More tribal casinos to face union elections

Only a handful of dealers and labor leaders remained outside a ballroom at Foxwoods Resort Casino early Sunday morning when election results became official: Table game dealers had voted by a wide margin to become the casino's first unionized employees.

At 2 a.m., the celebration by the United Auto Workers union and its supporters in an out-of-the-way hallway at one of the world's largest casinos seemed muted after a long and often contentious fight.

One floor above, the piped-in pop music and steady stream of gamblers continued. The only cheer one exhausted union supporter could muster at the late hour was: "It's over. It's over."

The tired reactions belied the importance of Saturday's historic vote for tribal casinos and organized labor nationwide. Both sides had been watching the run-up to the election closely, and its results could have major ramifications for each.

"The implications are sweeping," Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said.

The UAW spent six months organizing an estimated 3,000 dealers in a faceoff against an aggressive anti-union campaign by Foxwoods and its owner, the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe. But in the end, management's efforts were unsuccessful: 1,289 dealers voted to be represented by the UAW; 852 dealers opposed the proposal.

Depending on the outcome of a contract for Foxwoods' dealers -- which could be months or years away, and still is not assured -- Saturday's vote could result in union organizing efforts at tribal casinos coast to coast. The vote at Foxwoods is believed to be the first National Labor Relations Board-supervised union election at a tribal casino.

The tribal gaming industry accounts for 670,000 jobs nationally and had gaming revenues last year of an estimated $25.7 billion, according to the National Indian Gaming Association.

"Tribes are understandably concerned," said Mark Van Norman, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based association.

A second federally supervised union election is being scheduled in Michigan for 300 housekeeping employees of Soaring Eagle Casino & Resort, which is owned by the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe. The NLRB regional office in Detroit recently ordered an election at the casino after the International Brotherhood of Teamsters petitioned the federal agency for a vote, an NLRB spokesman said. A federal court ruling last winter helped spark the interest of organized labor at Foxwoods and at other tribal casinos around the country.

A small number of tribal casino workers have joined unions that were organized through agreements with individual tribes.

But in what is now a precedent-setting decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled last February that the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, although a sovereign nation, is subject to federal labor laws at the commercial casino it operates in California The laws give workers the right to organize and bargain collectively. Despite the outcome of the union vote Saturday, dealers remain far from a collective bargaining agreement. Mashantucket Pequot leaders could refuse to bargain and push the issue into federal court.

The tribe fought the NLRB throughout the process leading up to the vote, saying the federal agency does not have jurisdiction over the casino on its reservation. Instead, Mashantucket Pequot leaders have said workers should organize under recently passed tribal laws concerning unionizing.

If the tribe refuses to bargain with the UAW, the issue could return to federal appellate court, likely in the D.C. Circuit or in the 2nd Circuit in New York City. Foxwoods officials declined to comment Sunday on their next step, saying the casino's lawyers have begun to consider the options. A statement released by the casino indicated that management is likely to continue fighting the jurisdictional issue even after the vote.

"We are disappointed with the preliminary tally; however, these results will not be official until all legal issues, including jurisdiction, are resolved," Foxwoods President John O'Brien said in a statement.

Blumenthal, whose office has followed the issue closely, said the law is clear, and if the tribe refuses to negotiate, its leaders are just forestalling the inevitable. He estimated a challenge by the tribe is likely to take months, rather than years.

Negotiating a contract for the dealers at Foxwoods would be a major victory for labor unions in Connecticut and beyond. Union membership in the private sector has fallen below 10 percent of all workers, although there have been some gains in service industries; among janitors, for example. Already, the UAW and other unions are going beyond dealers to organize more of the casino's 10,000 employees.

"With a victory here with the dealers, that opens the door to organize the rest of the casino workers," said Brian Petronella, president of United Food & Commercial Workers Union, Local 371, which is looking into organizing cooks, dishwashers and other food service workers at Foxwoods. Mohegan Sun, a similarlysized tribal casino near Foxwoods, could draw the interest of union organizers, as well. Currently, there are no unionized workers among Mohegan Sun's 10,000 employees.

Some casinos have been able to resist the efforts of labor unions, said William Eadington, an economics professor and director of the Institute for the Study of Gambling and Commercial Gaming at the University of Nevada, Reno.

But now they could be forced to respond with higher wages or improved benefits. How casino management responds to the threat of a union, and the quality of the contract the UAW and other unions negotiate for their new members, will help determine how widespread unions become at tribal casinos, Eadington said.

Van Norman, the executive director of the tribal gaming association, sees the interest unions have in tribal casinos as an attempt to stem their declining membership in industries in which they have traditionally been strong.

And tribes, although disagreeing with the right of unions to organize on tribal land under the NLRB process, are not ignoring what's happening.

"Tribes are working to make sure, as always, that [tribal employees] are treated fairly, there is a fair wage scale, and a fair employee grievance process," Van Norman said.


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