Detroit casino workers: ‘Don’t gamble with our future’
Know when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em. | via Detroit Casino Council

Monday, Oct. 16th

Hours before the unionized Detroit casino and hotel workers’ contract expires, chants can be heard from the workers’ cafeteria in MotorCity Casino. “No contract! No peace!”

The cross-union bargaining committee known as the Detroit Casino Council (DCC), consisting of representatives from United Auto Workers, Unite Here, Teamsters, and Operating Engineers, flooded into the packed cafeteria banging on tables.

Workers eagerly join in, not shy to let the bosses know what’s in store come midnight if a deal is not concluded. The contract covers all 3,700 casino and hotel workers at MGM, Hollywood Greektown, and Motorcity. A fight like this has been a long time coming.

The pandemic year of 2020 saw the last contract negotiations with these three gambling houses, with bargaining taking place at the height of COVID-19. Much like how the workers of the UAW gave back concessions and kept the Big Three automotive companies afloat in 2008, Detroit’s casino and hotel workers also gave up a lot of what was rightfully theirs to keep their employers from going under.

One hotel worker at MotorCity Casino expressed concern about the greediness of the company they’ve been employed by for 24 years. “I’ve worked for this company since they opened in 1999,” the worker told People’s World. “We helped them out when they needed it, now it’s time for them to help us out. To me we’re not asking for much, all I want is to be able to pay my bills and know I’ll have a job when I wake up.”

MotorCity Casino Hotel is owned by one of Detroit’s most prominent business owners, the Ilitch family, who operate many other profitable enterprises, such as Little Caesars Arena, Comerica Park, the Tigers baseball team, and the Red Wings hockey team.

“People like the Ilitches come into the city knowing there’s a lot of people living in poverty,” one worker said after learning of the company’s unwillingness to negotiate higher wages. “They know we’ll work for less because anything is better than nothing. Some of us work for two or three of the companies that the Ilitches own, and we’re still not making enough to pay the bills. We’re saying their time is up, they need to come to the table and give us what we deserve.”

The same worker also highlighted the fact that a majority of hotel and casino workers in Detroit are Black or brown, and many of them are women–those who often face the most brutal exploitation in the workplace.

Matt Buckley, COO of MGM, sent an email to workers at the casino giant’s Detroit location, stating: “Regarding the status of our negotiations, we’ve made six proposals to the union, and our current offer includes the largest single pay increase in the history of MGM Grand Detroit. It’s a significant proposal.”

What he failed to mention was the reluctance of these companies to address job security at a time when the gaming industry is facing major technological changes that could jeopardize employment.

To effectively diminish the pay increase, the company attempted to negotiate an increase for workers’ insurance premiums. MotorCity Casino and Hollywood Greektown sent out similar messages, but what’s clear to workers is that their pitiful offer fails to match the cost of inflation.

At 1 p.m., workers get an update from DCC: “ Your negotiating committee has voted to strike tomorrow, Tuesday, Oct. 17 at 12 p.m.” Inside, MotorCity managers can be seen removing liquor bottles from bars, rushing into sudden meetings, and attempting to divide the workers by asking them to come in for overtime during the strike.

Despite the panic displayed by management, workers make carpooling arrangements, rehearse chants, and walk with a little more spirit than normal. Although the bargaining committee has voted to strike, the companies still have until midnight to respond to their proposal.

Tuesday, Oct. 17th, 12 p.m.

The contract expiration deadline comes and goes with negotiations at a standstill. Picket line preparations had begun early Tuesday morning, anticipating the rush of workers walking out at noon.

Although this was the first strike for many of these workers, taking their place on the picket line seemed like second nature. Groups of workers clocked out and traded their uniforms for picket signs saying, “Don’t gamble with our future” and “Detroit casino workers need a raise,” while cars lined the street to show their solidarity.

“The city’s big casino operators are earning more than ever, and we’re prepared to stay out on strike until we get what we deserve,” Nia Winston, president of Unite Here Local 24 stated.

Workers will be on the picket line 24/7 at all three casino hotels until a fair and respectable contract is reached.

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Beck Kaster
Beck Kaster

Beck Kaster is a union member and labor activist in Detroit.