In the Heart of Motor City, the labor landscape is evolving, and casino employees in Detroit are at the forefront of this transformation. The advent of automation and new technologies has left cocktail servers and hotel housekeepers grappling with changes that have, in some cases, made their jobs more challenging. As a result, thousands of them have taken to the picket lines in search of a fair and balanced solution.
On a brisk October evening, the familiar sounds of Ambre Romero’s home set the scene for her impending shift at the MGM Grand Detroit, a casino where she has been a dedicated employee since 1999. The routine was comforting, with her grandchildren helping with chores and her husband winding down in front of the television. Donning her blue bustier top, she bid farewell to her family and made a quick stop at a nearby gas station for Red Bull and Lucky 13 scratch-off tickets.
Ms. Romero, with her striking red hair and a captivating smile, found solace in the predictability of her job. Her evenings revolved around regular customers, whose life stories, health issues, and even their pet’s names were all part of her repertoire. Her role was inherently social, much like a performer on a nightly stage. However, the introduction of new technologies has begun to reshape her role, mirroring a broader trend in the labor market.
While the public’s attention has often focused on the knowledge economy and the impact of artificial intelligence on jobs, automation has quietly but significantly disrupted the hospitality industry. Robots have taken on roles like delivering room service, preparing salads, and checking in hotel guests, creating a seismic shift in a sector not traditionally associated with automation. A McKinsey estimate this year suggested that up to 70 percent of workers in accommodations and food services could see more than half of their tasks automated, including by artificial intelligence.
“The new thing is the risk to white-collar workers, but blue-collar workers have faced this issue for a long time,” said Darrell West, a senior fellow at the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution.
For Ms. Romero, the familiar rhythms of her job began to change when Smart Bar systems, automated cocktail dispensers, were introduced in 2019. The training for these machines was cursory at best, leaving her to grapple with malfunctioning devices that occasionally sprayed liquid on servers and often failed to provide the ordered items. This meant Ms. Romero spent more time managing the machines and less time engaging with customers, resulting in a 30 percent reduction in her tips.
“I don’t know anyone who cares for the Smart Bar,” lamented Ms. Romero, who earns just over $13 an hour. “It increases all of our responsibilities. We went from being just a server to a bartender and a bar server.”
Upstairs, in the hallways of the MGM Grand, housekeepers encountered similar challenges. An app called HotSOS, introduced earlier this year, was designed to streamline housekeeping tasks, assigning workers to rooms for cleaning and providing instructions on the order in which to clean them. However, the app often malfunctioned, assigning a worker to an occupied room or crashing altogether, leaving housekeepers bewildered and frustrated.
For housekeepers like Alicia Weaver, who has been with the MGM Grand since 1999 and earns $17.76 an hour, the introduction of new technologies has been a source of vexation. “You start to get crazy, especially when you know you have certain rooms you have to get to,” she explained.
The very technologies meant to simplify their work have, at times, complicated it. Instead of experiencing the promised ease, workers have had to contend with apps that freeze, need rebooting, and erase crucial records, making their jobs more challenging.
Casino executives, however, declined to comment on their use of robotic technologies, and some employees have welcomed the introduction of automation as a way to lighten their workloads. While the technology itself isn’t the issue, the workers demand transparency, the chance to influence its implementation, adequate training, and support when job losses due to automation occur.
Denita Anderson, a housekeeper at the MGM Grand since last year, initially found the HotSOS app convenient. “I thought it was convenient,” she said. Smart Bar’s manufacturer argued that the technology allowed workers to serve more customers and increase their earnings. However, the workers emphasize that it’s not about resisting technology but about ensuring that they have a say in its integration and the impacts it has on their livelihoods.
The demand for a voice in the implementation of technology extends to the strike that began on October 17. With contracts expired and negotiations ongoing, workers, represented by unions including UNITE HERE Local 24, United Automobile Workers Local 7777, Teamsters Local 1038, Operating Engineers Local 324, and the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters, are seeking not only higher wages but also greater job security in the face of automation.
Union demands include at least six months’ notice before the introduction of new workplace technologies, the opportunity to negotiate their use, training, and severance packages for workers affected by automation. These provisions are expected to cover not only Smart Bar and HotSOS but also various other technological products, including those that workers feel pose safety risks.
The casino workers of Detroit are no strangers to labor disputes and have deep roots in the union movement. The city’s history is rich with labor activism, and today’s workers are standing on the shoulders of generations that have fought for workers’ rights.
In hospitality, the impact of new technologies has been nuanced. Rather than wholesale job replacement, they’ve brought changes to the way work is done. Workers at the MGM Grand, like Ms. Romero and Ms. Weaver, are reminding their employers of the sacrifices they’ve made in the name of their jobs, as well as the challenges and complications that have arisen from the introduction of automation.
The story in Detroit mirrors the broader labor landscape, where technology is reshaping industries and the demands of workers for a seat at the table are growing louder. Whether in the bustling casinos of the Motor City or beyond, the intersection of labor and automation is an ongoing battle for a fair and equitable future.