LAS VEGAS (KSNV MyNews3.com) — There has been labor unrest in Southern Nevada casinos this past year - sit-down protests that stopped traffic with arrests on the Strip in front of the Cosmopolitan and more recently, talk of a possible strike downtown.
While those protests are important to the parties involved, the city hasn't been shaken the way it was 30 years ago, when the Culinary, Bartenders, Stagehands and Musicians unions struck simultaneously. Their main target was a group of hotels known collectively as the Nevada Resort Association.
"No way, NRA. No way, NRA," chanted throngs of protesters on the Las Vegas Strip in spring 1984.
"A lot of these union members say they don't expect the strike to last long, saying they're optimistic that the NRA will come close to meeting their demands," reported News 3's Donna Cline. "In the meantime, no talks have been scheduled between the union and the Nevada Resort Association."
"I'm the only working person in my house. I have three kids," said one angry picketer in front of the Marina hotel. "I need every dime that I work for. This hotel is not bankrupt."
The unions' demands initially included an improved health premium, a 40-hour work week, and a significant wage raise as well as smaller details.
"But by the time the strike hit, it was one of those things where you know, you were just trying to hang on to what you had and make some minimal increases," says Dennis Kist.
Kist is now a labor relations attorney in Colorado. But in 1984, Kist was on the front lines as president of the Las Vegas Stagehands Union.
"I want to place you under citizens arrest for violating a judges order," said Kist, confronting a group of Las Vegas Metropolitan Police officers.
He was trying to turn the tables on a court ruling limiting the number of picketers allowed in front of any hotel at one time. Instead, Kist was arrested and placed in the back seat of a cruiser while police issued an ultimatum.
"This is the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department" announced a sergeant over his car's loudspeaker. "We are declaring this an unlawful and illegal assembly. Please leave immediately or face the consequences.
Most picketers tried to hold their ground as police moved in. There were struggles. Police pulled out batons and in some cases swung them and tackled defiant protesters. But other union workers took a non-violent approach, submitting to handcuffs and being led to paddy wagons. One picketer sang "God Bless America" as he was taken into custody.
It was ugly, but Metro Sheriff John Moran insisted the police were neutral.
"We've maintained all along, we're gonna continue to maintain neutrality," Moran told News 3. "But we are going to take appropriate action anytime there are violations of the law, whether it's on labor side or whether it's on management side."
"In that the police were being paid by the hotels directly, it's hard to say that they were neutral," responds Kist today. "The hotels were obligated to pay their overtime when they went out there to do their arrests, and they had full contact with the head of security at the different hotels. So they were definitely working together and had no intent of protecting the strikers."
Many of the encounters between strikers and the police involved physical conflict, but one of the worst episodes involved hotel security at the Las Vegas Hilton.
The hotel knew a protest targeting the Hilton was planned and erected barricades around the entrance. Union members and security guards faced each other on either side.
On a signal from leaders, the picketers moved in, pushing barricades aside. Security initially began trying to put the barricades back up. When that didn't work, they went directly for the union members, tackling, handcuffing, and in some cases striking them with batons.
Kist saw one of his friends go down and moved in to help. He was immediately set upon by several security guards, who backed him against a light pole and restrained him with a nightstick squeezing his throat. The level of the force used took Kist by surprise, but his was by no means the worst experience.
"Another stagehand when we were sitting in front of the MGM protesting, the police come up and punched him in the throat and actually broke a bone in his throat," Kist tells News 3 today. "And had it moved just a quarter of an inch or so he would have died. Another wardrobe attendant we represented, they took her arm and twisted it up over her head and broke her arm."
"Then the next thing I knew, officers were lifting me out of the truck, just literally picked me up and slammed me down on the ground and handcuffed me and put me in a truck," a picketer named Mary told News 3 in 1984.
"So while the strike has had immediate visible effects on the people walking the picket lines, it is also hurting local businesses, big and small." reported News 3's Marla Martin. "And the companies are worried that it will get worse."
While the hotels were starting to suffer and lose business to other properties that had already settled, the strikers were also running out of steam, and ready to get back to work. In continuing negotiations, one by one, agreements were reached.
"Management has learned that they can't replace us," Culinary Union President Jeff McColl told cheering protesters. "They can't replace the stagehand, the musician, the culinary worker or the bartender. They found out that the employees that they have are good employees. And that what they have inside the hotel now are incompetents, derelicts and scabs."
But some of that was bravado and face-saving, according to Dennis Kist today.
"The stagehands ended up ... we got the increase of the culinary insurance premiums. But we got a five-year wage freeze out of it," he explains. "We protected a few other things in the contract. But it was one of those things when you reach the two-and-a-half month point ... you have to live to fight another day. So when we came back in 1989, we got a 25 percent increase in our wages."
There have been other strikes in Southern Nevada before and since. But the strike of 1984 was the most widespread and violent in the Resort Corridor.