Roughly 300 Foxwoods dealers and their labor and political supporters held a protest rally in front of MGM Foxwoods on Sunday, the first day that this 800-room hotel and casino opened its doors to the general public. The primary issue was the lack of a labor contract between Foxwoods and the dealers, complicated by Foxwoods' recent refusal, citing tribal sovereignty, to recognize the results of am employee election approving unionization. An initial appeal of the election results was denied by the by the National Labor Relations Board, kicking off what is expected to be an extended legal battle between the tribe, its unionized dealers, and the federal government.
Jacqui Little, a long-time poker dealer from Foxwoods, explained the union's campaign. "We organized this union last year because Foxwoods was eroding our health insurance and other benefits. We got together because we were tired of having no recourse whatsoever when Foxwoods disciplined us unfairly or just changed benefits to whatever they wanted them to be on any given day."
Since the vote approving unionization in November, labor representatives have been trying to force Foxwoods to first recognize the results, then bargain in good faith for a contract covering wages, hours, benefits, and working conditions, as the National Labor Relations Act requires. Foxwoods has refused, even though the Connecticut Region of the National Labor Relations Board, after conducting a full investigation and hearing arguments on both sides, concluded that the election was fair. For its part, the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe disputes the NLRB's authority and continues to insist that any union can be organized only under tribal law. Their continuing appeal is likely to take as much as three years to be decided.
The protest on Sunday was about more than just the union election. As Little related her tale, speakers chanted, from the stage, "One casino, one union, one toke, no smoke." Unpacked, this meant that the union was protesting Foxwoods' legal argument that the new dealers at the MGM property did not work for Foxwoods, but worked instead for a separate casino called the MGM. "MGM and Foxwoods are one casino," Little stated. "Even Foxwoods' chairman has said repeatedly that we're one casino. And they're involuntarily transferring workers from one part of Foxwoods to the MGM. They couldn't do that if they were two completely different companies."
The "toke" or "tip" issue is similarly troubling for the dealers. Dealers at Foxwoods share their tips and control what is done with the cash they collect. At the new MGM Foxwoods, the casino has implemented a plan that collects dealers' tips into a larger employee pool, a shift that the UAW, which represents the dealers, believes will negatively impact their income. The "no smoke" comment refers to the union's attempt to make the casino environment safer for employees by banning cigarette smoking from the property (except in enclosed designated smoking areas).
Some politicians in Connecticut agree with the union's demands for recognition. Speaking at the union protest rally, Connecticut's Attorney General, Dick Blumenthal, said, "They may have the money, and they may seem to have the power, but you have the law! I will stand with you and fight with you to make sure that your legal rights are won." Mr. Blumenthal added that he was speaking out in favor of the union's position and for MGM/Foxwoods to quickly begin negotiations in earnest. Three other state representatives and senators spoke on behalf of the union, as did three dealers from Foxwoods and a half a dozen or so union leaders.
Tribal spokesman Bruce MacDonald criticized the "visibility protest" of the dealers and their union. "What you're looking at is a lack of respect for tribal law and a publicity stunt," said MacDonald, in a statement to a Connecticut paper.