When flying from New York to Las Vegas, meditations on the vastness of the landscape and man’s comparative smallness and finitude are unavoidable.  On the journey one’s eyes skim across the boundless red of the Grand Canyon and down its walls that seem to drop to the earth’s core. As the plane edges closer towards the airport, gaudy casinos cut the skyline making the rusty mountains of the Mojave Desert appear like a faded movie set. Upon exiting the airport, the horizon becomes liquid and Las Vegas appears to be a mirage, an impossible city.

Las Vegas has long been a preoccupation for drug-addled writers and Hollywood filmmakers. The City of Sin has come to be associated with glamour corruption and the nation’s obsession with s-x, the gargantuan and the green. On the Las Vegas Strip are crass hotels that cater to every imaginable fantasy of grandeur — among them are Caesar’s Palace, Luxor, The Palazzo and Treasure Island. But as I wander with a look of shock and distaste, I think about how Las Vegas represents something more universal, namely man’s desire to transcend the limits of time and history, geography, nature, and perhaps even one’s class and social status.

Over Labor Day weekend people flooded the city to engage in drinking, debauchery and all kinds of machine-and-human-operated forms of gambling — activities that have little to do with the struggle for workers’ rights, as is the way with most Labor Day holiday celebrations in Western nations.  The travel site Orbitz.com reported that Las Vegas still remains the No.1 domestic travel destination for Labor Day weekend despite the impact the financial crisis has had on the gaming industry. But during the week that I have been here the pages of the Las Vegas Review-Journal have been filled with bleak stories about casinos climbing their way out of bankruptcy, rising unemployment and foreclosures and Nevada’s debt problem.  The truck rental company U-Haul has even claimed there is an unusually high number of people moving out of the city. While some key players in the gaming industry have said the weekend’s success could signify a bounce back, most hospitality workers in Vegas know that regardless of the amount of tourist traffic, the punters have been less willing to part with their dollars.

Many American tourists see Las Vegas as a city made of flashing lights, alcohol, strip clubs, pr-stitutes and cash, as a place to do your dirty in and leave. But there is a great deal more to this town. Before the economic downturn, it was the fastest-growing US city and a place that offered a modest articulation of the American dream for hard-working hospitality and construction workers.  Few people know that the city has one the US’ most heavily unionised workforces. Nor are many Americans aware that hospitality and construction workers have secured benefits and wages that have enabled them to buy homes and live a middle-class lifestyle out of reach to most workers in the same sector in other parts of the nation.

The good life Las Vegas provided was in many ways a rebellion against America’s false meritocracy, in which economic success comes more easily to upper middle-class families who can afford to send their children to the most prestigious universities. But with construction halted indefinitely on large hotels and casino projects and giant industry players such as MGM Resorts International suffering massive losses ( MGM Resorts International lost $883.5 million in the second quarter of this year) Las Vegas is no longer the paradise it once was for workers. The city leads the nation in housing foreclosures and has an unemployment rate of 14.8%, a little more than 5% over the national average of 9.6%, according to the most recent US Bureau of Labor statistics.

Maya Holmes, a researcher from the Culinary Workers’ Union 226, a union that represents about 50,000 workers in the gaming and hospitality industry, claims they never expected the workforce to be hit this hard by the financial downturn.

“We haven’t experienced a crisis of this sort — it’s deeper than anything we have ever seen before,” said Holmes. “Historically the view of the gaming industry was that it was recession-proof — but this is the first time where it has proven to be false and we have realised the industry is dependant on the national economy.”

Many workers have been laid off, but the union has secured places on a rehire list, meaning that when the companies rehire they have to rehire from the list first. The time period workers could be on the layoff list was six months, now it has been extended to two years.  Many workers are on also lay-off status but still working full-time hours.

While travelling through the northern suburbs on the 119 bus route, I meet Al Loo, a 65-year-old landscape gardener from Hawaii. Al has lived in Las Vegas for the past 18 years and says his landscaping business had slowed as a result of the housing crisis. Many of the properties on which Al worked are vacant and the yards are dried up or dead. He points to a Mexican grocery store that had been there for more than 20 years that is now empty. Further along the bus line are apartments or ranchos with giant signs promising cheap rental rates and then there are houses with boarded-up windows and large blocks of desolate land with for sale signs staked on them.

On my final day, as I am heading to the airport I ask the cab driver if he has had a busy weekend.

“It’s been quite busy, but after the holiday it will be a ghost town again,” he says. “I suppose we are lucky to have our jobs,” he adds.

In the airport while I am rifling through my purse for my boarding pass, I find Foreclosure Magazine, Volume 7, a cheap looking publication that I picked up at a local service station. On the front cover 878-SAVE is typed in bold and inside are about 250 foreclosed properties listed for sale. I wonder to whom these houses once belonged and how many more there were in the city.

The plane sets off above the shiny hotels that glint in the sun. As it soars higher and higher into the sky they disappear and there are just thin clouds and the Mojave Desert. Las Vegas was more than I expected — it is a complex city that once turned the relationship between money and class on its head. But the city is no longer the exception to the rule and is now a symbol of the broader social and economic problems the United States now faces. Perhaps with a workforce that is dependant on the excessive consumption and spending of others, Las Vegas was always destined to be an impossible dream, a mirage in the desert.