Casino workers talk union

Talk of union is running high in the world’s largest casino located in southeastern Connecticut. Since opening 15 years ago, Foxwoods, which employs 12,000, has become the biggest private employer in the state.

Most of the dealers who have operated table games at the casino since it opened remember how Foxwoods’ management, the Mashantucket Pequot tribe, and employees had the common goal of creating the world’s largest gaming playground. Lavish parties were thrown, health coverage rivaled the best, and holiday season bonuses were as high as $1,500.

Then, not in concert with the mantra, “we’re all in this together,” the cutbacks began. Over the past five years, employee benefits were gutted by an overzealous managerial team hired by the tribe. Instead of appreciation for their sacrifices, dealers faced oppressive policies. A point system of progressive discipline, including dismissal, was applied to lateness or absenteeism regardless of circumstances.

The only recourse open to employees with grievances was the Employee Group Council (EGC), a panel of concerned Foxwoods employees representing the different occupational departments. Their purpose was to present employee grievances to management and the tribe in an informal setting, so that solutions might be mutually agreed upon. However, EGC representatives were ineffective in the face of managerial stiff-arming.

Management lost employees’ trust. Dealers charged that management systematically ripped off tips by under-calculating the “toke rate,” the share of table earnings that dealers rely on to bolster their $4 an hour wage. Management refused efforts to negotiate employee oversight of the calculation of the toke rate.

Although an organizing drive in the late 1990s by the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees did not take hold at Foxwoods, recent union organizing efforts in the gaming industry have been successful. In the past six months, more than five casinos in Atlantic City have accepted the will of employees who voted for union representation. The latest this week is the workers at Tropicana Resort and Casino.

Although real estate has always been controlled by the affluent in this part of Connecticut, the cost of housing skyrocketed after the construction of Foxwoods. Dealers were priced out of the real estate market, unable to live anywhere near their place of employment.

Commute times are often an hour each way. The commute time is longer for those who wait for infrequent bus shuttles at “park and ride” sites and employee parking lots. The resulting tardiness becomes grounds for disciplinary action.

Willful take-backs of essential benefits started about five years ago, and were cutting to the bone last year when an anonymous web site, Madatfoxwoods.com, surfaced. This site became a sounding board where dealers, waiters, cleaning personnel, house cleaners and even security workers posted complaints and grievances, and is where talk of a union began.

The site was used to share ideas and strategy, as well as to release tension after an 8-hour tour of disrespect at the hands of casino management. Through this site, dealers, without the aid of a union, planned a sickout for New Year’s Day and evening, a huge revenue day for casinos.

Foxwoods management, also aware of the goings-on at Madatfoxwoods.com, prepared for the sickout by beefing up scheduling for that time and by declaring New Year’s Day a “peak day,” with additional discipline for no-shows.

Even so, between 200 and 300 dealers were reportedly absent, and a statement was made. In response, Foxwoods broke a promise to revisit dealer compensation packages before the next peak period, Chinese New Year, in February.

The next delaying tactic was to promise dealers a 5 percent across-the-board raise. Finally, as tensions continued to grow, and Madatfoxwoods.com flourished with new support for the union, Foxwoods cut off two-way communications with dealers and all other departments by unceremoniously eradicating the EGC. The so-called 5 percent raise amounted to a net increase of 2 cents for some dealers. No one got 5 percent, but Foxwoods reported to all media they had implemented a 5 percent raise for their dealers.

By March 2007, the United Auto Workers union began to make inroads to unionize Foxwoods dealers. Having organized “corporate” casinos, the UAW would now navigate the tricky waters of the “tribal” casino and the sovereign land issues involved. The union was ready to move forward as the ink dried on a U.S. Court of Appeals ruling that a California “tribal casino” must abide by the National Labor Relations Act if it employs U.S. citizens. Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal publicly upheld the ruling, and declared it applicable to the state of Connecticut.

Foxwoods has hired the law firm of Jackson Lewis, which specializes in resisting efforts to unionize. Numerous allegations of unlawful tactics have been filed. Union organizing has been hampered by surveillance cameras all over the casino property, including parking lots. Today the drive continues, as Foxwoods dealers anxiously await the election.

Paul Neal is a union activist in Connecticut.