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Unions look to casinos for growth opportunities

| Saturday, May 11, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
In this photo from 2012, Jason Simpson, 30, of Butler plays blackjack at the Rivers Casino.

Efforts to organize workers at Rivers Casino highlight a national trend of labor unions looking to bolster shrinking ranks through a growing industry, experts said.

Union labor dominates the casino workforce in Las Vegas and Atlantic City and is becoming a factor in states adding slots and table games, said Robert Bruno, a labor and employment relations professor at the University of Illinois. That includes Pennsylvania, now the country's second-largest gambling market behind Nevada.

“Most casino owners and license holders understand they are going to be engaged in strong organization efforts,” he said.

Of the Keystone State's 11 casinos, three have union workers and a fourth has workers who have voted to organize.

The Steel City Casino Workers Council, represented by Downtown-based Unite Here Local 57, is the latest group to attempt to organize Rivers workers. Unite Here officials did not respond to requests for comment. An open letter on its website states: “Pittsburgh's union history has proven that we all benefit when workers have the right and the power to improve their jobs.”

Since Rivers opened in 2009, two votes to organize workers have failed, spokeswoman Emily Watts said in a statement.

“We take great pride in our team and respect the rights of our team members to choose,” she said. “So far, the overwhelming majority of our team members have consistently chosen to remain independent. That is their choice and their right.”

Unite Here, the hotel industry's main union, wants to organize about 800 Rivers food and beverage workers. Rivers has about 1,800 employees.

In April, Unite Here filed nearly 40 complaints with the National Labor Relations Board alleging that management at the North Shore casino engaged in illegal, anti-union activities. Rivers officials deny the accusations.

Decisions on those cases could be reached by June, said Robert Chester, the NLRB's regional director.

Casinos operate on thin margins, said Fred Wszolek, a spokesman for the Washington-based Workforce Fairness Institute, a conservative, business-oriented public policy group.

“Unions are mathematically challenged. They think if they hold their breath and stomp their feet, they can conjure money out of nowhere. But it has to come from somewhere, and it will impact the bottom line,” Wszolek said.

Union members in 2012 earned about $200 more per week than those not in a union, or $943 versus $742, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics reported. Union membership in the United States has fallen from 17.7 million members in 1983, the last year of comparable figures, to 14.4 million in 2012. Pennsylvania had 700,000 union workers last year.

The state had just more than 10,000 casino workers in 2012, according to the American Gaming Association. It is unclear how many were union members.

Unite Here has a national partnership with the Teamsters and International Union of Operating Engineers to organize casino workers, the group's website states.

Unite Here represents workers at eight local hotels, as well as food service workers at PNC Park, Consol Energy Center and the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. It also represents some workers at The Meadows Racetrack & Casino in Washington County.

“We make every effort to satisfactorily address issues that are important to our employees,” said Sean Sullivan, Meadows' vice president and general manager. “However, if it is their preference to be represented by a labor organization, we respect their decision and will make every effort to maintain a professional and respectful relationship with the unions that represent our employees as we pursue our mutual interests.”

Presque Isle Downs & Casino in Erie and Harrah's Chester Casino & Racetrack have workers represented by Unite Here. The Teamsters represents valets and shuttle drivers at Presque Isle.

Security workers at Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem voted last year to organize under the Law Enforcement Employees Benevolent Association. The casino is appealing an April NLRB ruling ordering it to bargain with the group.

No workers directly tied to gambling, such as dealers, have unionized in Pennsylvania. But such an effort is only a matter of time, Bruno said.

“Oh, there's no question about that,” the Youngstown native said.

Jason Cato is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7936 or jcato@tribweb.com.

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