Union workers picket in Vegas, worried about pay, security and robots taking their jobs

Union workers picket in Vegas, worried about pay, security and robots taking their jobs

By David Montero Los Angeles Times July 6, 2018

LAS VEGAS — After a month without a contract, union employees applied new pressure to casino properties Friday by running picket lines of hundreds of workers on Fremont Street in downtown Las Vegas.

Along with concerns about wages, the union workers hope new contracts will address increased use of robots to do their work, and — in the shadow of last year’s mass shooting — security.

The Las Vegas Culinary Union chose the D Casino Hotel to make their statement in the morning, marching mostly under a large canopy that helped shade the workers on a day when authorities issued an excessive heat warning.

Temperatures were expected to reach 110 degrees later in the afternoon, when marchers planned to picket the Westgate Hotel & Casino.

Outside the D, people hurtled above the picket line on a zipline and street performers danced and sang in front of a souvenir shop hawking four T-shirts for $10. A kiosk next to the marchers was doing brisk business selling gaudy ties, sparkling plastic beads and a few rubber chickens.

“D Casino, look around,” the workers chanted. “Las Vegas is a union town.”

The union, which represents about 57,000 workers, saw contracts expire June 1 but negotiated new labor deals with the major Las Vegas Strip property owners — MGM Resorts International and Caesars Entertainment — a few weeks ago. Since then, the union has been slowly piecing together deals with other casinos, and a vote on ratifying a contract with the Stratosphere is set for Monday.

But 13 properties employing about 8,000 union workers remain without contracts — including the targets of Friday’s picketing. Others still in talks with the union include four Strip properties and nine downtown casinos.

Workers are not striking, however, even though the union voted before the expiration of the contract to authorize a strike. That vote was overwhelming, with 99 percent in favor.

“This is an escalation,” union spokeswoman Bethany Khan said. “There are still some important issues on the table.”

Westgate officials said in a statement obtained by the Las Vegas Review-Journal that they were “dismayed” at the decision to picket their property. Officials with the D Casino Hotel didn’t return requests for comment.

Among the union’s concerns is automation. Robots have slowly been elevating their profile in Las Vegas — most notoriously at the Tipsy Robot, which features two automated “bartenders” that look like the robotic arms seen in car factories.

Linda Hunt, a 57-year-old food server at El Cortez Hotel & Casino downtown, said she was worried about the technology.

“We want to make sure we’re not lost to the robots,” Hunt said. “We want to make sure that they don’t just show up next week — that we have some time to adjust and train for new jobs over the next five years.”

The last major citywide strike in Las Vegas, in 1984, involved four unions and lasted 67 days. The Culinary Union hasn’t authorized a strike here since 2002. Picket lines have been more recent — with the union organizing one in front of the D in 2014. Kahn said they’d never picketed in front of the Westgate before.

One of the highest-profile strikes in Las Vegas was the six-year action in front of the Frontier hotel and casino on the Strip. That strike was resolved in 1998 after the casino’s ownership changed hands.

Unions have been asserting their power across the country recently, with teachers staging walkouts in West Virginia, Arizona and other states, resulting in pay raises. But unions also suffered a setback with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last month that struck down laws authorizing unions to negotiate contracts while requiring all employees to pay “fair share fees” to cover collective bargaining costs.

Kahn noted, however, that the Culinary Union has a long history in Las Vegas and has worked with casinos during downturns in the economy — notably in 2008 during the financial meltdown that crippled Las Vegas.

She said now that the casinos are flush, it’s time to let workers share in the benefits.

According to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, 42.2 million people traveled to the city in 2017 — the third straight year visitor volume eclipsed 42 million. The Nevada Gaming Control Board showed that the state’s gaming win total exceeded $1 billion for three consecutive months this year.

Union officials are also looking to add protections for workers under a new contract — especially in light of harsher immigration laws and the mass shooting in Las Vegas last fall that killed 58 and wounded hundreds more.

Kahn said the union wants the remaining casino properties without a contract to agree to protect workers who might be swept into Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody if they lose temporary worker status. She said that if immigration laws are passed and workers’ legal status is resolved, the contract should allow them to return to their jobs.

The mass shooting, in which Stephen Paddock opened fire from his 32nd-floor suite at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, rattled many workers, and the contract is calling for mandatory panic buttons for staff to carry.

Marc Morgan, 58, has been a bellhop at the D for four years, he said after the shooting there was a sense of nervousness — noting that Paddock had scoped out Life is Beautiful, an outdoor music and art festival downtown, as a possible target before settling on the Route 91 Harvest country music festival.

“We don’t have panic buttons now, but we should,” Morgan said. “It’s to everyone’s benefit to have those sort of safety measures in place.”

©2018 Los Angeles Times


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