Above photo: Members of the Culinary Workers Union rally along the Las Vegas Strip in August, 2023. John Locher/AP.
Thousands of food and beverage workers are striking across the country.
They’re demanding higher wages and better protections. The outcome could have ripple effects across the U.S.
In early October, thousands of bartenders, culinary workers, and hotel attendants formed a picket line outside eight casino resorts on the Las Vegas Strip. It was the largest union demonstration on Las Vegas Boulevard in 20 years.
Since April, the Culinary Workers Union Local 226 and the Bartenders Union Local 165have been negotiating with the city’s three largest companies—MGM Resorts, Caesars Entertainment, and Wynn Resorts—for a new five-year contract. To no avail, says Ted Pappageorge, who has served as the culinary union’s secretary-treasurer since 2022 and was its president for more than a decade before that. “We’ve been respectful, and we’ve been patient,” he says. “But it’s time now to come to the table.”
Meanwhile in Detroit, about 3,700 food and beverage and other workers at the city’s three casinos walked out on strike a few days after the Las Vegas action, demanding improved wages and working conditions.
Across the United States, the labor movement has gained strength in recent years. And while food system workers have historically been less organized than other industries, they are now more frequently using their collective power to push for demands that benefit workers.
In addition to higher wages, health care, and pensions, the Las Vegas culinary union is also fighting for a reduction of workload, expanded on-the-job safety protections including panic buttons to cut down on sexual harassment and assault by customers, and stronger technology protections that guarantee workers advanced notification if a new technology will be introduced that will affect their job, as well as health care and severance pay if they are laid off because of new technology.
While the picketing in early October was meant to apply pressure to the companies, union members have authorized their leaders to declare an active strike at any time. And with the Formula 1 Las Vegas Grand Prix race coming up in November, as well as numerous holiday festivities, a strike would cause challenges for the owners of many properties.
Pappageorge recently took a break from negotiations to explain what led to the latest action, how it fits into history, and what this picket line means for the labor movement across the country.
What led up to workers picketing the Strip in early October?
We came through quite something during the pandemic. We were 25 percent back to work in 2020; 50 percent in 2021; and 80 percent back to work in 2022. Normally we were around 60,000 workers, around 50,000 dues-paying members in Las Vegas, and we leveled off around 40,000. The workers just didn’t come back.
It was for a few reasons. One was companies bringing in technology that eliminates jobs, and another was companies not bringing back workers and not having the same amount of service [but upping their prices]. Like you may not get your hotel room cleaned daily, but they’re still charging you rates that are 30 percent higher than what they were pre-pandemic. And now they have fewer workers doing more work.
All those things put together have given these companies incredible margins. I mean, the Las Vegas economy is on fire. Companies are setting incredible records. [But workers aren’t seeing corresponding improvements.] There are a lot of young people entering the workforce, and many ask, “How am I gonna own a home?” Forget about that. In Las Vegas, we’ve got this whole issue of Wall Street landlords buying up housing, buying up apartments, Airbnbs. Rents are up roughly 40 percent in the last three years. If you want to try to put your kids in college, or you’re mid-life, it’s harder and harder to get by. And if you’re nearing retirement, Social Security is extremely important, but it’s not enough.
These companies are on the wrong track. And we’re trying to push them to understand that time’s running out.
What about this moment has prompted the potential for strikes of these magnitudes?
This is not a Vegas phenomenon. It’s happening all over the country. To get through the pandemic, people did extra—they did more to save their own jobs, to help save the companies—everybody pitched in. But the pandemic made it very clear to workers that regardless of the sacrifices you make, you’re dispensable [in the eyes of the company]. And that’s the message that has come out of this—whether you’re a nurse, or you worked in a grocery store or a hotel.
These massive corporations have been merging and gaining power. Wall Street private equity influence is very powerful, and workers are fearful of being left behind. And that’s something that we see at our sister local in Detroit. We sent staff to help with the strike. Folks have really taken a hit after sacrificing during the pandemic, and there’s a lot of anger and nervousness about where these massive corporations are trying to go.
How does what’s happening in Las Vegas and Detroit fit into the larger landscape of food and beverage workers across the country?
The reality is a lot of our jobs across the country are poor people’s jobs when they’re not [connected to a] union. If you’re a server, you might do a little better than the cook. But restaurant jobs, room-cleaning jobs—if they’re not union, generally, it’s folks just getting by.
I was born and raised in Las Vegas. My parents worked in hotels. My grandfather worked in the food industry here. And a lot of us are like that. But the difference is we’ve been able to create a standard of living—through long, nasty strikes, really. We’ve been able to get health care and have job security in a restaurant or hotel, which normally doesn’t happen. We’ve been able to create jobs with security, health care, and pensions. We have a housing fund that helps people buy homes. We have a free legal services fund. What we’ve been able to do here is something that helps raise all boats.
The volume of workers here [has historically been very high]. Pre-pandemic, we [numbered] almost 65,000 with the bartender’s union, which is affiliated with us. Around the country, it’s a little different. But we think service workers deserve to own their own homes and have health care, and to be able to take care of their kids. And so our Culinary Workers Union—we’re part of Unite Here—is fighting and standing up and organizing.
The push for union protection is building across the U.S., including for food and farmworkers. What do you see as the biggest challenges confronting that movement?
I think companies have gotten addicted to these profit margins since the pandemic. These are massive corporations; they’re not mom-and-pop restaurants that we’re talking about. People look at MGM Resorts, Caesars Entertainment, or Wynn Resorts, and they get it, they’re all over the world. You have to be able to join together to have the power to beat them.
One of the big issues is the decline of the labor movement [in recent decades]. You’ve got to have scale to be able to take on these companies. It’s a romantic notion that workers can just get together and win against big corporations—it doesn’t happen. If you want to beat Starbucks, it’s not about 30 workers and a locally owned franchise. You’ve got to beat the corporation. Labor has got to say, “we’re going to put X amount of money and resources and manpower into working with non-union workers and organizing.”
How is this movement for food and beverage workers different from others you’ve seen in your 30-year career?
There’s this idea that in Vegas we’ve been able to succeed because it’s easier. It’s not; it’s tougher. These companies are massive. They’re extremely powerful. It’s like a steel mill town or a coal town. But we’ve been one of the fastest-growing local unions over the last 25 years across the country in a right-to-work state. In other words, legally workers don’t have to pay their union dues, and they would get all the union benefits that we negotiate.
I think there’s understanding now that we can do this, and so I’m very optimistic about that. But it takes real sacrifice and real commitment. If you look at all the polling, the favorability of unions and the idea of belonging to the union is at its highest peak in the last 30 years. And it’s not because unions are doing something different; it’s because workers are seeing the fact that these massive corporations are gonna leave them behind.
It’s going to take unions willing to lay down massive funding to support workers and then workers willing to risk their jobs, and risk their families—to go on strike. It’s a very serious decision. But if workers have a plan to win and are backed up by the labor movement, there is incredible opportunity right now.
What counts as a victory for the Culinary Union, and how could that shape the working conditions throughout the country?
If you win $10 an hour tomorrow, but you can still be replaced by technology and AI, then what do you have? Nothing.
After five years, we’ve got this protection that helps workers deal with technology. Throughout our industry, we’ve been sharing that, and we understand that other unions have been able to go in that same direction.
I think folks are ready to have that fight. In Las Vegas, we’re trying to send a message to these companies that it’s time. And if not, we’re going to have a strike deadline and we’ll end up joining our Detroit brothers and sisters on the picket line.
Christina Cooke is Civil Eats’ associate editor. Based in North Carolina, she has also covered people, place, science, business, and culture for venues including The New Yorker, The New York Times, TheAtlantic.com, The Guardian, Oxford American, and High Country News. In the past, she has worked as a staff writer for the Chattanooga Times Free Press in Tennessee and a weekly paper in Portland, Oregon. A graduate of the documentary writing program at the Salt Institute of Documentary Studies and the creative nonfiction writing MFA program at Portland State University, she teaches interviewing and nonfiction writing at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. Find out more at www.christinacooke.com.