In recent years, Las Vegas has won attention as a union town. The Culinary gained notice for its success in an era of declining union membership. But Las Vegas has a long history of strong unions. This year marks the centennial of a big moment in Las Vegas’s labor history.
In 1921, two big events combined to affect southern Nevada railroad workers. Senator William Andrews Clark sold his share and control of the railroad to his partner, the Union Pacific. The UP cut sixty men from the shop payroll in Las Vegas. At the time, the local population was about twenty-three hundred — that kind of cut was noticeable. Also, Warren Harding became president and appointed new members of the national Railroad Labor Board. They were less friendly to workers, who soon were subjected to wage cuts. When the board approved even more cuts in June 1922, the national shopworkers’ union called for a strike.
On July 1, the unions at the Las Vegas repair shops walked out. Almost every worker went on strike. But the unions could be cooperative. Since the UP provided the town’s electricity, the unions agreed to let a few people stay on the job… as long as strikebreakers didn’t get any of the power. But the UP hired strikebreakers at once. And the one person left to run the power plant fell asleep on the job, the equipment failed, and power and phone service failed with it.
The strike didn’t go well for the UP. Their attorney, Leo McNamee, said if the railroad wanted to take action against strikers, it would have to be in federal court. Why? Local officials supported the strike. As historian Eric Nystrom explained in his history of the strike, “Las Vegas officials took this sensible position because the union members accounted for most of the voters in town.” Railroad officials waited, hoping for something to justify asking a federal judge to limit picketing. On the morning of July 12, fifty strikers met a train and beat up six strikebreakers. A federal judge issued a temporary restraining order, but state officials didn’t want to enforce it — they counted on those votes, too. Making matters worse, other unions joined in the shopworkers’ strike. The trains still could operate as long as they didn’t need repairs, but now, without engineers, firemen, and brakemen, they were at a standstill. Then violence broke out involving strikers and UP workers, leading Governor Emmet Boyle to call in the state police.
The strike finally fell apart for several reasons. The other unions — the operators — agreed to go back to work. National pressure forced the shopworkers’ unions across the country to give in. The UP offered slightly higher wages. The railroad offered reassurances that it wouldn’t move the repair shops out of Las Vegas — a big concern to the community. By the end of 1922, the strike was effectively over… And soon the UP moved the repair shops up the line to Caliente. Las Vegas would recover from the loss, thanks to federal projects and tourism. And today the land where the repair shops were is the home of the Ruvo Center, The Smith Center, the World Market Center, and much more.