Las Vegas Sun

April 14, 2024

New coalition, backed by SEIU, leaves Culinary out

Its goal: Help organize gaming workers here and in Atlantic City

The AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest labor federation, and the Service Employees International Union, the nation’s largest union, announced Monday the creation of the Gaming Workers Council, a coalition of unions dedicated to organizing workers in the gaming industry.

The group’s immediate goal: apply pressure to casino management in Atlantic City and Las Vegas, where dealers have been bargaining for first contracts for more than a year. The unions organizing dealers, the United Auto Workers and the Transport Workers Union, joined in the announcement as founding members of the council. They said they need additional resources because employers are bargaining in bad faith and dragging out negotiations, claims management denies.

But conspicuous in its absence was Unite Here, the international union of casino and hotel workers with robust locals in those two cities, including the Culinary Union here. By its own count, the union represents nearly half of all workers in the American gaming industry. In Las Vegas, the Culinary represents 60,000 workers up and down the Strip and downtown.

The gaming council’s organizers couldn’t explain Unite Here’s absence but insisted they wanted the union’s help. Elizabeth Bunn, secretary-treasurer of the United Auto Workers, said organizers had extended invitations to “a number of unions.” Still, she said, it was unclear whether organizers had reached out to the casino workers union.

The slight, intentional or not, did not escape the attention of Unite Here.

D. Taylor, Culinary secretary-treasurer and head of the international union’s gaming division, said the union did not receive an invitation. He also noted the absence of the Teamsters and the Operating Engineers, two unions with significant presence in the gaming industry.

“It seems to me that if you want to have a legitimate council, or whatever it’s being called, you might want to have the unions that represent well over 100,000 workers in that industry,” Taylor said. “I guess it’s their prerogative not to.”

Bunn sought to stem the damage.

“This council has not closed up shop,” she said. “We understand there are strong, good unions in the casino industry already. That’s a good thing and we’re grateful for all they’ve done and want to work with those unions and the workers they represent.”

Bunn said the immediate goal of the new council is to help the two unions — the autoworkers and transport workers — win contracts at Caesars Palace and Wynn Las Vegas, and at Caesars, Bally’s, Trump Plaza and the Tropicana in Atlantic City.

In the longer run, the council aims to help its affiliates organize the ranks of casino workers nationwide.

Whether the Culinary will have a role with the new council seems unlikely, because of the involvement of the SEIU. The service workers have emerged as an increasing rival of Unite Here, which is in the midst of its own civil war.

Former Unite leader Bruce Raynor has declared his union’s 2004 merger with Here a failure and seeks to break away, possibly to join the SEIU. Former Here leader and onetime Culinary boss John Wilhelm has said the merger was a success and, exercising majority control of the union’s executive board, seeks to keep the organization unified.

The SEIU injected itself into the high-profile fight in January, with leader Andy Stern writing to both men suggesting that Unite Here or either of its halves merge into his union. Publicly, he has sided with Raynor, pronouncing the Unite Here merger a failure.

Here leaders said Stern’s involvement in Monday’s announcement was the latest in a series of moves by the SEIU to poach members from Unite Here’s core industries, including gaming. They cite slick mailers sent to Unite Here members across the country pronouncing the merger a failure. Mailers featured the SEIU’s trademark purple, proclaiming, “You deserve a union that works.”

Taylor said Monday that Atlantic City members had also been subject to push polling, the practice of asking leading questions to influence opinion rather than measure it. According to Taylor, members were asked to rate their leaders and their contracts, told about the strength of the service workers and asked whether their local should join the SEIU, as Unite leaders advocate.

The SEIU denied any involvement with the mailer and the push polls. Spokeswoman Michelle Ringuette said the accusations were meant to deflect from what she called “a growing chorus of labor leaders who recognize (the Unite Here) merger didn’t take.” She added: “The only solution for the workers right now is to separate as quickly and as amicably as possible.”

For his part, Stern brought the crowd to its feet at an Atlantic City union hall Monday with an impassioned speech, wherein he castigated Harrah’s Entertainment executives for golden parachutes and called the dealers the poster children for federal legislation that would make it easier for workers to organize.

The gaming council, he said, is part of labor’s efforts to rebuild the middle class. “What we are doing here is ground zero,” Stern said of the council. “We are going to organize hundreds of thousands of dealers and other workers in one of the most profitable industries in this country.”

Ringuette said the SEIU is interested in organizing “where we already have an established track record and expertise,” meaning security officers and janitors, whom the union represents at racetracks in California and Canada.

As for the dealers, the gaming council is sending a strong message.

The AFL-CIO’s convention this year had been booked at Paris Las Vegas, but President John Sweeney canceled it because of the bargaining battle between the Transport Workers Union and management of Harrah’s, which owns the resort. The event was rescheduled for the Pittsburgh Convention Center.

“I want to remind the casino owners that companies that are at war with their employees are not helping themselves survive,” Sweeney said. “In hard times, you need all the friends you can get.”

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