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Casino Women

Casino Women: Courage in Unexpected Places

Susan Chandler
Jill B. Jones
Copyright Date: 2011
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press,
Pages: 240
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  • Book Info
    Casino Women
    Book Description:

    Casino Women is a pioneering look at the female face of corporate gaming. Based on extended interviews with maids, cocktail waitresses, cooks, laundry workers, dealers, pit bosses, managers, and vice presidents, the book describes in compelling detail a world whose enormous profitability is dependent on the labor of women assigned stereotypically female occupations-making beds and serving food on the one hand and providing sexual allure on the other. But behind the neon lies another world, peopled by thousands of remarkable women who assert their humanity in the face of gaming empires' relentless quest for profits.

    The casino women profiled here generally fall into two groups. Geoconda Arguello Kline, typical of the first, arrived in the United States in the 1980s fleeing the war in Nicaragua. Finding work as a Las Vegas hotel maid, she overcame her initial fear of organizing and joined with others to build the preeminent grassroots union in the nation-the 60,000-member Culinary Union-becoming in time its president. In Las Vegas, "the hottest union city in America," the collective actions of union activists have won economic and political power for tens of thousands of working Nevadans and their families. The story of these women's transformation and their success in creating a union able to face off against global gaming giants form the centerpiece of this book.

    Another group of women, dealers and middle managers among them, did not act. Fearful of losing their jobs, they remained silent, declining to speak out when others were abused, and in the case of middle managers, taking on the corporations' goals as their own. Susan Chandler and Jill B. Jones appraise the cost of their silence and examine the factors that pushed some women into activism and led others to accept the status quo.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6269-6
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xvi)
    (pp. 1-12)

    We met Geoconda Arguello Kline and Mirna Preciado in their tiny office at Culinary Union headquarters in downtown Las Vegas. The Culinary Union, which represents casino workers throughout Nevada, is at 60,000 members one of the largest union locals in the United States.¹ The aging, low-slung, blue-and-white building with CULINARY painted across it in huge letters has an energy that is palpable. It is as international as the Miami airport, and workers from dozens of countries go in and out the doors on union business.

    Geoconda, president of the union since 2005, and Mirna, a staff organizer, came to Las...


    • 2 “THEY’RE TREATING US LIKE DONKEYS, REALLY”: Housekeeping and Other Back of the House Work
      (pp. 15-28)

      Alicia Bermudez, a dark-haired, energetic woman in her forties, works in the laundry of a high-end Reno casino. At the time we interviewed her, she had been employed there for ten years. She was making $9.53 an hour and took home about $550 every two weeks. Her annual raises, like those of every Reno worker we interviewed, had been miniscule—“18 cents, 15 cents, the most high, 23 cents—and nobody can survive with that sum,” Bermudez said emphatically.¹ “I’m a mother and when I’m going to the grocery store I fill up my purse with coupons. I just see...

    • 3 “KISS MY FOOT”: Cocktail Waitressing
      (pp. 29-44)

      Heidi Abrahamson had only been cocktailing for eighteen months at the time of our interview. Young, beautiful, and a U.S. Air Force veteran, she was steadily making her way through an undergraduate degree at the University of Nevada, Reno. Her student job was fine, but, she laughed, she was “tired of eating Top Ramen.” Although Heidi disliked both casinos and casino employees—“the whole aura promotes alcoholism and gambling,” she thought—she decided to apply for a job as a cocktail waitress. She figured she could tolerate it, at least until she caught up on the bills (a story we...


      (pp. 47-60)

      The first thing Mary Burns did when she graduated from high school in Tallulah, Louisiana, in 1971 was buy a bus ticket to Las Vegas. Her brother, sister, aunts, and uncles all had jobs there, and as far as she was concerned, they’d made the right decision in getting as far away from Louisiana as possible. They were not alone. Black Southerners had been making their way across the desert to Las Vegas since the early 1940s when jobs for African Americans first opened in numbers.¹ By 1970 when Mary Burns arrived, 14,000 African Americans lived in Las Vegas, up...

    • 5 “HERE’S MY HEART”
      (pp. 61-76)

      By the mid-1990s, Nevada casinos had changed dramatically and the union with them. The corporatization of gaming begun by Howard Hughes two decades earlier had catapulted Las Vegas into the top ranks of global cities and had created within the gaming industry major global empires. Family- and mob-run casinos were edged out of existence as new megacasinos drew patrons and their cash from around the globe. As for the Culinary Union, it emerged by virtue of members’ extraordinary efforts as the “biggest union organizing success story in the United States in the last quarter century” and Las Vegas as the...


      (pp. 79-96)

      In the spring of 2000, Chuck Whitaker (not his real name), manager of the Food and Beverage Department at Harrah’s, Reno, sent a letter to all food and beverage employees detailing Harrah’s new appearance and grooming standards and launching the corporation’s “Personal Best” initiative. It was a letter that shortly would jettison Darlene Jespersen’s twenty-year career as one of Harrah’s top bartenders—and land the corporation in the midst of a major legal battle, as a consequence of which “Jespersen” would become a cause célèbre and near-household name to lawyers and law students across the country. At issue was the...

      (pp. 97-106)

      Edna Harman, white-haired and in manner somewhere between a nun and a truck driver, dealt cards and pit bossed at a top Reno casino for twenty-six years. Less than an hour into our conversation, she reached into her bag and pulled out a copy of Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer’s School of Assassins, an exposé of the School of the Americas, the infamous U.S. government-funded military training center for Latin American soldiers at Fort Benning, Georgia.¹ What was seventy-year-old Edna Harman, pit boss, doing with that book in her bag? “Oh,” she said, “[The School of the America’s] is the place where I’ve...


    • 8 DEALING: The View from Dead Center
      (pp. 109-124)

      Jeanine Carter had dealt roulette at a high-end Reno casino for twenty-two years, and from her position near the center of the gaming floor she closely observed both players and the house. The view, exciting at first, in time became deeply disturbing. “On Friday, Saturday, and Sunday on a busy weekend,” she said, “you can see the people come in. They’re frantic. They’re all pumped up, and they’re pushing and they’re trying to get their arms in [to play]. . . . It’s a momentum—they’re pushing their will on us and they’re trying to break us down. I mean,...

    • 9 STUCK
      (pp. 125-136)

      Bettina Aptheker in her memoir, Intimate Politics, writes that bearing witness “is a political and spiritual practice in which the participants go to a place of great suffering and publicly acknowledge its existence. They shine a light all over it so that those who have suffered are no longer alone, or forgotten, or ashamed, and so that no one can claim that they didn’t know what was happening.”¹ In our interviews with casino women, we did not ask that they go to places of great suffering, but in acts of extraordinary generosity, they often did. Nowhere was this more apparent...

      (pp. 137-154)

      Teresa Price, daughter of popular state senator Bob Price, had dealt cards at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas for twenty-five years. Once an Employee of the Month, she was fun and outgoing, and her personnel file was swollen with customer letters praising her service. Then abruptly in September of 2005 it was over. In the middle of a blackjack game, a player puffed smoke in Teresa’s face, an all-too-common experience for dealers. When Teresa blew it back, the customer “started screaming, ‘You blew my smoke back on me!’ ”¹ The casino, which had been waiting for this moment, moved with...


      (pp. 157-169)

      Harrah’s Entertainment, Inc., invites applicants who visit its employment webpage to consider a management position in the human resource department. “The Human Resource team at Harrah’s,” the webpage reads, “is passionate about taking care of our internal service culture which ensures that each Moment of Truth we have with each other meets or exceeds each other’s expectations. You see, it’s our job to ensure that we are doing more than just taking care of our employees; we are responsible for maintaining a culture where people want to take care of each other.”¹

      The invitation frankly feels false, but its authors...

    • 12 CONCLUSION: “A Marvelous Victory”
      (pp. 170-178)

      Magdalena Ruiz, a lovely thirty-one-year old, met us in the library of a Reno family resource center where she recently had been hired as a teacher’s aide. After ten years of casino hostessing, she was relieved to be out of the gaming industry and delighted with her new job. Work was not the only major change in Magdalena’s life; just a few weeks earlier, she had walked out on an alcoholic and abusive husband. “Do I want my kids to live in hell, always in fear of when he drinks? No!” she said. “It’s hard being a single mom. ....

  10. Notes
    (pp. 179-200)
  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 201-218)
  12. Index
    (pp. 219-224)