After a weekend of picketing at several downtown hotels, the Las Vegas Culinary Union 226 averted a strike deadline set for Monday, February 5, 2024.
The 60,000-member union represents a wide contingent of workers, including servers, cooks, bartenders, bellmen, laundry staff, and others. Union representatives have been negotiating since last year to win a new five-year contract with hotels on both the Strip and downtown.
The demands: a wage increase in keeping with the huge cost-of-living increases resulting from Sin City’s current development boom, as well as workload reductions and more job security. In solidarity for union members still without new contracts, workers organized in front of the four hold-outs downtown – the Fremont, the Main Street, the Downtown Grand, and the Golden Nugget.
Monica Burton was among those on the downtown picket line. Burton has worked at the Golden Nugget in downtown Las Vegas since she was 19. Currently, her job as a status board operator is what she calls “the heart of housekeeping” where she oversees everything from pillow requests to scheduling room cleaning. Her current hourly wage is $19.74. “I’m willing to fight because this is personal,” said Burton. “I’ve been here for 37 years, and my wages have barely increased.”
The road to obtaining these contracts, some of them still tentative, was hard won. In a detailed press release on February 4, 2024, Culinary Union Secretary-Treasurer Ted Pappageorge detailed the journey, stating, “These were tough negotiations; it took over two years of preparation, 10 months of negotiations, lots of hard work, committee meetings, sleepless nights, and worker-led organizing. No victory in our union’s history is ever guaranteed, and thousands of workers who participated in rallies, protests, civil disobedience, picketing, surveys, picket sign making, strike voting, and delegations inside the properties sacrificed to win a better future for themselves and our families. Culinary Union members comprise a major component of Nevada’s middle-class, and in these negotiations, we proudly won our fair share of record profits by securing historic protections and billions in raises for working families in Nevada.”
Back in November 2023, the union came to agreements with what they call “the Big 3” – Caesars Entertainment, Wynn Resorts, and MGM Resorts – because these companies employ such a large number of the union’s employees. As of the weekend, there were 11 other properties on the Strip – Circus Circus, Four Seasons, Hilton Grand Vacations, Mirage/Hard Rock, Sahara, Stratosphere, Treasure Island, Tropicana, Trump Hotel Las Vegas, Waldorf Astoria, and Westgate – and six downtown – Binion’s, Circa, El Cortez, Golden Gate, the Plaza, and the D Casino – that had also come to agreements.
All of these properties have agreed to new, five-year contracts, resulting in a 10% wage increase in the first year and a 32% increase over the five-year period of the contract. Of those properties downtown, the Plaza was the first to reach a tentative agreement last Wednesday. Regarding the contract, which affects 250 unionized workers, Plaza CEO Jonathan Jossel stated, “We’re happy that our team members are going to be recognized.” For union members, this “recognition” goes far beyond wage increases.
Like Monica Burton, Hugo Flores, a bartender at the Downtown Grand for 10 years, joined the picket line. The hotels, he says, are missing the big picture. “They are not looking at us personally,” he explained. “Their bottom number [is about] profit, not about a person or a family.” Flores says that his hotel has been undermanned and understaffed for too long, putting an enormous strain on the remaining employees. Where there should be two employees working, there is one; where there should be four, there are three. “It’s not just myself,” he commented. “It’s all my co-workers struggling. I’m a voice for many.”
The threat of a strike came a little more than a week before the 2024 Super Bowl is scheduled to take place at Las Vegas’s Allegiant Stadium; estimates put the influx of visitors at over 300,000. While Vegas is always a profitable hub of tourism, it positively buzzes during major events like the Super Bowl and last year’s Formula One race. Events like these can bring in massive revenue for hotels both on and off the Strip.
For example, a January 19, 2024 article in the Las Vegas Review-Journal noted that, during the Super Bowl, the average room cost among 36 hotels on the Strip stood at more than $856 a night. Beyond one-off special events like the Super Bowl, Las Vegas is seeing massive growth in general. According to the Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance, the city has had $31.2 billion in planned development since 2022.
The continued boom in tourism will only grow. And continued profits for the hotels and other gaming establishments will inevitably follow. With the new five-year contracts in place for the majority of union spots, the union and its employees are celebrating their biggest wage increase in the Culinary Union’s 89-year history. (As of Sunday, February 4, the remaining four downtown hotels had made tentative agreements, and the strike deadline at the one strip hotel, Virgin Las Vegas, had been extended.)
The picket lines served as a vivid reminder to the hold-out properties that their employees are serious about their demands. While contract negotiations at all the hotels focused on cost of living and other standard benefits, there are far fewer tangible reasons that these contracts matter. The Plaza’s Jossel said the magic word: recognition. Employees want to know they matter and be acknowledged for their essential role in the Las Vegas economy. “Without us,” Burton noted, “there could be no Golden Nugget.” The same can be said of every hotel/casino/gaming property in Las Vegas.
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