|By Oliver Staley, The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, Tenn.|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
May 6, 2005 - Hotel and restaurant workers at Caesars Entertainment's four Mississippi casinos are poised to unionize, scoring a major blow for organized labor in a region that has long been hostile to unions.
UNITE HERE, an organization formed last year by the merger of textile and hotel and restaurant workers unions, is leading the effort to sign up Caesars workers in Tunica and on the Gulf Coast. Caesars management said it is not opposing the efforts.
Organizer Mervilus Jean-Baptise, manning a table at the Grand Casino workers' cafeteria Tuesday, said he had been collecting check-off cards in Tunica since March 1. The union now had a sufficient number of workers enlisted to form a collective bargaining unit, he said.
Jean-Baptiste would not comment further and other union officials refused to talk about how or when the union would certify.
However, under the "card check" method of certifying a union, which is often used when management does not object, organizers would only have to collect cards from a majority of eligible employees to form a union without a vote.
That method has been used at other Caesars properties.
Labor experts said organizing any workers in Mississippi would be a significant development for a movement that has been in decline for decades.
"Given the difficulty organized labor has in growing nationally, if they can unionize in a state like Mississippi, that sounds like a coup to me," said David Hames, associate professor of management at University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
With only 4.8 percent of its workers in unions, Mississippi has one of lowest rates of organized workers in the nation. Only North Carolina and South Carolina have lower percentages.
"The South, in its business and political leadership, is as anti-union as it's ever been," said University of Mississippi journalism professor Joe Adkins, who has written about the history of labor in the South.
Adkins noted that there are other signs of union activity in Mississippi, including the United Auto Workers opening an office in Canton, home of the Nissan plant.
UNITE HERE, which represents more than 90,000 casino workers nationwide, is spearheading the effort at Caesars but it is cooperating with the Teamsters and the International Union of Operating Engineers, which would represent some classes of workers. If the unions are successful at the Caesars properties, it could lead employees at Mississippi's other casinos to organize, or put pressure on other casinos to raise wages, said Lee Adler, who teaches at Cornell University's school of Industrial and Labor Relations. There are about 12,000 casino employees in Tunica and 28,500 across the state.
The casinos covered would be the Grand Casinos in Tunica, Biloxi and Gulfport and the Sheraton in Tunica. In Tunica, about 1,300 of Caesars's approximately 3,000 employees would be covered.
Among the eligible workers are kitchen, bar, restaurant, maintenance and transportation employees but not dealers or other gambling-floor workers.
Those classifications are already unionized in Caesars's other properties in Las Vegas and Atlantic City, said Caesars spokesman Robert Stewart.
Stewart cautioned that unionizing is not the same thing as agreeing on a contract. Employees at Caesars Indiana have been unionized for a year, but they have yet to ratify a contract, he said.
But at other Indiana casinos unionized by UNITE HERE, negotiations resulted in wages increasing 7.6 percent and improved health care benefits.
Adding a wrinkle is Caesars's impending sale to Harrah's Entertainment, a massive merger that is expected to close this summer. "We are aware of it and we are monitoring the situation," said Harrah's spokesman David Strow, who said the unionizing activity would not jeopardize the merger.
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