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Steve Friess: On The Detroit Casino Picket Lines, No Wavering In Commitment To Make Them Pay

Written By Steve Friess | Updated:
Steve Friess State Of Play: Visiting Striking Detroit Casino Workers

State of Play with Steve Friess

State of Play is a column that focuses on the trending stories in the casino and gambling space with sharp and clever insight from senior staff writer Steve Friess. Over his 25-year career, Friess has contributed to publications such as Newsweek, Time, New York Times and more.

At noon on Thursday, hours after a victorious United Auto Workers announced a deal to end its 41-day strike against the Ford Motor Co., the folks on the picket line outside the Hollywood Casino at Greektown in Detroit were feeling chipper.

Ford became the first of the Detroit Three automakers to fold its hand, giving its American workers a lush contract with fat raises and increased — or in some cases, restored — benefits. In this year of very successful strikes in a wide range of industries from health care to Hollywood, this was another feather in organized labor’s cap.

“F— this casino,” a woman belted from a bullhorn near the entrance to a mostly empty parking garage. “You owe us. If Ford can do it, so can you.”

Around the same time, 2,000 miles away, dozens of union members laid in the middle of the Las Vegas Strip to block traffic. Some 53,000 hospitality workers there are on the brink of striking against MGM Resorts, Caesars Entertainment and Wynn Resorts. Their contract, like that of the 3,700 strikers at Detroit’s three land-based downtown casinos, has already expired.

Negotiations continue in both cities, but the industry misjudged the workers’ anger and willingness to inflict pain. Detroit casino workers walked out on Oct. 17.

“I was pretty skeptical about striking, but we had to do something,” a Detroit striker named Jade told me. “We got them through the pandemic, you know?”

‘All we ask is for a little loyalty in return’

Ah, yes, the pandemic. That’s a big part of what’s happening in American industry. At the height of that unprecedented crisis, unions agreed to contract extensions because everybody knew the big companies were facing big troubles.

Now they’re flourishing. The C-suites might want to forget that traumatic blip, but the workers refuse to be so easily placated as record profits roll in.

“We went through a pandemic with these guys, and we’re making less money now than we made when we first began in 2000,” says Joyce Bailey, a 54-year-old table server who started at the Greektown casino when it opened 23 years ago. “Inflation is going up, everything is going up except our paychecks, and we can’t survive. We can’t pay for families, one of our checks barely covers our rent, and it’s just not fair. We helped these people get where they are today. They walked on our backs. We were loyal to them and all we ask is for a little loyalty in return. That’s all we want.”

Bailey, the only rank-and-file striker authorized to talk to me, went on:

“We had a deal with them. We knew things weren’t going to be the same when we came back, we knew the money they were making wasn’t going to be the same. But we took a three-year extension at the same contract until they got on their feet. And then when they got on their feet, they would look out for us, and they never did. We’re doing worse than we were before the pandemic.”

‘I don’t think we’ll be back until this is over’

Detroit’s casinos are open, staffed by upper management and a few scabs, but the scene at Greektown wasn’t great. Valet parking is closed, so self-parking is free and plentiful. On the first floor, just a few inveterate souls sat before slot machines, and one mistook me for an employee to complain that the bathroom was closed. There was a lot of that; “temporarily closed” was the diplomatic way of explaining the lack of restaurants, bars, restrooms and other amenities.

The second floor where the table games are was busier, with a blackjack and a craps table in action, but there was a joylessness to all of it.

“It doesn’t feel great, having to walk past those folks to come in and play,” says 70-year-old Marty Frankel as he thumbed a slot machine. “I didn’t realize they were striking until I got off the bus here. We were here already with nothing else to do so my wife wanted to stay. I don’t think we’ll be back until this is over.”

Another casino patron, Trilly Miller, said she was only there to pick up a free gift she won as a casino club member. “I’m going to go in, get my gift, and go home,” she says. “These people deserve their raises for all they do.”

Granted, it was mid-day on a weekday, but the real fun and excitement took place outside on the sidewalk. Dozens of the 800 or so strikers here were having a high old time — no, really, the unmistakable scent of marijuana wafted — walking in circles or waving their “Don’t Gamble With Our Future” signs at passing cars and the few patrons going inside.

News of the Ford strikers’ win gave the striking Bailey a lift. Her daughter and brother work at Stellantis plants where workers have yet to walk out as the UAW is strategic about where it applies its pain. But, this being Detroit where unions and the auto industry are often credited with building the American middle class after World War II, Ford’s triumph felt just as personal.

“I’m happy for them,” she says. “I know those people are tired out of striking over there. They got families, they got bills to pay. I think what they got was pretty good. And all we want is a good deal. We want what we’re worth.”

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Photo by Steve Friess; illustrated by PlayUSA
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Steve Friess

Steve Friess writes the State of Play column for PlayUSA twice a week. He's a veteran gambling-industry reporter who began covering Las Vegas in 1996 and covered the openings of resorts in Asia, Europe, and across the U.S. His bylines have appeared in The New York Times, Playboy, New Republic, Time, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, New York magazine, and many others. He, his husband, their children and three Poms live in Ann Arbor.

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