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Benjamin Spillman

Wynn dealers talking union

23 January 2007

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- A dispute over the biggest tips in Las Vegas could prompt card dealers to take a step toward unionizing by the end of the week.

On Friday, union organizers will start a card-signing effort at Wynn Las Vegas, home to some of the most sought-after dealing jobs in the gambling industry.

Organizers are gambling the toke dispute between Steve Wynn and dealers at his Strip casino is substantial enough to unite a group of workers known for their lone-wolf mentality.

Jack Lipsman, vice president of the International Union of Gaming Employees, said the tip dispute trumps earlier casino floor tiffs because it hits dealers where it hurts, in their wallets.

"There has never been a case that actually took their money," Lipsman said. "Before it was just work rules and convenience."

Lipsman said the IUGE has enlisted the help of a prominent national union to lend credibility and support to the organizing drive, although he wouldn't identify the group.

Calls for a union drive at Wynn Las Vegas grew from objections to a company decision to add some managers to the list of people who qualify for a share of the lucrative tip pool at the casino. Dealers at the casino can earn $100,000 or more annually, making it one of the most desirable front-line jobs in the gambling industry.

Management said the new policy corrected a pay disparity that had dealers earning more than the people supervising them. Critics argued Wynn Las Vegas should raise managers' pay, not broaden the tip pool. Dealers say the change is costing them as much as $20,000 per year.

The dispute prompted small sidewalk protests outside the casino. But discontent over the new policy might not be enough to convince dealers to join a union when so many past organizing attempts have failed.

Dealing cards is a quirky profession with its own language, rituals and relationships.

Traditionally, dealers have forged their own individual relationships with managers and customers, as opposed to seeking help from a collective.

"Some of it might be that dealing is a little bit of a throwback to the Old West," said David Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. "I think maybe dealers retain a little bit of that feeling."

If more than 30 percent of Wynn Las Vegas dealers sign cards to support the union drive it could lead to an election conducted by the National Labor Relations Board. Lipsman said he hopes more than 60 percent of dealers sign cards because it takes a majority vote in the election for a union to qualify to represent workers.

Kevin Tourek, general counsel for Wynn Las Vegas, said casino management wouldn't interfere with the union drive. But he questioned why the IUGE, which has no dues-paying members or contracts, is publicizing the effort now even though the tip dispute has been percolating for months.

"They have every legal right to do what they are doing," Tourek said. "But it is not worthy of a press release as far as I am concerned."

Jim Kilby, a professor of gaming at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said he thinks the tip policy is fair and that the longtime casino operator has earned a just reputation for treating employees well, despite the protests.

"Once this thing settles down and the dealers realize they are not going to win any lawsuit, I think you will see other casinos follow suit," Kilby said.

But he also said that, given the outcry, Wynn management could have done a better job implementing the change.

"In hindsight, they possibly would have done this differently," Kilby said. "Nevertheless it has been done. I think it would be a mistake for management to back down."