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This Day in Labor History: April 2, 1984

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On April 2, 1984, 17,000 workers walked off the job in Las Vegas, bringing America’s gaming paradise. The longest and most bitter strike in Las Vegas history, the casinos largely won, establishing greater control over the workers.

Labor relations in the casinos had been pretty fraught for a long time. Organizing the angry workers, the Culinary Union had put itself on the map with a successful four-day strike in 1970. Another strike in 1976 increased the bitterness. In 1977, Culinary president Al Bramlett was murdered; we still don’t quite know why given the guys who did changed their story 1,000 times after confessing. Probably it was an unpaid debt. This created a leadership vacuum in the Las Vegas labor movement. There was some years of tumultuous leadership changes, plus the recession of the early 80s put a real strain on the city’s tourism industry. Moreover, the casinos began taking on the more aggressive anti-union tactics that companies around the nation did during the early 80s, hiring sophisticated unionbusting law firms. The impact of this was first felt in 1983, when the Teamsters and Operating Engineers, unions with long histories of shutting down operations in solidarity with strikers, were forced into a new contract, and this only after a long and tough strike that was particularly targeted at the vile unionbuster Steve Wynn and his Golden Nugget casino, that didn’t allow them to engage in sympathy strikes for thirty days. That was a lot less than the six months that the casinos demanded but definitely more than the ten days in the current contract.

With room to maneuver to attack the Culinary before the solidarity-based unions got involved, the casinos turned to them next. The Culinary and other smaller unions completely rejected the draconian contract offers the casinos offered. By March, it was clear a strike was going to happen and the unions prepared. It started on April 2 when 17,000 workers walked off the job.

This was not a friendly strike. Police arrested nearly 1,000 strikers during the conflict. There were some beatings as well. The workers quickly realized the police were openly on the side of the casinos and often serving as their personal security force, arresting strikers were impunity. On April 5, a judge issued a restraining order prohibiting strikers from striking on resort property and limited how many could be at entrances. Again, the law was going all-in to protect the bosses. At least 150 workers would be arrested for violating this injunction. The casinos hired as many scabs as they could.

On April 14, Cesar Chavez came to town to support the strikers. Inspired, strikers sat down on a sidewalk, locked arms, and refused to move. The police arrested at least seventy of them. All of this was done while tourists watched the whole thing. This was certainly not the Vegas experience of their dreams. But the public also basically didn’t care. Few cancelled reservations, the vast majority crossed the picket line. It wasn’t enough to shut down the casinos.

This was grim. But then, Hilton broke the casino association cartel and agreed to a contract independently. The reason was that the Culinary and its allies had engaged in a strong anti-Hilton campaign nationally, picketing outside hotels. Hilton was not that committed to busting the union and decided to cut their losses, get their name out of the newspapers, and deal with the Culinary on relatively favorable terms. But even this bargaining was tough. A major issue in the strike was that the casinos wanted to cut costs by using recorded music. A large number of the union members were musicians who could see their living disappear. Hilton dug in on this point.

Other resorts began to threaten to permanently replace strikers with the scabs. Several casinos then announced that they would in fact do so. This changed the entire world of labor relations in Las Vegas. This had never happened in previous strikes. This led to the unions giving up most of their demands by the end of April. The Culinary as well as the Bartenders, reached four-year agreements with Hilton that allowed for the vile two-tiered wage system to enter the job, allowed the company to combine job functions, and forced the unions into sympathy strike bans for thirty days after a strike began. Workers lost income, they lost power, they lost benefits, and they lost the independence in their jobs that their craft had taught them. Yes, they kept their hours, their seniority, and a few other things. They spun it as a victory. But it really wasn’t.

And yet….some casinos refused to even accept this deal, wanting more. When the thirty-day ban on the Teamsters and Operating Engineers ran out in early May, most did sign, not wanting to anger those unions. The Operating Engineers did launch a sympathy strike against the MGM and Tropicana; the Teamsters did not but threatened it. Finally, the national leaders at the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) intervened and ended the strike by coming to an agreement with the last big casinos. This extended the agreement from four years to five, extended the ban on sympathy strikes from thirty to ninety days, delayed any wage increases for a year, and then provided a 26 wage increase total over the final four years of the contract, which the casinos were always willing to give. It also extended the power of the employer to reclassify workers into different jobs, again cutting down on their autonomy.

But for the Musicians and Stagehands, small unions, the strike was a disaster. When the Culinary got their deal, as limited as it was, it didn’t uphold previous pledges to stay out until the smaller unions got their deals. It’s likely that the Stagehands started setting off bombs; one went off in the parking lot of the Tropicana and another outside of the Frontier. But they had no real power and had to agree in June to contracts that allowed for recorded music, reductions in guaranteed work, and no wage gains for five years. Ouch. Moreover, a few properties still held out and eliminated their unions entirely, even after AFL-CIO head Lane Kirkland flew out to get involved. This was done through the hiring of permanent scabs and then decertification elections.

Still, the Culinary survived. This was hardly the last time the Culinary Union struck, with a major 1991 strike against the Frontier that lasted all the way until 1998. The Culinary has also become a major political institution in Nevada, both a critically important of Harry Reid’s political machine that has turned the state marginally blue and also the ideal of how to organize in a right-to-work state.

I borrowed from James P. Kraft’s Vegas at Odds: Labor Conflict in a Leisure Conflict, 1960-1985, to write this post.

This is the 388th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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