Volume 15, Issue 1.
January 1, 2004.
Las Vegas as a Workers' Paradise
The hotel workers' union boosted wages and transformed dead-end jobs into middle-class
careers in the very belly of the casino economy. Here's how it happened.
I. WHAT'S RIGHT WITH THIS PICTURE?
LAS VEGAS -- In the middle of his life, Sylvester Garcia decided he'd had enough of the
cold and the heat. He'd been a welder in the copper-mining towns of New Mexico for
almost a quarter of a century, but, he says, "I got tired of welding, of the mud, of the rain,
of too much hard work. So I told my wife, 'I'll try the casinos.'" In short order, he became
a dishwasher at the Dunes Hotel on the Las Vegas Strip, then moved to the Luxor when
the Dunes was leveled to make way for the Bellagio.
At first glance this wasn't a great career move. Dishwashing in America, as everybody
knows, is almost always a minimum wage job devoid of benefits or security.
Nonetheless, Garcia insists, "I love my job." And he's not kidding.
Among his fellow dishwashers, however, he has to be in a distinct minority. According to
"The Coffee Pot Wars," an essay by Annette Bernhardt, Laura Dresser and Eric Hatton in
the new Russell Sage Foundation study of low-wage work, the median hourly wage of
the American hotel dishwasher in 2000 was $7.45 -- a little better than the housekeeper's
$7.09. Even luxury hotels seldom pay their low-end employees much more than the
minimum wage. And while wages have stagnated, hours have declined, from 40 a week
for low-end hotel workers in 1960 to 31 in 2000. At one hotel they studied, the authors
concluded that 60 percent of the kitchen staff held down two jobs.
Garcia holds just one, but his hourly wage at the Luxor is $11.86 -- $4 higher than the
industry average. He is paid for 40 hours every week, even if the company actually needs
him for fewer. He has family health insurance paid for entirely by his employer. He has a
defined-benefit pension. He has three weeks of vacation every year, which he likes to
spend hunting in Canada.
Far from a life of quiet desperation, Garcia's seems full of noisy exaltation. On the
evening I visit him, three grandchildren are careening around his house, a six-bedroom
home built in 1988. Garcia's next-door neighbors are an attorney, a minister and, over the
back fence, an air-conditioning mechanic. A legion of his fellow hotel workers inhabits
the surrounding blocks.
Garcia's is a face, and his neighborhood a place, that doesn't neatly fit into America's
current image of itself. Beneath a wave of silver hair, his face has the crevasses of
someone who's worked in the Southwest sun for decades. With his droopy moustache, he
could pass for a Mexican village chieftain or a sailor on Sergei Eisenstein's