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Las Vegas workers vote to strike over fears robots are taking jobs

Image credit: Jonathan Wilson

Over 50,000 union workers in Las Vegas, Nevada, USA, are set to go on strike if new contracts are not settled. One of the main drivers for the strike action is the fear that robots will gradually displace human operators.

The robot job threat heads a list of concerns from the Culinary and Bartenders Unions. The hospitality employees, working across 34 casino venues in Las Vegas – including world-famous locations owned and operated by MGM Resorts International and Caesars Entertainment Corporation – have voted to begin a city-wide strike starting on Friday 1 June. It will be the first such strike in the city since 1984, a walkout that lasted for over two months.

Workers participating in the strike include bartenders, guest room attendants, cocktail servers, food servers, porters, bellmen, cooks and kitchen workers, employed at properties on the Las Vegas Strip and downtown Las Vegas, including Caesars Palace, Bellagio, Stratosphere, Treasure Island, The D, Luxor and El Cortez. The workers’ contracts expired at midnight on 31 May.

Casino dealers are not part of the Culinary Union. Casino resorts that would not be affected by the strike include Wynn Las Vegas, Encore, The Venetian and Palazzo.

The two unions are seeking a new five-year contract, which has been under negotiation for months with casino operators. So far there has been little sign of any agreement, with one of the main sticking points being unions’ concern about increased automation in the hospitality industries.

The unions are also asking for new-skill training and job opportunities as the resort operators adopt new technology that could displace workers, an independent study to analyse the current workload of housekeepers, and specific contract language that protects workers if resort properties are sold or change owners. Some workers have also suggested training to service and repair the robots that might eventually replace them in their current roles.

“We support innovations that improve jobs, but we oppose automation when it only destroys jobs,” said Geoconda Argüello-Kline, secretary-treasurer for the Culinary Union, in a prepared statement. “Our industry must innovate without losing the human touch. That’s why employers should work with us to stay strong, fair, and competitive.”

“I voted yes to go on strike to ensure my job isn’t outsourced to a robot,” said Chad Neanover, a cook at the Margaritaville hotel. “We know technology is coming, but workers shouldn’t be pushed out or left behind. Casino companies should ensure that technology is harnessed to improve the quality and safety in the workplace, not as a way to completely eliminate our jobs.”

MGM, which employees 24,000 of the affected workers, stated that the company remains confident that it can “resolve the outstanding contract issues and come to an agreement that works for all sides”.

Caesars – which has 12,000 workers affected – said that it “expects to agree to a new five-year contract with the Culinary Union when the current contract expires”.

As one of the world’s most-famous vacation destinations, Las Vegas relies heavily on tourism but is also particularly vulnerable to the societal risks of mass automation of manual jobs. A 2018 study from the University of Redlands predicted that almost 65 per cent of the city’s jobs could be automated within the next 20 years, while a survey conducted by Oracle found that three-quarters of hotel operators said AI-based systems would become mainstream by 2025, with 58 per cent saying they would embrace the use of robots for cleaning.

Approximately 42 million people visited the city of Las Vegas in 2017, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. The spend of those visitors has been estimated to be worth $34.8bn.

Automation of jobs is a global concern, threatening the jobs of millions of people. According to a 2018 report from think tank Centre for Cities, one in five existing jobs in Britain alone are likely to be displaced by 2030 as a result of automation and globalisation, amounting to 3.6 million jobs in total. 

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