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Working In These Times

Tuesday, Apr 23, 2013, 4:00 pm

Local Unions Notch A Victory At Baltimore’s New Casino

BY Bruce Vail

Some 500 union members and supporters marched in Baltimore April 20 to demand that government-sponsored commercial developments include good jobs for the city's working families, and to celebrate a new deal for unionized labor at the city's Horseshoe Casino development. (United Workers)  

BALTIMORE–Local labor organizations are claiming victory this week after brokering a pair of agreements that will ensure the use of union labor in every aspect of a new $375 million downtown Baltimore casino project. Backed by special legislation from the Maryland state government, the proposed Horseshoe Casino is expected to create 1,200 permanent jobs.

UNITE HERE and several other unions say they are very close to an agreement with Caesars Entertainment Corp. to smooth the way for the casino's permanent staff to be unionized. The event follows a separate “Project Labor Agreement” deal with construction unions finalized April 2 that specifies that most of the building work will be done by union-contracted firms.

UNITE HERE’s arrangement with Caesars is part of multi-union pact that is expected to see nearly all of the workers at the casino become union members, says UNITE HERE Local 7 President Roxie Herbekian. The deal provides for a “card check” procedure to allow unions to be certified once a majority of workers have signed union cards, paired with a neutrality pledge from Caesars that it will not actively oppose unionization, she says.

Other local unions that will be organizing at the casino under the agreement will be units of the Teamsters, the United Auto Workers, International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE), and International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE). The five unions will have jurisdiction over food and catering, parking, card dealers and other gambling, building operation and maintenance, and entertainment production.

Several of these unions joined UNITE HERE in sponsoring a rally on April 20 as an early celebration on of the deal. The labor organizations were joined by local community groups United Workers and Community Churches United, both of which are sharply focused on bringing better quality jobs into the Baltimore region. The rally featured an appearance by UNITE HERE's national president, Donald Taylor, and enthusiastic worker delegations from locals in New York, Philadelphia and Atlantic City, N.J. It was a rare public appearance for Taylor (known as D. Taylor to his supporters), who has maintained a low public profile since he became president of the 250,000-member union five months ago.

“We have to rely on each other,” Taylor told the crowd, in an implied rebuke to Democratic Party leaders who have failed to support union workers in organizing efforts at Caesars, and elsewhere. “We can never rely on the government. The government will always do the bidding of big business. ... It is up to us to get them to do the right thing.”

The Caesars deal was achieved only with the help of the national union and the active support of the locals in other cities, Herbekian says. UNITE HERE President Taylor later told Working In These Times that he took a direct hand in the negotiations with Caesars, which already has UNITE HERE contracts at large casinos in Las Vegas and Atlantic City.  “Union casinos account for 60 percent of Caesars cash flow. So we are important to them and we try to deal with them on a holistic basis,” he told Working In These Times.

Caesars maintains significant non-union operations around the country (particularly in the riverboat and tribal gaming sectors), he remarked, so there was real concern that the gambling giant was on the path to establishing a non-union outpost in Baltimore.

Caesars spokesperson Jan Jones disputes this, saying the casino was never opposed to unions in principle. Delays in both deals, she says, were due to local political demands that Caesars agree to specific targets for hiring minorities and Baltimore city residents. This caused some suspicion that Caesars was trying to block unionization, she says, and complicated the negotiations. But she notes that Caesars readily agreed to a request by Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) to allow his office to help negotiate the union deal for the construction jobs. Indeed, she credits Maryland Secretary of State John P. McDonough for shepherding the final building trades agreement to a successful conclusion.

National labor leaders were also key to the April 2 construction deal, according to both Jones and Tom Owens, a spokesperson for the AFL-CIO’s Building & Construction Trades Department (BCTD). The final agreement bypassed the local Baltimore Trades Council and was negotiated directly by BCTD Secretary-Treasurer Brent Booker, Owens says. The final agreement included BCTD, Caesars and Whiting-Turner Contracting Co., a large national construction firm.

Following the expected completion of the labor agreements, the pace of Horseshoe development is expected to pick up sharply. Although authorized some four years ago, progress on the casino has been slowed by regulatory and poltical issues, and only kicked into gear recently with a November 2012 plebiscite allowing expanded gambling throughout the state. Some preparation work finally began late last month at the site, which lies in the shadow of the Baltimore Ravens football stadium.

The union hopes the Horseshoe agreements will break the local mold of government-sponsored development in the area, says Local 7’s Herbekian. For decades, local and state government entities have lavished benefits on private for-profit businesses in hopes of stimulating economic renewal, she says, but the handouts were given with little thought to the quality of the jobs generated or whether working families in the city could sustain themselves. She says that the multi-union effort at Caesars represents an effort to break that pattern and turn more public attention to the well-being of working people.

United Auto Workers is a sponsor of In These Times.

Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA's Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper's New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

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