Gambling on unions

With no opposition from management, 2,100 workers at the MGM Grand Casino became union members on July 23, with their ranks divided among a four-union coalition called the Detroit Casino Council. Maintenance workers will be represented by the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE); parking lot attendants, phone operators, cashiers and Grandettes (drink servers) will be Teamsters; service workers will be members of Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees (HERE) Local 24; and dealers will belong to the UAW – the first time that casino dealers have been unionized in the United States. (In Windsor, all casino workers belong to the Canadian Auto Workers.)It was the no-muss-no-fuss kind of organizing drive union leaders prefer. Management agreed to remain neutral; organizers stationed outside training facilities collected signatures on union cards; once they had a majority of employees, management agreed to bargain. Workers signed up for the Casino Council rather than a particular union. "It’s a lot easier when you don’t have the police down in your throat every day and management threatening and intimidating people," said Dan Dengel, a Teamsters organizer. "It’s a friendlier way of doing it."

Most employers in the 1990s have fought union drives tooth and nail. But given the community opposition the casinos have already weathered, MGM Grand preferred not to stir another potential hornet’s nest by antagonizing the unions, who all along did not oppose casinos. "Where else do you find 2,100 jobs in Detroit?" said Phil Schloop, IUOE business manager. "The unions had discussions with the casino industry for years as the question was debated politically."

Casinos in Las Vegas and Atlantic City have managed to be immensely lucrative despite being unionized, so any raises workers negotiate here will not threaten profits. Said Dengel, "They’re doing so well as it is ... it’s a good opportunity for them to make money and stay in the good eyes of the community. They made a lot of promises to the community coming in."

Just which unions would get the casino workers had been a contentious subject inside the Detroit labor movement. According to Schloop, some unions that wanted in were excluded in the final deal, which was arranged at the national levels of the respective unions. Teamsters, IUOE and HERE are the unions that have represented casino workers elsewhere, and the UAW got a seat at the table because it is the 800-pound gorilla on the local labor scene.

The Teamsters International gave its new members to the impoverished local that represents locked-out Detroit newspaper workers – Local 372 – rather than to the local that has long represented parking lot attendants downtown and elsewhere, Local 283. "They (Local 372) needed the members," said Dengel.

The unions are now collecting information from members about their bargaining priorities.

Current pay is "above minimum wage," in Dengel’s words. Besides money improvements, union contracts should give workers a way to redress grievances and deal with company discipline. Notice how MGM Grand workers say "grand" in every sentence ("have a Grand day")? According to Dengel, they’re reprimanded if they don’t.

The other two casinos scheduled to open in Detroit have also pledged neutrality when the unions come knocking.

About The Author

Jane Slaughter

When she's not reviewing restaurants, Jane Slaughter also writes about labor affairs, having co-founding the labor magazine Labor Notes. Her writing has also appeared in The Nation, The Progressive, Monthly Review, and In These Times.
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