a majority of downtown properties had reached tentative agreements with the union in the last week of January, Local 226 opted to picket instead, pushing the proposed strike forward—past the weekend—to Monday, February 5. These critics argue that a strike would have demonstrated Local 226’s considerable disruptive political power. But having spoken to Local 226’s spokespeople for previous stories, it’s clear that the union prefers not to strike and relies on its readily mobilized members, in tandem with strongly worded press releases, to move the needle. 

Some have characterized Local 226’s threatened—and averted—strike as characteristically toothless brinkmanship.

That Vegas has a union as large and mobile as Local 226, and one that supports hospitality services—an industry well-known for its decentralization and sometimes intense labor abuses, is unique. And Local 226 has long capitalized on down-to-the-wire agreements ahead of major city events to draw the public’s eye. They used the same strategy in November 2023, ahead of Vegas’s first Formula One race, to finalize a deal with the city’s big three casino conglomerates. These tactics have panned out thus far, though it’s uncertain how long they will remain successful. And the union is not as robust as it might appear.

While the United States saw widespread—and markedly successful—labor action last year, pandemic-era layoffs and the squeezing of overworked laborers had left Las Vegas’s hospitality industry in a bind. In September 2023, the statewide office of the Culinary Workers Union, which represents some 60,000 workers and which is Nevada’s largest labor union, announced an ambitious goal to organize 10,000 non-union restaurant workers. The move was meant to strengthen the union’s rosters and to capitalize on the city’s recent big-ticket events.

The arrival of the Super Bowl, Formula One, and ever-present rumors of a Las Vegas NBA team has sparked a conversation about Vegas finally becoming “a real city.” These spectacles, along with a fleet of recent constructions—Allegiant Stadium (built to house the newly moved Raiders and consequently Super Bowl LVIII), as well as the Sphere, Resorts World, and the forthcoming Athletics baseball stadium—have shifted the city’s global estimation. The city- and state-wide focus on sports, concerts, awards ceremonies, and private events represents a tacit pivot towards large-scale experiential entertainment. The lobbyists pushing for them promise social benefits in the hundreds of millions of dollars. It’s a bet that labor organizers have been unwilling to indulge.

In January, Culinary Union secretary Ted Pappageorge spoke to me about the opportunity presented by the Super Bowl from an organizing perspective. “Las Vegas has become the sporting capital of the world,” he said. “You saw Formula One here and prior to that we had the Pro Bowl and hockey and NBA. There’s a big event every single week in Las Vegas, and the Super Bowl is another big example of that. But the reality is that whatever weekend it is or whatever events are going on, these companies need to realize they can’t do this without workers. They can’t make these fabulous profits without workers and they can’t get the best hospitality service without workers. So whether it’s a Super Bowl or a CES or March Madness or Formula One, these companies need to understand that they’ve got to come to the table with a fair contract or workers are going to be ready to strike.”

Las Vegas wasn’t supposed to host Super Bowl LVIII. Back in 2018, the NFL, after considering Phoenix and New Orleans as potential sites, had selected New Orleans. By that time, the League had switched to a new system for choosing Super Bowl host cities, which involved secret ballots voted on by the League’s owners. In previous years, cities who wanted to host submitted bids—now, the privilege of selection belongs fully to the League, a PR move shrewdly folded within a monetary one. Case in point: the reason New Orleans is no longer hosting Super Bowl LVIII is because, due to a single extra game in the regular football season, the schedule conflicts with Mardi Gras, which the city says brings in nearly $1 billion in revenue

As a multimedia event, the Super Bowl is a well-known Trojan horse for advertising, exclusive broadcasting rights, and congratulatory handshakes between billionaires. The degree to which this event positively impacts the local economy of its chosen host city is hard to make out amid the marketing. (See: the Olympics.) In Vegas, a city famous for sports betting with a competitive NHL team and regular NBA special sessions (and the recent host of the 2o22 NFL Draft), the construction of Allegiant Stadium was estimated to be a $2 billion project—the second most expensive in the world—and one propped up by a generous $750 million contribution from the state of Nevada. Vegas’s Convention and Visitors Authority optimistically estimate the Super Bowl will bring in revenue somewhere in the ballpark of $500 million.

“The visitors’ bureaus and business people with those cities are going to promote that huge economic impact, with hundreds of millions of dollars and a bunch of new jobs,” Tim DeSchriver, associate professor of sports management at the University of Delaware’s Lerner College of Business and Economics, noted last year. There’s no incentive to advertise what the Super Bowl will cost the city in construction costs, law enforcement personnel, infrastructure, and overtime. Nor to share with local taxpayers that the NFL might be claiming every single dollar from tickets sold to the game without paying for the use of the stadium. The math just doesn’t add up.

The math just doesn’t add up.

Las Vegas’s economy is inextricably linked with the service industry. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates 300,000 jobs in the Las Vegas-Paradise area are based in the leisure and hospitality sector, the highest density in the region and six percent higher than the national average. Service work is essential. In 1935, the nascent Strip was a small collection of casinos and restaurants along the northern end of Las Vegas Boulevard. As the city grew, so did both corporate interest in the Strip and Local 226’s aggression in negotiating contracts with these entities. Repeated, focused labor actions have been common, with major strikes in 1967, 1984, and most notably, in 1998, when the union struck against the Frontier Hotel for over six years, one of the longest strikes in U.S. history. In 1997, as quoted by the Associated Press, former AFL-CIO president John Sweeney said, “Just as surely as New York set the standards for the past 100 years, Las Vegas will be setting them for the next 100 years.” In the years since, Sweeney’s words have proved portentous in that Local 226’s longevity and power have allowed it to maintain a foothold in an industry famous for decentralized management and worker abuse. But this foothold is contingent upon continued worker action amidst a cadre of ever-growing corporations that aim to exploit nonunion labor. 

By November 2023, Local 226 had been in negotiations for seven months with MGM, Caesar’s, and Wynn for a new contract. Alone, these three companies own the Aria, Bellagio, New York New York, Luxor, Excalibur, Park MGM, Harrah’s, Mandalay Bay, and Planet Hollywood, among many others. Local 226 had set a deadline for a new contract for that month, when the city would host the Las Vegas Grand Prix, its first ever Formula One racing event, at which point the union was poised to strike. Among the union’s aims was to guarantee workers’ right to picket nonunion establishments, which had previously been prohibited. (This has been a consistent focus of Local 226; following the averted strike ahead of the Super Bowl, the union held a press conference with the NFL Players Association at Allegiant Stadium announcing their intention to fight for nonunion workers at the venue.)

The deadline was met just days before the Grand Prix. Though the November 2023 and February 2024 agreements are victories for Local 226, these contracts can only protect workers in increments. As Las Vegas has grown in population and in the scope of its entertainment offerings, the bulwark of labor organizations like the Culinary Union is constantly being tested. A nonunion bartender I spoke to during the Grand Prix—what was ubiquitously termed “F1”—noted the high pay-rate they were receiving for a last-minute gig working at the Bellagio, though not technically for the Bellagio. During large-scale events, casinos bring in numerous outside companies, contracting firms who are willing to pay well for what is essentially freelance work, which enables the casinos to bring on more staff while also skirting workplace protocols demanded by a union.

Mia Gray, professor of economic geography at Cambridge University, and James DeFilippis, professor at Rutgers’ school of planning and public policy, have argued that unionized workers provide a unique benefit to Vegas’s hotels and resorts. In their 2015 paper  “Learning from Las Vegas: Unions and post-industrial urbanisation,” they write: 

Hotels and resorts in the two upper market segments compete on quality, or service provided, instead of price and are likely to value the stable and well-trained workforce that a union can help provide. Low turnover in a workforce…leads to higher productivity and lower recruitment costs.

But this somewhat rosy view of unions as a cost-effective insurance policy for employers seeking a motivated and reliable workforce isn’t readily shared by those employers. Nevada is a right-to-work state, which allows workers to join union workplaces without paying union dues. It’s long been attractive to businesses precisely because companies can more easily maneuver around labor organizations. 

In the past, Vegas unions have appealed to the state’s larger regulatory apparatuses to keep companies in check. In their paper, Gray and DeFilippis explain how Nevada’s gaming commission has the power to investigate property rights to applicants. One of these apparatuses is the Nevada Gaming Commission, which has been utilized “to apply pressure on individual corporations by arguing against, or in support of, the extension and/or renewal of gambling licenses.” Local 226 has relied on this strategy before, whereby “positive labor relations” ensure cooperation amidst expanded casino and hotel operations. 

But, in increasingly recalcitrant times, disruption—or its genuine threat—has proven the most effective way to ensure fair treatment. Local 226’s decision to strike the week before the Super Bowl signaled a willingness to cause a widespread headache, yes, but it also created a buffer period for companies to come back to the bargaining table. For large entities able to throw money around in order to make a problem go away, these contracts can look like short-term appeasements. For workers, they can be the difference between shelter and poverty.

Back in the fall, I spoke to Eli Wilson, a sociologist, assistant professor at the University of New Mexico, and author of the book Front of the House, Back of the House: Race and Inequality in the Lives of Restaurant Workers. Organizing hospitality workers in Las Vegas is unique, he said, because  “you have such a prominent service class” made up of people who “treat [these jobs] as a career. They want to feel empowered.”

If Vegas is now “a real city,” it’s a reality premised on the presence of corporate sports and gaming interest.

The feedback loop—where powers such as the NFL make financial demands from cities, which then pass off those same concessions as economic wins to the public—obscures the long-lasting effects of a short-term event like the Super Bowl. If Vegas is now “a real city,” it’s a reality premised on the presence of corporate sports and gaming interest. But the attendant infrastructural costs prove this narrative false and shallow: a nakedly opportunistic reframing of the city as a staging ground for financial investment rather than any civic good.

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