Debra Jefferies, a cocktail waitress at the Horseshoe Las Vegas, spent much of the week wondering whether she would join a picket line like she did in 1984, the last time the city had a major strike among hotel workers.
“There was solidarity then, just as there is now,” said Ms. Jefferies, 68. “Every generation has pushed for better working conditions.”
Nearly 35,000 union members, including Ms. Jefferies, threatened on Friday to go on strike against the city’s three major casino operators after months of negotiations failed to produce a new five-year labor contract.
But last-minute maneuvers averted a strike as resort owners — Caesars Entertainment, MGM Resorts International and Wynn Resorts — one by one agreed to tentative contracts with the city’s two most powerful unions.
The final agreement with Wynn Resorts was reached early Friday, a few hours before the strike deadline. The deal, if ratified, would “provide our employees with outstanding benefits and total compensation,” Wynn said in a statement. One of the two unions, Culinary Workers Union Local 226, said the contract includes the largest negotiated wage increase in its 88-year history.
A strike threatened to cause major disruption to a number of major events, starting with the Las Vegas Grand Prix, a Formula One auto race along the Strip that is expected to draw hundreds of thousands of visitors late next week.
It was the latest melting pot for Las Vegas and Nevada, which has the highest unemployment rate in the country – currently 5.4 percent – and has struggled to get back on its feet since the start of the pandemic, which shut down the Strip for months.
Hotel occupancy remains below pre-pandemic levels. In September it was around 82 percent, compared to 88 percent in 2019. And union representatives say there are around 20 percent fewer hospitality workers in the city than before the pandemic. But even with lower occupancy, there are some signs of an upswing: fewer people are spending more money. Tax revenue is 35 percent higher than before the pandemic.
In addition to the Formula 1 race, Las Vegas is home to the National Finals Rodeo in December and the Super Bowl in February.
Bill Hornbuckle, MGM’s chief executive, said in a conference call Wednesday that his company had sold more than 10,000 tickets for the Grand Prix and expected to generate $60 million in additional hotel revenue in the coming days.
These assignments made an employment contract even more important.
The dispute pitted Culinary Workers Union Local 226 and Bartenders Union Local 165 – affiliates of the union federation UNITE HERE – against Caesars, MGM and Wynn, which operate 18 hotels along the Strip and are the state’s three largest employers. Ted Pappageorge, the head of Local 226, likened the negotiations to landing “three big planes at once.”
Unions pushed for contracts that would increase wages and ease concerns about the introduction of new technologies that could impact jobs. For example, many hotels have reduced front desk staff and instead set up mobile check-in desks to reduce waiting times.
Another important factor that the union focused on during the seven months of negotiations was daily housekeeping. Since the pandemic, many hotels along the Strip have stopped providing daily housekeeping to guests – a move that has cost them jobs, union leaders said. And lawmakers voted this year to repeal a state law passed during the pandemic that required daily disinfection of hotel rooms. Strict rules that now require daily room cleaning were significant successes in the contract negotiations.
“Hospitality workers will now be able to provide for their families and thrive in Las Vegas,” Mr. Pappageorge said. He added that the MGM Resorts contract would provide for pay increases “well above” those in the last contract, totaling a $4.57 hourly increase in wages, health care and pensions.
Details of the tentative agreements were not disclosed, but terms are expected to be similar for all three companies. Under the contract, which expired Sept. 15, union members earn an average of $26 an hour.
Stephen M. Miller, an economics professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said the post-pandemic sea change in the balance of power between management and labor is clearly evident in Las Vegas.
Mr. Miller said federal stimulus money during the pandemic has given laid-off workers, including many who worked in the Las Vegas food service union, the resources to reconsider their future employment path.
“The labor market is undergoing a major restructuring process that has given workers more bargaining power,” he said. “The resurgence of strikes and strike threats is the observable result of this shift in power.”
If a strike had occurred, it would have had a detrimental effect on the state’s economy, Mr. Miller said.
“The economic recovery here in Nevada has come in fits and starts,” he said. “Neither side wanted an attack. It would have been terrible for the state’s economy and reputation.”
Even before last year’s labor crisis in the auto industry, Hollywood and other sectors, Nevada’s culinary workers were a particularly powerful force.
It was the members of culinary unions — including housekeepers, cooks, bouncers, laundry workers, bartenders and servers — whose political influence was crucial to legislative approval of Covid-19 safety precautions.
And as a strong base for Democrats, they often help sway elections.
In 2020, members knocked on more than 500,000 doors and helped Joseph R. Biden Jr. win the state by about two percentage points. Last year, during the 2022 midterm elections, they redoubled their efforts to support Senator Catherine Cortez Masto in her re-election. (Despite their efforts, incumbent Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak, who faced intense criticism over the pandemic shutdowns, narrowly lost.)
That kind of support could continue to be crucial for Mr. Biden next year, in a swing state where a recent New York Times/Siena College poll showed him trailing his likely Republican opponent, former President Donald Trump, by 10 percentage points J. Trump, lies.
Yusett Salomon was among the workers who campaigned for the Democrats in the 2022 elections. He has worked as a warehouse worker moving pallets of food and plants at the Wynn for the past two years, earning $22 an hour.
On Thursday, Mr. Salomon sat in a huge hotel conference room and watched the proceedings. “There is no better time than now to fight for what we deserve,” he said.
Lynnette Curtis and J. Edward Moreno contributed reporting.