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Best of Liz Benston

Gaming Guru

Liz Benston

Duo bets on long shot

4 December 2006

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Long-retired casino dealers Tony Badillo and Jack Lipsman are preparing for an unfolding labor battle that has injected new life into an old cause.

A spat between dealers and casino boss Steve Wynn over the allocation of dealer tips has presented to their nearly forgotten dealers union - if it can even be called that - a moment of truth: Do dealers in this town have any appetite to organize?

Spotting an opportunity to go where no union has succeeded before, the pair is hoping to organize dealers at Wynn Las Vegas and potentially elsewhere on the Strip. They say they want to bring a voice to workers who historically have been too notoriously independent to let a union speak on their behalf. The Transport Workers Union tried and failed a few years ago, and the Culinary Union - which relies on a friendly partnership with casinos - doesn't want to upset that relationship by representing dealers.

Badillo and Lipsman's organizing campaign may be a long shot. But this, after all, is a town built on dreams.

Badillo, 74, created the Nevada Casino Dealers Association in 1989 on the heels of a legislative threat by casinos to prevent workers fired without cause to sue their employers. Rather than operating his organization as a formal union, Badillo offered behind-the-scenes help to dealers who were fired or mistreated by bosses. Lipsman, 69, came on board in 1991 after writing an angry letter to the editor of a local paper on behalf of embattled dealers. Badillo spotted the letter, contacted Lipsman and the two have been inseparable ever since.

They make an odd pair, distinctively different in their accents - Badillo's by way of Mexico and Lipsman's from New York City - but united in their passion to champion dealers.

Badillo is the impulsive, grudge-holding firebrand, Lipsman more the calming but unfolding diplomat.

Their reputations as rabble rousers in an industry where employees are expected to follow militarylike procedure earned them some respect among their superiors. Rather than being fired for speaking up during their days on the clock, they were sometimes consulted by bosses looking to change casino procedures without riling up the rank and file.

The shadow union, which has not been recognized by any casinos nor been officially adopted by any dealers, has assisted hundreds of dealers whose stories never made the newspapers.

One dealer claimed to have been fired for moving a customer's smoldering ashtray away from her face. Another said he was denied treatment for carpal tunnel syndrome created by the repetitive motions of dealing cards. Another claimed she was the victim of sexual harassment from a superior. A group of dealers at one casino said it had been fired as part of a plan to replace old-timers with younger employees, and at another casino, dealers groused about not getting days off under the Family Medical Leave Act.

For years the association's phone number has been quietly circulated like prayer cards throughout the close-knit dealer community.

The men have written letters to management and poked around casino floors, interviewing dealers and questioning supervisors like ad-hoc social workers. For the most part, the in-your-face strategy has worked. Casinos avoided a union organizing campaign and more often than not, supervisors admitted to acting rashly in situations that were challenged by the two dealer advocates.

"Just being there was sometimes enough," Lipsman said. "They knew we know a lot of people. We weren't an official union, but we had enough clout to get the job done."

At its peak in the 1990s, the union boasted several thousand dues-paying members and a newsletter entitled "Inside the Pit." It now has but three officers - and a still-active registration with the secretary of state. After somewhat of a dry spell, donations of $25 to several hundred dollars a pop are streaming into their Post Office box from dealers.

The money supports mailers and other publicity efforts. Both men get by on their earlier investments in CDs, mutual funds and stocks. That forward-thinking strategy wasn't necessarily followed by peers who, unaccustomed to socking away large chunks of cash, spent lavishly in their youth and now have no pension to rely on.

• • •

Badillo arrived in Las Vegas from Juarez, Mexico, in 1956 and worked as a busboy at the Sands. He hung out at downtown casinos hoping to learn how to deal blackjack and was spotted and recruited by a Sands boss. Badillo dealt to the rich and famous, including Rat Packers Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. He retired when the property closed in 1996 to make way for the Venetian and twice ran unsuccessfully for the Clark County Commission.

Lipsman, who attended college for two years, sold his New York restaurant and moved to Las Vegas with his family in 1975. He cooked for the Las Vegas Hilton and then went to dealing school, getting his first jobs downtown. He spent 22 years at the Flamingo Hilton, retiring in 1999.

While Badillo has long argued for a national dealers union, Lipsman hasn't always been a fan of organized labor.

Lipsman once believed that some disputes were best solved informally. Like many dealers, he feared losing his job in an effort to spearhead an organizing drive.

The recent tip dispute galvanized their belief in a union as no other scrap has.

When Wynn decided to give dealers' immediate supervisors a share of dealer tips, the voice-mail box of the dealers union, renamed the International Union of Gaming Employees, began filling up with angry messages from dealers willing to challenge the policy.

The battles won and lost over the years have been small fry compared with the prospect of a union that could help dealers achieve more job security and a base salary that rises above minimum wage - a wish list achieved by the Culinary on behalf of its nearly 60,000 members but has shown little chance of coming true for the more than 10,000 dealers who work in Las Vegas.

Until now, the men say.

"This is something new," Lipsman said of the current dispute. "This is where they come in and actually take your money."

Wynn's move could create a ripple effect involving other tip-dependent jobs such as valets and cocktail servers, Badillo said.

"We cannot allow Wynn to go along with this policy," he said. "This is going to destroy the whole tip system."

Without the attraction of big tips, dealing becomes just another low-wage, high-turnover job - not much more of a career than preparing food at McDonald's, Lipsman added. (Dealers may earn little more than $7 hourly at low-end casinos but pull in more than $75,000 per year in tips at a top-drawer Strip casino, making it easier to put up with overbearing managers and obnoxious customers.)

"I spent a good part of my life (dealing), and I don't want to see it destroyed," he said.

Wynn Las Vegas executives maintain that sharing tips with supervisors will encourage better customer service and attract more people to supervisory positions that traditionally paid less than what dealers make in tips.

President Andrew Pascal said the property will do all it can to "lawfully oppose union organizing" among dealers and, if dealers persist, hold a secret-ballot election. Unions have favored a "card check" procedure that encourages sign-ups out of management's view.

"The decision to join or refuse to join a union rests with employees," he said, although federal law allows the casino to "campaign against a union organizing drive and truthfully advise employees regarding the benefits of remaining union free."

In years past, casino bosses have attempted to keep workers happy - and unions at bay - by boosting pay and benefits for workers.

Casinos have long feared a potential strike among dealers, among their most trained workers, because it could effectively shut down the Strip.

For now, appetite for a union appears fairly quiet at other casinos, where dealers don't have a front-burner issue to rally around like they do at Wynn Las Vegas.

In going after Wynn's dealers, Badillo and Lipsman have no delusions.

The men helped a short-lived campaign in the early 2000s by the Transport Workers Union to organize dealers. The TWU, an industrial trade union attached to the AFL-CIO, knew little of casinos and after a few small successes, its effort sputtered and then collapsed.

Dealers have discussed unionizing at other casinos but "when push came to shove, they wouldn't pull the trigger," Lipsman said. "They were afraid for their jobs."

One ex-dealer agrees, and doesn't hold out much hope that his friends will succeed. "I don't have a lot of faith in dealers taking it very far," said H. Lee Barnes, a one-time member of the Casino Dealers Association who teaches English at the Community College of Southern Nevada. "Casinos set up dealers in an atmosphere of competition - they live with a sense of insecurity," Barnes said. Dealers are unwilling to jeopardize future earnings by rallying for a union. Tips and management issues also vary by property, making it difficult to work toward common goals, he said.

Teamsters Local 995 claims that in recent weeks, more than half of Wynn's dealers have expressed interest in joining the union, which represents a few thousand valets, switchboard operators and a variety of other casino workers. The Teamsters has successfully organized smaller groups not traditionally represented by the Culinary.

Badillo and Lipsman aren't upset that dealers are bypassing them for an established union. They want to assist the Teamsters but aren't entirely convinced that it - or dealers - will go the distance.

With little past success to bolster them, are Badillo and Lipsman a couple of wannabe union activists tilting at windmills?

Al Maurice, a Mirage dealer whose son deals at Wynn, doesn't think so.

"They're very effective, and they've done a lot in the past," said Maurice, who has dealt blackjack for 35 years.

Still, Wynn dealers "want to see a bigger, more solid union to go with," he said.

Wynn scoffs at the idea of a dealers union, saying some people are "trying to start a union in search of someone to represent."

"About 5 percent of the dealers, maybe 40 of them, are convinced I picked their pockets," Wynn said this week of the new tips allocations. "It's an awful hard case to make that we're abusing anyone. They may be (angry), but they ain't quitting."

Lipsman concedes that it's time for dealers to put up or shut up.

"If this isn't enough for them to organize, nothing will be," he said.