On Las Vegas Strip, Workers Want Candidates To Address Wages, Inequality
The path to victory in Nevada’s Democratic caucuses this Saturday goes straight down Las Vegas Boulevard.
Not through the throngs of tourists walking the Strip, but through the card dealers, maids and bartenders who serve them. In Southern Nevada, tourism supports more than 366,000 jobs – 43 percent of the total workforce, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitor’s Authority.
Some of those jobs are more lucrative than others. MJ Williams performs as a half-dressed firefighter who flashes his six-pack abs and a devilish grin to draw the attention of women as they pass.
The work pays maybe $50 a night in tips. Williams doesn’t own the hardhat, the fire hose or the fire pants that make up his costume. (He’s not wearing a shirt, of course). He pays someone else up to $9 an hour to rent the outfit.
“If I don’t make his money first than I make no money,” says Williams.
At this rate, Williams can’t afford health insurance. When he looks around this city, he sees a lot of people working hard for a few bucks while the casinos rake in billions. It’s no surprise he supports Bernie Sanders, the man who rails against income inequality at every turn, for president.
“Honestly, I’ve been let down year after year,” says Williams, 27, who moved to Vegas from Daytona Beach, Florida. “The country hasn’t really gotten any better no matter who’s gotten in.”
Further down the Strip, at the Stratosphere, presidential politics are fertile ground for comedians at the L.A. Comedy Club. Las Vegas resident Phil Peredo and Californian, Diaz Mackie, weave political jokes into their sets a few days before the caucuses.
“I don’t think Bernie Sanders thought about his slogan,” Mackie says from the stage. “Feel the Bern? He didn’t put enough thought into that. No young man wants to feel the burn. Not after high school. You learn that lesson one time.”
After the show Peredo, in a dingy greenroom behind the stage, says only two people in the crowd answered him when he asked who they supported for president. “It’s a personal choice for people,” says Peredo, who worked in Washington as a Congressional staffer before becoming a comedian. “They don’t want to be judged.”
Being judged is one reason why some critics of the caucus system in Nevada worry about turnout on Saturday. The caucus forces people to publicly support a candidate – a potentially uncomfortable task in this contentious election. That doesn’t bother Peredo, a self-described yellow-dog Democrat, who supports Hillary Clinton.
Most workers on the Strip are “rank-and-file Democrats, if they show up to vote,” says Eric Herzik, a political scientist at the University of Nevada Reno. He adds that a major resort casino has five to 10 thousand workers who vote on the issue of wages, health benefits and childcare.
They’re also proud union members.
The powerful Culinary Union Local 226 in Las Vegas represents 57,000 members. More than half are Latino and female. They come from about 167 countries and speak over 40 different languages, according to union spokesperson Bethany Khan.
That diversity reflects Nevada’s status as a growing Western battleground state. Several caucus sites will be set up on the Strip so that casino employees who have to work can participate.
Miguel Funes plans to be there. He’s a U.S. citizen from Honduras who works at the Trump International Hotel.
Yes, Funes works for a front-running presidential candidate for the Republican Party, who co-owns the 64-story gilded tower. “Don’t get me wrong it’s a nice building,” says Funes, who makes $9.18 an hour as a food server. “But it would be better if we got what we deserve.”
A majority of 500 workers at the Trump hotel voted in December to unionize with Culinary. But the contract hasn’t been worked out. Funes says he works a second food service job across the Strip at Mandalay Bay, which is unionized, and pays him nearly twice as much with benefits.
Still undecided between Clinton and Sanders, Funes says he knows he won’t be caucusing for Trump.
“When Trump says we’re going to make America Great again, it makes me think, ‘How’?” says Funes. “We’re making money for him. But he’s not able to get us what we deserve. What is he going to make for America?”
- Peter O’Dowd, assistant managing editor for Here & Now, currently reporting from Nevada. He tweets @odowdpeter.