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Best of Liz Benston

Gaming Guru

Liz Benston

With Internet, dealers turn the tables on Wynn

23 May 2007

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Days after casino boss Steve Wynn notified dealers in a closed-door meeting that frontline supervisors would be included in their tip-pooling agreements, allegations were posted on a Web site popular among dealers that Wynn insulted them for taking huge tips from players.

The remarks spread like wildfire, stoking talk about organizing dealers at his resort, Wynn Las Vegas.

Last week, when Wynn apologized for changing the tip-pooling rules at dealers' expense - and pleaded with dealers to reject union representation because it wouldn't solve "our problems" - his angry dealers again turned to a Web site to attack their boss. From their safe harbor on the Internet, they ripped into Wynn's conciliatory remarks on the eve of the union vote.

Dealers then, by a stunning 75 percent vote, organized. The decision surprised casino bosses and even dealers up and down the Strip. For starters, dealers - unlike cocktail servers, cooks and housekeepers - have virtually no history of joining unions. And secondly, trying to organize in a Wynn casino seemed all the less likely because of his larger-than-life reputation in Las Vegas and well-paid staff.

What turned the tide - besides the catalyst of dealers having to share tips with supervisors - was how dealers channeled their anger. They went online, a frontier in the labor-organizing movement.

That strategy might seem old hat to political organizers and other activists. But this was, among dealers, a brave new world.

"I'm certain we wouldn't have voted in the union without the Internet and e-mail," said Jesse Guest, a Wynn dealer and union organizer.

The tactic certainly got the attention of labor experts because of the issues it raises: Can employers exert control over employee communications? And how far can workers go to press their cause?

Federal labor law protects the right of workers to organize as well as the right of employers to be able to counteract organizing activity on their property. Those rules become less defined when applied to Internet communications, an unregulated environment protected by the First Amendment. And yet, free-speech rights aren't an absolute when union organizing is in play.

A decision pending before the National Labor Relations Board, attorneys say, is expected to clarify the issue of Internet communications.

The case against the Eugene (Ore.) Register-Guard newspaper involves an employee who was disciplined for using company e-mail to distribute union information. The National Labor Relations Board took the rare step of requesting oral arguments and is gathering information that goes beyond the scope of the specific case.

"The fact that the board had oral arguments that it doesn't have in many cases indicates how important the board thinks e-mail and the Internet and Web blogging is," said Esta Bigler, director of the labor and employment law program at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations. "This will be a very significant ruling because we've all moved into the electronic age."

Attorneys say many employers, accustomed to combating unions with at-work meetings and flyers, have been slow to respond to Internet-based organizing efforts.

"Management can't ignore what's going on in (Internet) chat rooms. They have to be vigilant and respond," said Jules Crystal, a partner with the Bryan Cave law firm in Chicago and an adjunct professor of labor law at Northwestern University. "They can use (the Internet) to find out what's on the minds of their employees, which is what they should be doing in the first place. Better that the employer knows about the discontent ... there's a reason why employees talk to unions."

In a meeting with dealers before the vote, Wynn questioned the accuracy of Internet postings about him. "When people are behind the scenes they can say anything," Wynn said. "They can make up any story about me, for example, that everybody's going to get fired. I can't fight rumors and frantic, back hallway stuff that started on the Internet about me."

Dealers posted on one of their Web sites an audio recording of Wynn's last-ditch efforts to fend off a union - as well as a point-by-point critique of it. On the same Web site, dealers reasserted the yet-unproven claim that Wynn threatened to fire dealers involved in union organizing, in violation of federal law.

Wynn's lawyer, a former labor board attorney who has countered union campaigns for employers, called the Internet posts "uncontrolled rants" that stirred up rumors without helping dealers make an informed decision.

"People were being influenced by lies and misrepresentations," Las Vegas attorney Gregory Kamer said. "They were hiding behind false identities, making it a very difficult thing to counter."

For one client, Kamer helped set up an in-house company intranet allowing workers to post comments and questions to which the company officials could respond, creating a "controllable and accountable" flow of information.

Dealers say the Internet and e-mail level the playing field in their workplace, where break times are tightly controlled, there is little chatter among co-workers on the casino floor and company flyers are posted under locked glass in break rooms. Now they can talk among themselves, at home in front of a keyboard.

Before and after his shift, Guest spent several hours each day posting messages on one of the Web sites, Some of the posts were links to the National Labor Relations Act governing union activity and research on the effect of unions on wages and job security.

Dealers say the electronic information-sharing effort was critical in mobilizing workers who, for the most part, weren't enthusiastic about unions.

As an outgrowth of the organizing effort, dealers have created a citywide database of dealers' personal e-mail addresses and an Internet forum to chat - and complain. Dealers, not known for socializing or networking within their ranks, are now talking among themselves more than ever before.

Al Maurice, a Mirage dealer whose son works as a dealer at Wynn Las Vegas, can take some of the credit. Maurice was responsible for e-mailing updates on the tip dispute, and helped mobilize an e-mail campaign to lawmakers for a bill revoking the tip policy.

"I probably have dealers from every casino in town on my list," he said. "The whole city is watching this."

And now they are watching as emboldened dealers make their next move, drawing up a list of potential demands common to union contracts but long off-limits for dealers: no terminations without a review, more full-time jobs and a five-day work week.

And, of course, keeping supervisors from sharing in dealers' tips.