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Arnold M. Knightly

Workers' rights: Union leaders vow to keep fighting

21 July 2008

Last weekend's defeat for the Las Vegas Dealers Local 721 at the Rio could be read one of two ways: It was a bump in the road in what will ultimately be successful organizing efforts in area casinos or it could be the beginning of the end.

Despite the setback, union director Joseph Carbon said the defeat will not slow the momentum the union built up after last year's successful organizing efforts at a pair of Strip properties.

"We're here to stay," Carbon said. "It's a battle, it's a fight. Maybe we've lost this battle, but it's a long-term process. We've been in elections we've lost before."

Last weekend, nearly 60 percent of the Rio's dealers rejected the union's third attempt in 14 months to organize dealers at a Las Vegas casino.

The "no" vote was a sharp contrast to the strong support the union received last year at Wynn Las Vegas and Caesars Palace when 75 percent of their dealers supported the union.

Negotiations on collective bargaining agreements at both properties are ongoing, though.

The union found success at the Wynn Las Vegas following the resort's 2006 decision to add certain front-line supervisors to the tip pool with the dealers.

While the union used the tip issue to organize Caesars Palace, dealers at that Strip resort also thought the union would provide a better channel to discuss their labor concerns, which include pay, job security and benefits, with management.

Rio dealers expressed many of the same concerns, including tip protection, but the union was unable to find the same traction with the off-Strip resort's dealers.

Daniel Cornfield, a sociology professor at Vanderbilt University, said the "protecting the tips" slogan that carried the earlier elections may need to be changed.

"(The union will) have to find issues beyond that," said Cornfield, who focuses on labor trends. "What they will need to look at is from an employment-issue perspective and a tactical perspective."

Cornfield believes the union was helped at Wynn Las Vegas because the property is run by "a very maverick type of unilateral management that is imposing a restructure that is threatening the livelihood of the dealer."

However, Cornfield said you can't assume conditions at one property will be present at another.

"You can't assume uniformity of employment conditions across properties in Vegas," he said, pointing to wage and benefit discrepancies, as well as workplace cultural differences.

Rio President Marilyn Winn believes the resort's assurances to its workers that "dealers' tokes belong to the dealers" helped with the vote decision.

"We made that point clear," Winn said. "When they started hearing what it was they were going to get (from the union), which was very little, and they would likely have to pay union dues to get it, they voted no."

Caesars Palace and the Rio are owned and operated by Harrah's Entertainment, which also owns six other casinos on the Strip.

"The (dealers union) had nothing to offer us," said Sue Duca, a Rio dealer.

Duca, who was an observer for the Rio during the vote count, said she was surprised by the number of dealers that sided with management.

However, she suspects many dealers said 'yes' publicly to union supporters before the vote just to be left alone.

"I'm delighted at the outcome, that it was so strong," she said "It really voiced our opinion as to how we felt."

Bill Dukes, another long-time Rio dealer and vote-count observer, said dealers believed management's promise that it wouldn't restructure its tip-pooling policy to follow the Wynn Las Vegas.

Dealers at other properties around town are being offered similar pledges, which could present new challenges to organizing other casino floors.

"The general feeling I've seen talking to people around town and with my fellow employees is that Steve Wynn is pretty much on an island here," Dukes said. "This is a very bad decision that he's made and his people are going to have to live with it. But I don't think it is going to spread any further than the Wynn."

Greg Kamer, an attorney for Wynn Las Vegas, said: "Rio management did an excellent job communicating the serious pitfalls of collective bargaining in a casino environment."

Kamer defended the tip-pooling policy in district court and state Supreme Court, where a decision on the legality of the new policy is still pending.

"(The union defeat) is an indication that these dealers realize they have a better relationship with their company without union involvement," Kamer said.

Cornfield said union officials need to do two things following the defeat:

Get a better understanding of the workers' needs.

Get a better understanding of the casino companies' organizational weaknesses.

"That is to identify certain weaknesses and points of market embarrassment within the corporation so they can more effectively humble the organization in the organizing drive," he said.

David G. Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said unionizing dealers has always been a hard sell in the casino industry.

The Transport Workers Union of America, of which Las Vegas Dealers Local 721 is a division, last tried to organize dealers at 11 casinos in 2001 but was largely unsuccessful.

Dealers at the Tropicana, Stratosphere and the New Frontier approved union representation, although the only contract that was ever signed covered just 105 dealers at the New Frontier.

"It does appear that dealer unionization in Las Vegas hasn't developed any kind of momentum," Schwartz said in an e-mail. "There could be many explanations -- the culture of dealing, the nature of the job, or an inability to communicate how a union would be preferable for dealers."

The Rio held a celebration this weekend to show appreciation to the dealers who voted against a union and to try to bring union supporters back into the fold.

"Our goal is not to have a division of the staff," Winn said. "That gets you no place."

Carbon didn't rule out another run by the union at the Rio.

"There's always that opportunity that we have another chance," Carbon said. "If that's what they want to do, there's still a big following with 162 votes. We'll look at it."