Casino workers in Indiana are building unity and sticking together to win health and safety improvements for all workers - union and nonunion alike.
When COVID-19 hit, Caesars workers in Indiana were in the middle of bargaining. “Health insurance was already a big issue for us, and Local 89 had been conducting surveys along with Unite Here to learn more about how improving our health plan would impact everyones’ lives,” said bargaining committee member Anjila Gaudet.
Just before calling people back to work, Caesars met with union leaders to share their reopening plan. Union representatives from Teamsters Local 89, the Operating Engineers, and Unite Here did a walk-through of the facility and reviewed safety measures. “There were a lot of positive measures and precautions being taken,” said Local 89 Business Agent Stephen Piercey, “but when we learned that the company was only complying with the bare minimum requirements of the Indiana Gaming Commission when it came to guests wearing masks, we knew there was a problem.”
Caesars requires all workers to wear masks in order to protect guests. But guests were only required to wear masks while sitting at a card table, leaving the majority of Caesar's workforce unprotected.
“When we returned to work, we had a safety meeting with management,” said Gaudet, “it didn’t take long for our committee members to start voicing concerns about the one-way mask policy.” As quickly as members began to speak up, management began to stumble. “They kept falling back on the excuse that the IGC only requires masks to be worn at game tables. The more we questioned them, the angrier other workers got.”
The committee had come back to work with a plan. Just four days after the walk-through, Teamsters Local 89 had a petition ready to go, and got Unite Here and the Operating Engineers on board to help. “We started out with our committee members and expanded from there,” said Bryan Trafford, Local 89 Organizer and former Caesar’s shop steward. Unlike past union actions, the petition was wall-to-wall and organizers included every classification and department, union or not.
Coming out of the safety meeting there was strong enthusiasm and support. “Our employees health and safety is just as important as our guests’ health and safety,” said Sandra Ramirez, a slot attendant. When activists took petitions, committee members would discuss overall goals, help the activist set their own goals, and prepare for conversations to get their departments on board. “Lots of people wanted to help and had never done this before. We gave instruction and guidance, and saw the results,” said Gaudet, “It’s about more than this safety issue, it’s showing Caesar’s we’re united.”
“Sometimes nonunion workers are skeptical about union activity, or afraid to take action without union protection. We really came together to fight for safe working conditions,” said Gaudet, “some departments were nervous at first, nobody wanted to be the first to sign. But when we left activists with petitions, they all got filled out within hours.”
Under the policy, the non-union dealers who work at the game tables had a safe work area. But they joined the fight just the same, with nearly half the department signing in solidarity with their coworkers. “Dealers signed, telling us they wanted to be team players,” said Gaudet.
As the petition circulated in the workplace, members began sharing it online as well, using facebook pages and building support among members who had not yet been called back to work. “The online component was just another way to help spread the word and reach our goal,” said Trafford, “When someone signed online, we checked what department they were from and kept our activists circulating the paper petition updated.”
Just a week after the petition began circulating, more than half the workforce had signed. Another petition was circulating in the nearby Shelbyville casino. “Between pressure from the workers and the spike in positive cases in Las Vegas, management knew they had to change their policy,” said Trafford. Caesars’ CEO announced a new policy requiring all guests to wear masks, the only exception being when they are eating or drinking.
“Caesars say the policy changed because experts recommend masks at all times. But that was the experts recommendation when we first reopened. We know what really got the policy changed,” said Gaudet. Not long after the policy change was announced, Caesars Southern Indiana began walking it back, allowing guests to take off their masks to smoke inside. “That introduces a lot of gray area,” said Piercey, “and it’s not acceptable.”
Workers are continuing to gather signatures and are prepared to continue the fight for safety, says Gaudet. “It’s been a really moving experience to watch everyone come together and see how powerful we can be when we’re united.”