Vegas at Odds: Labor Conflict in a Leisure Economy 1960-1985 by James P. Kraft

If you want an insight into how Las Vegas went from a desert outpost, slowly being eaten alive by mobsters and corruption, to become the bright, shiny behemoth it is today, read Pete Earley’s stunning book: Super Casinos.

Vegas at Odds: Labor Conflict in a Leisure Economy 1960-1985

Vegas at Odds by James P Kraft

Author: James P Kraft

Publisher: John Hopkins University Press

ISBN-13: 9780801893575

As well as an expert retelling of how the first mega-resorts popped up amid the dusty Strip, Earley dotted in tales from the dealers, waitresses, pit bosses and barmen – the ‘spokes’ in the Vegas wheel who helped make Vegas what it is today.

Vegas Through the Eyes of its Workers

Taking a similar tack, and putting us right in the thick of the labour movement, Kraft’s Vegas at Odds expertly summarises the changes in Vegas over the past 30 years. In the book, Kraft charts the rise of the everyday ‘worker’, but more specifically the role of the powerful unions, in Sin City from 1960 to 1985.

For all those spokes – the showgirls, valet boys and maids, cooks and barmen – there’s been years of struggles, warring unions, more struggles, battles against casinos, arrests, protests and strikes as the ordinary workers competed to achieve their little slice of the American Dream. Or at least, to fight for their right to eke out a living wage while the casino bosses got steadily richer.

Vegas at Odds by James P Kraft

Power Shifts Away from the Unions

Kraft’s particular interest in the period 1960-1985 lies in the power shift from the unions that supported all of these spokes, to the modern management structures that hold sway today.

With every effort to avoid the glamorisation of Vegas’ early decades and to break down the misnomer that it was created solely by the mob, Vegas at Odds gives a detailed account of changes in infrastructure and management during these two decades and the impact that had on the thousands of employees.

As visitor numbers rose steeply in Las Vegas during the Post-Depression decades so, too, did the employees – almost all of whom were service-based.

The unions were a strong ally to the workers and a respected force to be reckoned with amongst employers. Indeed, workers’ salaries and terms and conditions of employment were often far more favourable than their counterparts in other states. That point was proved by a 6-day strike held Downtown in 1967 where employers eventually caved to union demands for fear of the adverse publicity the strike was attracting among a generally anti-gambling US populace.

The ’67 strike was the last great success for the unions, though, as the power tables were shifting, all thanks to the newly elected and forward-thinking Republican Governor Paul Laxalt.

Corporate Investment Floods into Vegas

Vegas at Odds by James P KraftGovernor Paul Laxalt

Laxalt recognised the need to relax the draconian regulations, in place to inhibit mob rule (which was no longer relevant) and allow corporate investment to flood the city. With this investment came a more modern management structure which still presides today.

Kraft ends his book with details on the 1993 strike by members of the Culinary union in Las Vegas at the hiring of non-union subcontractors at the MGM Grand. 500 workers were arrested by police then, the largest mass arrest of picketers in the city’s history. The struggle was worth it – to a point.

Waiters and other restaurant staff ended up earning over double the wages of their counterparts in other tourist hotspots in the UK. There was a trade-off, however; in return for helping staff these mega-resorts requiring tens of thousands of new workers (which were, and still are, hard to come by), casino resorts demanded a concession from the unions that they could lay off staff as workplace demands changed.

And while tales of arrests are less common nowadays, the book ends on a positive note for the thousands of workers who flock to Sin City to eke out a living. Unions and casinos remain in a relatively easy marriage without any oppression of workers.

An Academic Perspective

All very interesting, of course. However, we at Jackpot.co.uk, believe the book would have benefited from including more of a history “from the other side” of Vegas, as well as being an academic study into economics and employment history.

Of course, gambling worker struggles never went away. Anyone who’s kept an eye on Macau will know that the downturn in the ‘Las Vegas of the East’ has affected the thousands of dealers and hotel staff more than anyone, and there have been more and more strikes and protests at working conditions and pay as the downturn hits.

Let’s hope there’s a follow-up book exploring the plight of put-upon casino workers in Macau and elsewhere.