Ah, the glamour of Las Vegas. Unions are known for holding conventions there. Much of Middle America, as well as high flyers from around the globe, regard it as an ideal vacation. Retirees looking for sun, workers seeking opportunities, to say nothing of people who hope to strike it rich, all have poured into southern Nevada, making it the fastest-growing urban area in the U.S. for decades. Slot machines greet arrivals at airports and state line businesses. The mega resorts—which have come to dominate the business in recent decades the way that corporations replaced the mob—have spared nothing, except the workers, in their efforts to entice and entrap customers. Free drinks, "comped" rooms and meals, elaborate reward schemes, lavish displays and entertainment, and all-you-can-eat buffets attract people. Resort geography requires guests to move through casinos in order to access all other services: movie theaters, bowling alleys, shops, live entertainment, swimming pools, restaurants, hotel rooms, conference venues, even hotel desks. Parking garages open into casino floors. The aisles between slot machines are narrow, compelling visual as well as auditory awareness of the passers-by. Casinos notoriously lack windows and clocks, so that the twenty-four-hour business operates in a sealed vacuum, away from normal reminders of schedules and routines. More than Los Angeles, Las Vegas is la-la land. Its advertising has the power to suspend common sense. "Two million people? I thought Las Vegas was just a bunch of hotels in the desert,"one might ask. It is. But where do the people who work in those hotels live? Where do they buy their groceries? Where do their kids go to school? Las Vegas has been hyped in a way that removes everything except its presumed pleasures. "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas," the Convention and Visitors Authority assures travelers.
Reno, "the biggest little city in the world," also relies on gambling as a major source of income. In 1931, after mining towns became ghost towns, Nevada legalized gambling and it has been a mainstay of the economy ever since. Besides national and international visitors, California provides a steady stream of business. Busloads from the San Francisco Bay area cross the Sierra Mountains with daylong round trips, supplying Reno with seemingly unlimited numbers of gamblers. The San Diego and Los Angeles sprawls offer quick access to Las Vegas via freeways whose desert speeds are frequently 90 mph, an easy weekend trip.
Among the hardest-working women who provide casino pleasures—visible and invisible—are the housekeepers, once primarily black women recruited from the rural South, today increasingly Latinas fleeing repression and poverty. They are also leading union activists. "You have to do it for the people coming." This explanation of their involvement by Geoconda Arguello Kline, president of the Las Vegas Culinary Workers Union, once a hotel maid, is the title of the first chapter of Casino Women. Susan Chandler and Jill B. Jones have written a respectful and admiring account of the mostly black and immigrant activists in Nevada's so-called "gaming" industry, whom they contrast with women managers and unorganized card dealers. They situate their subjects in a larger context: a history that has [End Page 111] changed from mob dominance to corporatization, globalization, and managers' efforts to obtain complete control, whether on the gambling floor or in the state legislature.
Relying on interviews and focus groups with casino workers, managers, activists, union officials, and related professionals, Chandler and Jones present a striking, and bifurcated, portrait of casino women. Their initial focus, and clearly their respect, lies with working-class women from both the back and the front of the house, housekeepers and cocktail waitresses, but their scope is broad enough to include non-union activists, card dealers, managers, and others whose stories underlie Nevada's major industry. Including workers in Las Vegas and Reno, most of whom they have carefully shielded with anonymity and whose life details they have fabricated, they paint a complex portrait of women in the gambling industry, a uniquely...