LAS VEGAS (AFP) - Anger over rising prices and wages that don't stretch far enough brought thousands of casino workers onto the streets of Las Vegas in recent months, part of a wave of labor discontent in the United States.
Yet President Joe Biden is gambling that if he keeps explaining how well the economy is doing, voters will reward him in November's election.
In America's gaming capital, that seems like a risky bet. "The economy is horrible. Inflation has hurt everyone," Jennine Minervini of the Culinary Workers Union told AFP at a protest outside the Golden Nugget casino.
The union, which represents some 60,000 workers in Sin City, reached a last-minute agreement with casinos last week to avert a large-scale walk-out, securing pay raises for their members.
But the discontent felt among bartenders, wait staff and food servers in Las Vegas echoes that found across America where conversation frequently turns to the price of weekly shopping, or the cost of a tank of gas.
That is despite economic figures that look rather good. Inflation, which hit a 40-year high in 2022, is trending back toward policymakers' goal of 2 percent, while the economy as a whole is growing at a decent clip, expanding 3.1 percent in 2023.
Unemployment is at near-historic lows. "This is a good economy," Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell recently declared. But that's not how most Americans see it. Strikes rippled through much of the country last year, paralyzing industries that produce everything from the movies to motors with one common refrain: we need a raise.
Only a third of voters approve of Biden's handling of the economy, according to a new poll released on Monday by NBC News.
"Everything's up... the cost of living, rent, the insurance on cars, everything," said Andrew Wentland, a Las Vegas hospitality worker who took on a second job and now logs 16-hour days just to make ends meet. "I tried to make a lot of adjustments. And it's hard when you gotta just live like you're poor. The money just can't catch up."
- 'A little worried' -
On Friday, as Wentland and Minervini stood on picket lines in downtown Las Vegas demanding better pay, Biden was trumpeting healthy employment figures, noting there are 14.8 million more jobs now than when he came to office.
"America's economy is the strongest in the world," he said. "Today we saw more proof." It is this awkward juxtaposition that observers say is fueling Biden's unpopularity. "I think people are a little worried when they don't have more money in their pocket," said Peter Guzman, president of the Nevada Latin Chamber of Commerce, which represents more than 1,500 members in a state whose main economic activity is entertainment.
"When it comes to the elections, that's how they're gonna vote. They're gonna vote on how their wallet is feeling right now." For workers on the picket lines, government sometimes just seems to have the wrong priorities.
Why is what happens in Ukraine and in Israel so important, they ask. "When I filed my taxes, they took it (and) gave all the money to the people at war," said Wentland. "That has nothing to do with us. Take care of us before you take care of them."
- Election -
America's lengthy election process is already in full swing. Nevada voted Tuesday in presidential preference primaries, and the Republican party will hold its own caucus on Thursday, which Donald Trump is expected to sweep.
That will place him even further ahead of his nearest party rival, Nikki Haley, in a process that looks almost certain to result in a November face-off with Biden. For many Americans, it's something of a Hobson's choice -- neither man is particularly popular -- but if it's down to the economy, the ex-president has the edge.
"I don't like Trump... I don't like his personality, but I recognize that knowing about economics was a great help for the country," said businesswoman Laura Bolado, who owns an advertising agency in Las Vegas.
Bolado, who says she has not yet decided who she will vote for, wants more than just campaign promises and empty figures.
"If you go down the street lately you see that more and more businesses are closing because they can't afford the rent," she said. It just feels like it is getting tougher to make a living, she said.
"More than anything, I'd like to see results."