Gambling on casino gains in the union business

As the owner of a successful private child care business, Muriel Labine had never considered joining a union. A career in casino gaming turned that around.

“As a business person, I never thought along those lines at all,” she says today, but after eight years as an employee at Great Canadian Casino’s Richmond operation, a period which saw her rise to the level of supervisor, Labine turned union organizer.

Why? “The fear level is unbelievable,” Labine says now. “That’s why I made that move to go to the union. People were afraid even to say the word ‘union.’ We wanted fairness. It’s about having a voice, not going to work with fear.”

Labine, now a full-time organizer with the BCGEU, says it’s the desire to end that pervasive feeling of insecurity –- that you may not be allowed to learn a new game, that you’re not the supervisor’s favourite, that your shift can be changed without notice – that is making the casino gaming industry a major new beachhead for BC’s union movement.

Labine’s efforts to organize Great Canadian’s Richmond and Vancouver operations ended in failure, but brought her to the attention of BCGEU representatives who asked her to spearhead the union’s organizing drives at the Lake City casinos in BC’s Interior.

Those efforts produced union certifications in Penticton, Kamloops, Vernon and Kelowna, giving the BCGEU a strong position when Gateway Casinos purchased Lake City in 2002. (Gateway is itself owned by two powerful Australian partners, the Macquarie banking group and Crown Ltd., an entertainment industry giant.)

Today only one of Gateway’s seven BC casino properties remains non-union. With contracts in place at the four Okanagan properties and bargaining under way at Gateway facilities in Burnaby and New Westminster, the BCGEU can claim 1,600 members in BC’s gaming sector.

The unionized Gateway casinos generated about $528 million for BC Lottery Corp. last year, about 39 percent of its gross casino income. Throw in the cash from Hastings Racecourse (unionized by two other unions) and Edgewater in Vancouver (a certification of the Canadian Autoworkers) and you have nearly half of BCLC’s casino revenue generated in union jurisdiction.

The province’s other major casino gaming employer, Great Canadian Casinos, has five casino properties, all non-union. They generated $536 million last year for BCLC, including $233 million at Richmond’s River Rock Casino, which must count as BCLC’s casino mothership. BCLC itself is also non-union, rare for a crown entity.

With their large work forces, stable revenues, inability to shift operations, and organizational connections to hotels, casinos are good prospects for union organization.

Add in pervasive security and surveillance, both video and audio, as well as the instantaneous and dramatic discipline that meets any sign of wrong-doing – alleged cheaters can be frog-marched off the gaming floor in handcuffs – and it’s no surprise workers look for a way to ensure their voices are heard.

That’s why Las Vegas is the most unionized city in the United States.

“In most cases, wages are not the first thing workers are looking for,” says Labine. “It’s a feeling of fairness. Yes, wages are an issue. Casino workers rely on tips, and usually start close to the minimum.

“But with a union they have a voice at the bargaining table. They can make sure seniority is followed, there’s fairness on shifts, health and safety is a priority, there is a harassment policy.”

Sounds reasonable, but “casinos do not want unions,” Labine says, with unconscious understatement. Earlier this year, four workers she had booked to meet at separate times and locations were fired within 24 hours of making the appointments, an incident the union is taking to the Labour Relations Board.

Based on its experience so far, however, the BCGEU has reason to believe even this employer will one day find itself across a bargaining table from its own employees.

November 2009