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Vegas Dealers Bid to Unionize for Better Pay

Labor: Thousands of those who work table games in the city have signed petitions seeking elections to organize. They complain of low wages and a lack of respect.

November 23, 2000|TOM GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LAS VEGAS — Spurred by the corporate takeover of gambling, casino dealers here--historically disdainful of unions even in this union town--are moving swiftly to organize and demand better pay, benefits and job security.

Thousands of blackjack, craps, roulette, baccarat and poker dealers from nine casinos have signed petitions asking the National Labor Relations Board to hold elections for union representation, organizers say.

Petition gatherers are active at an additional 15 casinos, and organizers say they are pacing themselves only so that they don't overwhelm the NLRB with paperwork. More than 30,000 dealers work in Las Vegas.

The organizing drive is being marshaled by the Transport Workers Union, whose mass transit members struck in Philadelphia in 1998 and in New York in 1966 and 1980. Local unions representing other casino workers have been unwilling to pick new fights with management, dealers and experts say.

Some dealers quietly boast that they, more than any other employee group, could wreak havoc in Las Vegas through organized job actions to influence contract talks. Just dealing cards or moving dice a little more slowly could cost casinos millions of dollars through diminished play and lost revenue.

About half of the money made by the Strip's resorts comes from casino revenue, and half of that comes from dealers' table games.

A successful unionizing drive would erode one of Las Vegas' more storied traditions: dealers who watch out for themselves, win plum assignments through connections--"juice"--and supplement meager paychecks with sizable tips.

But dealers now complain that the days of family-run gambling houses--where they received swift attention to complaints, knew the owners personally and generally were held in high regard--have shifted to a capricious corporate workplace where they can be suspended or fired if their pit boss sours on them or a high roller is offended by an ill-timed smirk or yawn.

"The people who used to run this town knew the value of dealers," said Frank Trotti, the union's lead organizer here. "Dealers were respected by their bosses, who understood that people came here to gamble and these [dealers] were the ones who brought in the money.

"But corporate casinos see them as just another employee and, without a labor contract, they can do whatever they want to them," he said.

Dealers also complain that their grievances go largely unheard, that part-timers are forced to work 40 hours or more a week without health and other benefits and that they still are paid less than $6 an hour--while unionized casino workers, including bartenders and cocktail waitresses, make more than $10 an hour plus tips.

Dealers say their tips can range from $40 a day at low-limit tables to $200 or more during busy days at the high-end tables. But in recent years, new managers have required dealers to share their tips--a practice that many resent.

"I've been dealing for 30 years and I'm still only getting paid $5.41 an hour," said a dealer at the Tropicana--who, like all workers interviewed for this story, declined to be named for fear of management retribution. "Bartenders are making two to three times as much, plus tips, and while I can pour a drink, could they deal 21 or work a craps table?"

A spokesman for two casinos where petitions are being circulated said he was surprised by the apparent discontent among dealers.

"Nothing suggested that this was coming," said Alan Feldman, vice president of MGM Mirage. "We're striving to make the compensation package, the benefits and the working conditions as good as they can be, and it's not clear to me what paying dues to a union in New York will do to change that."

So far, petitions have been filed to hold union elections at the Las Vegas Hilton, Monte Carlo and Tropicana casinos. Corporate spokesmen at each declined to discuss the union drive.

Organizers say they are on the brink of filing petitions on behalf of dealers at Bally's, the Luxor, the MGM Grand, New York-New York, the Riviera and the Stratosphere.

They say they are buoyed by the successful organizing--by the United Auto Workers--of casino dealers in Detroit, and say the momentum is now carrying other union organizers to Atlantic City, N.J.

The campaign seeks to reverse a long-standing Vegas tradition: that dealers stand apart from other workers in a town where unions are strong.

More than a third of all casino and hotel workers in Las Vegas belong to unions. The largest, the Culinary Union, represents about 50,000 of an estimated 75,000 workers in the housekeeping, porter, change and food-and-beverage departments.

Traditionally, union organizers say, dealers resisted their efforts. Many old-timers were wary about how their tip income would be affected by labor contracts. As recently as the 1980s, efforts by the Teamsters Union to organize dealers fell flat.

What has changed since then is the advent of corporate ownership of casinos, said Shannon Bybee, executive director of the International Gaming Institute at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

"Dealers see unions as a way of protecting them in the impersonal bureaucracy of corporate-run casinos," he said. "In the past, dealers had the attitude that they were special, and didn't view themselves as union labor."

Dealers said they decided to invite the Transport Workers Union--which represents some airline employees at Las Vegas' McCarran International Airport--to organize them after failing to interest locally based unions in their efforts.

Existing unions, Bybee said, "don't want to create new issues that could cause them grief."

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