Detroit casino workers go on strike; unions seek better wages, benefits

Detroit Free Press
Detroit casino workers go on strike; unions seek better wages, benefits
Wild Casino

Thousands of Detroit casino workers went on strike Tuesday after negotiations between the three casinos and unions representing the workers failed to reach a new labor agreement by a noon deadline.

The strike is the first at the Detroit casinos — MGM Grand, MotorCity and Hollywood Casino at Greektown — since they opened in the late 1990s and 2000.

The Detroit Casino Council, which represents 3,700 casino workers across five unions, has been seeking better wages and benefits in negotiations with the casinos that started in early September.

The council and unions have shared few details about their specific wage requests, citing the wide variety of job types in casinos and the attached hotels, other than to say workers need big raises to keep up with inflation.

On the benefits front, the unions say casino management wants workers to pay significantly more for health care, which they are opposed to.

"The company, in my opinion, is not coming back with anything that is even close to fair," said Johanna Lams, who works as a table games dealer at MGM Grand Detroit and is also a local UAW chairperson. “When you start talking about inflation and start talking about pay rate, you’ve got to at least be close, and we're not right now."

She added, “You’ve got people here working at MGM who don’t even make enough to have apartments. They are sleeping in their cars.”

The casino workers had been under a three-year extension to a five-year contract that was originally set to expire at 11:59 p.m. Monday, but was extended 12 hours until noon on Tuesday.

The casino council agreed in 2020 to minimal wage increases — 3% in total over three years — to help the casinos amid the COVID-19 pandemic and government-mandated shutdowns.

The unions represent most, although not all, workers in the casinos, including those on the gaming floor, serving food and drinks and working in the casinos' hotels.

All three casinos remained open Tuesday afternoon amid the strike and active picket lines.

“They have, from my understanding, a lot of the supervisors spread out around the casino working six days a week and 10-hour days," Lams said. “Hopefully, there will be nobody in there."

At MGM Grand, vehicles passed dozens of loud strikers on the picket line to enter the casino's parking deck in the early afternoon.

Inside, the slot machines were working and many patrons seemed oblivious to the strike.

"Are they on strike? Oh wow, glad I'm getting out now," one man said while leaving the casino and heading to the parking deck.

Another patron was well aware that a strike was underway as she walked inside at about 1 p.m.

"You see what they're doing out there? Making me feel real, real bad," the woman, with a smile on her face, said to a security guard.

MGM Grand Detroit has said it plans to stay open throughout the strike.

"We will take whatever lawful action is necessary to fill shifts and continue providing our customers with entertainment and service," an MGM Grand executive, Matt Buckley, told casino employees in a letter Tuesday morning.

While the Detroit casinos are seeing fewer visitors and less in-person revenue compared with 2019, the unions have pointed to new revenue streams that opened with the January 2021 start of legal online gaming and sports gaming in Michigan. The unions also claim the casinos are collectively operating with 1,500 fewer workers now than before the pandemic.

The Detroit Casino Council is composed of five unions: UNITE HERE Local 24, UAW, Teamsters Local 1038, Operating Engineers Local 324 and the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters.

Casino workers in the UAW will receive $500 per week in strike pay, an official said, although strike pay amounts for the other four unions may vary.

Negotiations between the council and the casinos continued right up to the noon deadline for the strike, according to Meghan Cohorst, a spokesperson for UNITE HERE.

"I think workers are ready to strike as long as it takes to get a deal," she said.

The unions are encouraging the public to not visit the casinos during the strike.

"There are workers on strike, they should honor the picket line," Cohorst said. "Don’t play, don’t stay, don’t cross the line. Support the workers who help make them run.”

An executive with PENN Entertainment, the owner of Hollywood Casino at Greektown, said they were disappointed by the casino council's decision to strike.

"We have made generous, progressive settlement offers that position our team members and business for sustainable success," Jeff Morris, vice president for public affairs, said in a statement. "We will remain open for business to serve our customers and are committed to continued good-faith bargaining with the Detroit Casino Council to resolve the issues at hand as soon as possible.”

The casino workers' strike comes at a time when about 34,000 UAW members are on strike in Michigan and other states, as well as another 1,000-plus UAW members employed with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan.