Las Vegas' hotel industry is teetering on the edge of a strike by hotel workers worried their jobs will be automated away.
Today is the deadline for the operators of 34 Las Vegas casinos and resorts to agree on a new contract with the Culinary Workers Union Local 226, which represents some 57,000 hotel workers, including cleaners, porters, and servers.
The Caesars Entertainment Corporation, which owns the famous Caesars Palace and seven other hotels in the city, was able to reach an early morning agreement with the union. But the rest have yet come terms.
One major sticking point is the union's demand that they get a say in any new technology implemented by hotels, and that workers who lose their jobs to automation receive both financial compensation and the offer of alternative jobs.
"We support innovations that improve jobs, but we oppose automation when it only destroys jobs. Our industry must innovate without losing the human touch," said Geoconda Argüello-Kline of the Culinary Union in a press release from last week, when 25,000 culinary union members voted to authorize a strike.
"I voted yes to go on strike to ensure my job isn't outsourced to a robot. We know technology is coming, but workers shouldn't be pushed out or left behind," added Chad Neanover, a prep cook at the Margaritaville, in the same release.
Johannes Moenius, an economist at the Redlands University, says he understands the tech fears.
"Las Vegas is pretty much of the epicenter of a potential wave of automation," Moenius explains. According to Moenius' research, about 65 percent of the current jobs in Vegas may be automated within the next 20 years, the most of any large city in the United States. Up to 73 percent of today's hotel workers could see their jobs automated, he tells Reason.
Moenius stresses that his 65 percent figure is a technical one, describing jobs that could be farmed out to robots, not jobs that necessarily will.
"Think of your high-end restaurant in Vegas," he says. "They are not going to have robot servers running around and bussing tables. But a lot of stuff that can be done in the kitchen and the back office is up for grabs."
Already hints of the automation to come are popping up. The Renaissance Hotel has at least two full-time robot butlers that schlep towels and toiletries to hotel guests. The Tipsy Robot, a bar, has swapped out its human bartender for two large cocktail-mixing robotic arms. Less flashy but no less disruptive are the self-check-in kiosks being rolled out in several hotels, and the voice recognition technology that many guests can now use to order room service.
The spread of this new technology is a boon to guests—a majority of whom of whom expressed a preference for a more automated hotel experience in one survey—and to hotel owners themselves, who can save on labor and benefit costs.
This Culinary Workers Union in a less appealing position, given that they represent the lower-skilled support staff whose jobs are at risk. Unfortunately, its other demands may give hotel operators an incentive to embrace automation faster.
The union has been demanding a pay bump of 4 percent a year for the next five years, boosts to health and retirement benefits, and the extension of union membership to currently non-unionized restaurant and arena workers. Whatever the merits of those demands, they add expenses that hotel owners could largely avoid through automation: Robots don't demand pay increases, nor do they require health benefits. Even an unobjectionable demand that hotels offer better protections against sexual harassment on the job has an automation angle. In these pre-Westworld days, robots are hard to sexually harass.
On the other hand, if the union is able to raise the costs of automation—through financial compensation for displaced workers, and by mandating that the union get a say before new technologies are adopted—their demands will look a lot more sustainable.