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Steve Friess: Casino Industry Must Heed Warnings Of Other Labor Strikes In Negotiations

Written By Steve Friess on October 10, 2023 - Last Updated on February 16, 2024
Steve Friess State Of Play Casino Labor Movement

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State of Play is a column that focuses on the trending stories in the casino and gambling space with sharp and clever insight from senior staff writer Steve Friess. Over his 25-year career, Friess has contributed to publications such as Newsweek, Time, New York Times and more.


This is a fascinating moment of renewal for the nation’s labor unions. After decades of slumping memberships and increasingly hostile state laws, 2023 has seen a bumper crop of highly successful worker actions.

The question now is whether the casino business writ large and places like Las Vegas and Detroit in particular will take away any lessons from what’s been happening in other sectors.

At the moment, the answer appears to be no. The companies have treated their labor negotiations the way that always have — no progress for months as contracts expire or come close to expiring. Only as the Culinary and Unite Here unions have lurched toward strikes have the negotiations become more serious, more earnest.

Maybe MGM Resorts, Wynn Resorts and Caesars Entertainment think they are immune to the year’s trends that have crippled Hollywood, the auto industry, several college campuses and some health-care companies.

If so, shame on them. They need to wake up to the very real prospect that the prosperity they have been reveling in — how many press releases have journalists covering gambling received touting record profits or lavish spending on new attractions? — could come to a crashing halt if they don’t get serious.

“These companies have the opportunity to step up to the plate and do the right thing, but we haven’t seen that yet for five months,” says Ted Pappageorge, secretary-treasurer of the Culinary Local 226, to KLAS-TV in Las Vegas before 95% of his members voted to authorize a strike.

Five months. I’d love to talk to whomever advised these companies to try to grind these unions. That’s just worked out so darn well for GM, Ford and Chrysler, no?

GOP immigration, labor politics led to this new union energy

Pity America’s right-wing conservatives.

For more than a decade, they have viciously railed against immigration, both legal in the form of asylum seekers and reductions in quotas and illegal in the form of border crossers and those who overstay travel visas or work permits. They sing dirges that barely veil their racism about the diversification of the country, the diminishing share of the population that is of white and European descent.

At the same time, former President Donald Trump’s Make America Great Again movement has captured the hearts of many non-college-educated, American-born workers with all of the rhetoric and flag-waving about bringing jobs home from overseas.

As a result, the nation has seen a significant tightening of the labor supply, particularly for jobs that can’t be effectively outsourced to other countries or done remotely here at home. Jobs like dealing cards, making beds, tending to the sick, and even assembling various parts of machines like cars.

Unions, too, have been vilified by Republicans. Laws prohibiting union-membership requirements and the paying of dues have proliferated, stripping more workers of a range of protections while deluding people into thinking it is a matter of liberty.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics has only been tracking union membership for 40 years, and it’s been in a freefall ever since. In 1983, the percent of American workers in unions was 20.1%. In 2022, it hit an all-time low of 10.1%.

Something tells me they may be poised for a rebound as workers learn more about the monumental concessions unions have wrestled from corporations. The labor deals that are emerging out of these strikes are remarkable and impressive:

  • United Parcel Service employees won large pay increases for part-timers by pushing the company to the brink of a strike.
  • Graduate students at the University of California and University of Michigan won major salary increases after strikes.
  • The new contract just ratified after a record-long Hollywood writer’s strike included enhancements worth an estimated $233 million annually. The studios came into the strike offering just $86 million a year in enhancements.

Casinos will pay now or later, but they will pay

The bottom line is that workers have the control and aren’t afraid to use it. Partly that’s because they have made important concessions in times of crisis — the Great Recession and the pandemic in particular — and now deserve a share of the spoils.

One of the most potent counters to a strike is the ability to hire scabs to fill in and keep people going, perhaps break the union. That’s not a viable option, though, in a labor market this tight — even if they could find enough workers with the skills required to keep things going.

MGM says every 1% increase in wages will equal approximately $10 million of additional wage costs. That sounds like a big number. But what will the company lose if there’s a strike? That $10 million is an interesting figure; in 2018, the last time strike threats were issued, it was widely reported that a strike would cost the industry $10 million a day.

So pick your poison. You’re going to pay up one way or another. These things have an obvious rhythm, and right now they don’t favor the house.

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Photo by Paul Sancya/AP photo; illustrated by PlayUSA
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Steve Friess

Steve Friess writes the State of Play column for PlayUSA twice a week. He's a veteran gambling-industry reporter who began covering Las Vegas in 1996 and covered the openings of resorts in Asia, Europe, and across the U.S. His bylines have appeared in The New York Times, Playboy, New Republic, Time, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, New York magazine, and many others. He, his husband, their children and three Poms live in Ann Arbor.

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