Organized casino dealers at Wynn Las Vegas and Caesars Palace still lack union contracts after more than a year of bargaining.
And though neither group appears any closer to a deal, with talks stalled on big-ticket items such as “just cause” for firing and tip sharing, labor leaders say members are reaping the benefits of unionization. In particular, federal labor law prevents employers from unilaterally changing wages, benefits and working conditions during bargaining.
So while dealers elsewhere along the Strip have seen employer contributions to their 401(k) plans cut, the more than 1,000 dealers at Wynn and Caesars continue to enjoy the benefit, dodging, at least for the moment, one effect of the recession. As one labor consultant put it: “They’ve locked themselves into conditions of a better time.”
Union officials say that protection has solidified support among the rank and file and boosted worker morale as negotiations drag on.
“The dealers really do have a sense of how critical it was to unionize,” said Mark Richard, a labor lawyer and chief negotiator for the Transport Workers Union in the Caesars Palace talks. “It becomes more the right decision every day.”
He added: “Everybody is being very careful, watching all actions by the employer. If they cross the line, we’re going to be right there.”
For the union, it’s important to maintain its relevancy. Last year, when MGM Mirage awarded pay raises to its dealers companywide, the Transport Workers — fresh off victories at Wynn and Caesars — took credit. The company said the raises were unrelated to the union’s organizing efforts.
Typically, the longer the contract talks, the weaker the member morale. And, under labor law, workers can petition the National Labor Relations Board for a decertification election after a year of bargaining.
Union officials say they heard rumblings of such a move at Wynn last year but nothing surfaced. An overwhelming majority of the resort’s dealers voted for the union in 2007, after owner Steve Wynn instituted a controversial tip-sharing policy.
The Transport Workers Union says the talks show the need for the Employee Free Choice Act, federal legislation that, besides making it easier for workers to organize, would impose binding arbitration if both sides cannot agree on a contract in 120 days. Kate Bronfenbrenner, a labor expert at Cornell University, has found that a third of unions that win representation elections fail to achieve a first contract.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is leading the fight against the legislation, says the arbitration provision would represent an “unprecedented intrusion into the private sector by the government.” Federal arbitrators with little to no knowledge of a given industry would impose terms on employers, taking away their ability to react to market conditions, the group argues.
The union feels pressure to win a contract. After winning elections at Wynn and Caesars two years ago, it lost a vote last year at the Rio and no properties have organized since. Officials are seeking to build a strong local here, saying they’ve learned from past failures. Local officer elections are set for next month.
Among all casino employees, dealers historically have been the most reluctant to organize.
In 2001 the union tried to organize dealers at 11 casinos. It won elections at three properties, but ended up with just one signed contract, widely considered ineffectual, at the New Frontier, which was imploded in 2007.
The bargaining is no less tough this time around. Joseph Carbon, director of the union’s fledgling gaming division, said that though some progress has been made, both sides are dug in on just cause and tip sharing. Management at both properties has proposed eliminating employer contributions to dealers’ 401(k) plans, he said.
“We understand there’s some give and take and that these are hard economic times, but they don’t even want to maintain the status quo,” Carbon said of management negotiators. “Dealers realize now more than ever they need union representation.”
Wynn and Caesars representatives could not be reached for comment Sunday. In the past, the casinos have said they are committed to good faith bargaining but declined to discuss negotiations.
Although MGM Mirage has not seen any of its dealers organize, spokesman Alan Feldman articulated to the Sun last year casino management’s long-held belief that dealers should remain nonunion: “Management prizes a direct relationship with employees, and dealers have a very special place in that system. If you start putting a third party in the midst of that, especially a third party that has no understanding of this industry, it interferes with that relationship.”