Las Vegas's trade unions are the secret to a service economyby Stephanie Flanders / April 20, 2004 / Leave a comment
Consider this thought experiment. What if offshoring and the long-term shift to a more service-based economy posed a larger political and social challenge than economists are usually willing to admit? And what if, heaven forbid, stronger trade unions might actually be one part of the answer?
The experiment begins with a trip to Las Vegas. If there’s one city that embodies the new American economy it’s Vegas. It’s been the fastest growing US city for 30 years: the population doubles about every decade. Like most successful parts of the country, its growth has depended on a very successful service-based industry, and a lot of new arrivals. It’s one of the few places in the US that has carried on creating jobs since 2001. But, more surprisingly still, it’s also one of the few places where most of the workers that count are members of a union.
One of them is Bernice Thomas, a mother of eight and grandmother of many. She first came to Las Vegas, from Tallulah, Louisiana, in 1956 – the same year that Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis did their last joint show at the Copacabana hotel. Her first steady job was cleaning rooms at the Mint hotel on Las Vegas Boulevard, known locally as the Strip, and the only street that most tourists see. When the Mint closed down a few years later she went to the Dunes hotel – the iconic rat pack venue – where she worked for 21 years until it too got pulled down in the 1990s. So far, so unremarkable. But in her first job she also signed up to the Culinary Workers local 226, the Vegas branch of the national Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union.
“A lot of people don’t understand the union,” she told me when I met her recently filming for Newsnight. “They look at their wages and they think they’re doing as well as they would with the union. But when the hotel closes they get nothing. If you’re in a union you still have all the money that went into a pension. You have security.” She also had her own home, a health plan that covered all eight children for a fraction of the cost of most non-union plans, and the chance to see several of them go off to college. When her husband got cancer two years ago she didn’t have to pay…