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Union eyes organizing hotel casino workers on Coast

BILOXI — Casino industry representatives say their hotel workers are largely happy with their working conditions and pay, and that efforts to unionize the workers by the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA) are likely to fail.

Peter A. Fosco, a representative of LIUNA, disagrees.

“If they’re too happy, I would really hate to see what it would be like if they were truly unhappy,” Fosco said. “The people I’ve been talking with are not happy. They are very upset with what is going on. They want to see some change.”

Fosco said his union was contacted by a group of employees at Beau Rivage upset about pay and working conditions, including grievance procedures. He said a number of the employees moved to Mississippi from Las Vegas, and were told that the cost of living was much lower in Mississippi.

“These people are being paid $3 to $4 less per hour than for the same jobs in Las Vegas,” Fosco said. “They were told the cost of living is a lot cheaper here, and it really isn’t. Some people are having a tough time making it on the salary.”

Similar workers at Mirage Resorts in Las Vegas are represented by a union, Fosco said.

Beau Rivage CEO Barry Shier said they are taking good care of their employees, and that a union is not necessary.

“There is absolutely no benefit to having a third party as part of the process,” said Shier, adding that employees in the Coast are receiving benefits either equal to or greater than those offered in Las Vegas, including 401(k) plans and education benefits.”

Another Coast casino leader, Bernie Burkholder, who is president and CEO of Treasure Bay Casino and also president of the Mississippi Gaming Association, said having a union come between employees and management at this time would serve little or no purpose.

“I think the gaming industry as a whole has done an excellent job dealing with employees not only providing good salaries, but also excellent benefit packages, 401(k) retirement accounts, excellent health care coverage, and education programs,” Burkholder said. “We really lead the area in our benefits package at this point.”

Burkholder said the gains for employees after paying fees would be minimal, and that he believes most employees after considering the issue will recognize there is no value to unionization.

“I think the most important point is that management and employees have a good working relationship at literally every property I know of on the Coast,” Burkholder said. “There is a two-way communication between management and employees. Management definitely doesn’t want to have anyone come through them and communicate to the employees, and I don’t believe the employees will want it either.”

Burkholder said that Mississippi has always been a strong right-to-work state, and that while there are instances where unions have benefitted workers, he doesn’t believe that would be the case here.

“I don’t think the gaming industry in the year 2000 in Mississippi is either the industry, the place, or the time for union involvement,” he said. “And I believe the employees are seeing this, and will respond accordingly.”

Fosco disagrees about the interest in unionization. Although LIUNA’s first meetings were held at the request of employees from Beau Rivage, Fosco said employees from all of the different casinos attended the union meetings.

“There has been an overwhelming response from every property on the Gulf Coast,” Fosco said. “Working conditions, grievance procedures and pay are the reasons that brought them in. None of the workers will give names to reporters because they have instilled fear in everyone. Supervisors have actually threatened that people will get fired if they are caught going to a union meeting.”

Fosco said the union is currently trying to get authorization cards signed by employees. Once that is done, they plan to file for an election with the National Labor Relations Board.

Jay Osman, a gaming analyst based in Biloxi, said there is little possibility the union will win elections.

“There is no reason to unionize casino workers on the Coast,” Osman said. “These efforts have failed repeatedly in other jurisdictions. The reason this would not work here is the employment market is fairly competitive and, as a result, the casino employer are offering top-notch benefits.

“The disgruntled employees that may be out there are probably isolated cases. And to generalize that there is a bad working environment is probably unfounded. The only thing the union would do is actually cost the employer and the employee money, which would not benefit anyone. People who manage and operate unions have to be paid, and guess who pays them?”

Osman said in the unlikely event that the union was successful, it would result in higher costs to the casino operators, which decreases their profit.

“As a result the market as a whole becomes less attractive for new entrants,” Osman said. “It could be a detriment to the Coast casino market because it would increase the cost of doing business.”

Osman said few people showed up for the union meetings, and those were mostly lazy people who don’t want to work.

Fosco said besides concerns about pay and working condition, casino employees are upset about Beau Rivage hiring foreign workers. Fosco said that Beau Rivage has privatized its night shift for housekeeping, and that 125 people from Jamaica have been hired to do the work.

“That isn’t right,” Fosco said. “Why should they bring in people from out of the country to take away work from local people? More than 125 people were brought in to take away work from local Mississippians.”

Although the present effort is aimed at unionizing hotel workers, Fosco said there is interest from other types of casino employees, as well. He added that unions don’t always have to increase costs for businesses. He said the unions can offer group health insurance and pension plans that benefit businesses.

“There are a lot of small businesses we have talked with that were actually anti-union at one time,” Fosco said. “But when they saw the cost benefits and fringe benefits we could offer employees, it actually ended up saving them money. Union is not a bad word by any stretch of the imagination.”

LIUNA is one of the largest unions affiliated with the AFL-CIO, representing an estimated 750,000 workers in the U.S. and Canada. Mississippi workers represented by the union include poultry workers and employees at Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula.

Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at mullein@datasync.com.

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