As the Las Vegas Culinary Union loses jobs to automation and technology, you have to wonder how these twin issues will affect Mexico in the next administration.
I was sitting in a Starbuck’s Coffee awhile back with my wife. The store had a wonderful mix of classic jazz tunes. John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins type stuff. I was so caught off guard that I wanted to say thanks to the person in charge that night. Walking to the counter just a few minutes before closing, I told her how much I appreciated the music that night. She said thanks and then shared that jazz was her dad’s favorite music when he played.
I asked her if he played here in Las Vegas, and that’s when the discussion took a turn.
She told me he used to play all the time in showrooms, casinos and local clubs, but that now he never played. He had to go get a “real” job. When I asked her why, the answer took me back in Las Vegas history.
She said Vegas decided they didn’t need live music anymore.
I lived in Las Vegas when that road was chosen. In 1989 when the contract with the Musicians Union came up for renewal, the casino and hotel industry took a hard line on the number of musicians they would accept in live shows. Back then many casinos had “house bands” that played alongside the various acts.
Two reasons were driving the narrative for a hardline group of casinos in the negotiations. First, many acts back then were starting to tour with their own bands, negating the need for casinos to keep a stable of musicians on the payroll. Second, and perhaps more ominous for the music industry, with the advent of electronic options. Owners argued they could essentially get a fine musical product using prerecorded music in many of their shows.
The union was not having it and went on strike against the demanded cuts. Music quality would suffer without local talent, jobs would be lost and who would ever support music played by a machine over a live performance.
The almost 8 month strike ended in January of 1990. Casinos agreed to severance pay for hundreds of musicians who would be losing their jobs. In exchange, the musicians dropped demands to keep the house bands intact and accepted a guarantee that gave three musicians and one bandleader ongoing jobs in Vegas showrooms.
It was a total win for the casino industry and, perhaps more ominously, technology.
Fast forward almost thirty years and the same arguments are popping up as the Las Vegas Culinary Union fights for their very life. Last week, seeking leverage against the casino industry, the union voted overwhelmingly to authorize a city wide strike. While money and costs are what many people will publicly argue about, the real enemy once again is technology. The union is concerned that their members will lose jobs to robots that never call in sick, never need a family day off and never talk back to a supervisor.
Like the Musicians Union before them, Culinary is going to lose. Simply put, you cannot turn back time. As casino and hotel executives look for ways to cut expenses and raise profit margins, labor remains a massive expense. If by using a robot they can save boatloads of cash over the course of the year, and not compromise the guest experience, why wouldn’t they?
Which brings us to Mexico and the strange congruence between the labor situation in Las Vegas and our neighbors 500 miles south. Like the casinos, and even the US automakers of days gone by, the economy of Mexico is dominated by labor. There are literally thousands of labor saving tools, gadgets and inventions not available in large swaths of the country because their very existence would endanger jobs.
All across the country, cement blocks and bricks are still largely made by hand. Of course you can travel to the big city and buy factory produced blocks, but in the majority of the country, small handmade blocks still rule the roost.
In the US if you need to replace a door, you simply head over to your nearest Home Depot or Lowes and buy a new door, pre-hung in its casing, ready to install. In Mexico, when you go to Home Depot, you buy a package of all the pieces you’ll need but when you get home, you still have to put the door jamb together and hang your door. Or, pay someone else to do the job for you.
In many ways, Mexico, like the Musicians Union of days gone by and todays Culinary Union, is battling against the future, and eventually, the future is going to win. And it is that reality, more than anything else that is going to vex the winner of this years presidential elections in Mexico, to be held on July 1.
Consider another example of the labor problem that is awaiting the winner of the upcoming elections, Manuel Lopez Obrador, if the polls are to be believed.
I went to a papeleria, or a stationary store, recently in Mexico. I was greeted at the door by one worker and directed downstairs to find what I needed. I asked at the counter for poster board. The employee told me they had it and what the price was. I asked for five sheets and she wrote up a ticket. I then had to go back upstairs to pay for it and when I brought the receipt back, the employee directed another employee to get my five sheets.
Wrapping them up as I waited, they were then given to another employee to take them upstairs where it was confirmed again that I had paid for my five sheets. I was finally given my poster board but before I could leave, the security guard had to check my receipt one last time. All told, 6 employees were involved in my transaction, valued at less that $5.00. It took me almost 30 minutes once I got into the store to buy what I needed.
Technology and a better understanding of how to use workers would have undoubtedly cut down the number of people involved in my transaction. But that would mean fewer workers, and as we have seen across the globe, millions of idle unemployed young people, frustrated at the situation and the powers that be, can lead to social disaster. It’s the idle hands theory.
In the end, like Lopez Obrador, technology is going to win in Mexico, just like it did in Las Vegas when the musicians went out on strike in 1989 and just like it will if Culinary goes on strike June 1st.
The question we all face in Mexico, in the US and across the globe is this… as fewer and fewer people are needed to work and manually do the jobs of yesteryear, what should we do with all the displaced workers? Do we retrain them? Ignore them? Or leave them to join the inevitable mega marches sure to crop up in response to lost jobs, wages, hopes and dreams?
June 1st, those are the questions front and center right now in Las Vegas. July 1st, we will see how the people of Mexico respond.