Slots, Blackjack--And Dirty Sheets?

September 11 depressed tourism everywhere, and Las Vegas was no exception. By some estimates, bookings in the Nevada gambling mecca dropped 50 percent in the weeks after 9-11, prompting many of the city's big-hotel operators to lay off large numbers of housekeepers and chambermaids. Now the tourists are coming back, but the maids haven't been rehired--and their union is ready to walk. Last week members of Culinary Workers Local 226 voted overwhelmingly to strike if a new contract isn't negotiated by May 31. Just in time for the summer vacation season.

The union wants to preserve free family-health coverage, a hallmark of Vegas labor contracts and an important benefit for the predominantly female, predominantly Latino work force. It is also trying to reduce work quotas that typically require maids to clean 15 to 17 rooms a day. "This number of rooms is too much, and the women can't do it anymore," says Glen Arnodo, political director for Local 226. "We figured this was the year to do something about it."

Hoteliers say they're optimistic a new agreement can be reached in time, and some scoff that the union is merely saber rattling. But no one is sure, and everyone recognizes that labor peace was a key component of Vegas's recent boom years. The union, meanwhile, has started leafleting tourists, dampening the carefree mood of the glitzy Strip. "Management doesn't like us going to tourists," Arnodo says. "But we have to do what we have to do."