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Steve Friess: Detroit Casino Strikers Take Foolish Gamble Calling For iGaming Boycott

Written By Steve Friess | Updated:
Steve Friess State Of Play Detroit Casino Strike

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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.

Until now, the Detroit Casino Council has played its strike against the city’s three corporate-owned resorts flawlessly. Some 3,700 workers — dealers, cleaners, waitstaff, valets and engineers, among others — walked off the job on Oct. 17 because MGM Grand Detroit, MotorCity Casino and Hollywood Casino at Greektown have failed to offer a fair new contract.

This is Michigan, where unions still wield immense power. The picket lines at each property are visible and discouraging to people who want to visit. When I went down to check it out a couple of weeks ago, I was impressed by how clearheaded and determined the workers were and how well they stated their case that they are owed a generous deal because of the significant sacrifice they made during the pandemic.

Yet the DCC is now attempting to broaden its strike in a way it doesn’t actually have the power to — online. Should the strike last long enough, this approach could wildly backfire.

Union urges gamblers to use other companies’ apps

On Monday, according to a union news release, the DCC launched a digital ad campaign to urge people not to play on four mobile apps — FanDuel, ESPN BET, Hollywood iCasino, and BetMGM. FanDuel is the online partner of MotorCity, ESPN BET and Hollywood are tied to Greektown and BetMGM is obviously an arm of MGM Resorts.

The missive opened with a whopper: “The Detroit Casino strike is extending into cyberspace.”

Well, no. No, it has not. The dealers who work on the live table games on those apps are not on strike because they are not employed directly by the casinos or the apps. Unless they’ve unionized those folks and managed to cause some sort of disruption online, the strike is very, very much not in cyberspace.

What they actually meant is in the next sentence when they call on “the public to boycott four sports betting and online casino platforms associated with the three casinos where workers have been forced on strike.”

That’s a tall order. The release goes on to cite all the other apps people can use: “Other apps such as Caesars Sportsbook, Caesars Palace Online Casino, WynnBET, DraftKings, Sports Illustrated Sportsbook and others are not part of the boycott.”

It’s also not something typically done in strikes like this. Nobody on the picket lines at Ford, GM or Stellantis was telling people to buy Teslas, Subarus and BMWs. Nobody striking in Hollywood told people to stop watching TV, go to the movies or only stream Britbox. When graduate students struck at the University of Michigan, Rutgers and the University of California this year, they didn’t tell people not to go to class or urge them to transfer to other schools.

Yet the DCC wants not just a boycott of the product of their employers — to discourage people from going in person to the city’s casinos — but also for people to defect to products owned by competitors that aren’t even part of the strike itself.

So if they could get people to follow through on this, it could inflict permanent, long-term damage to their own companies

The fact they can’t, though, is worse.

No real political agenda here

Product boycotts very seldom work. This year’s conservative attack on Bud Light for its marketing deal with a transgender influencer is an unusual exception, but the ingredients for that one — a vocal, nationwide movement that went viral — is not present here. In fact, there’s no real political agenda here; the DCC is just looking for ways to make their employers’ parent companies hurt.

For the guy placing sports bets on the NFL, it’s not a very compelling pitch. The public might be empathetic to the casino workers, sure. That may extend to the point where they choose not to visit a business in person to avoid having to encounter picketers or because there’s plenty else to do.

But going in person to a business is a public act. Logging onto an online casino app on your phone is the ultimate in private acts. One thing we’ve learned over the past few years is that online gambling habits are very entrenched.

The unions are making this call for people to log off, which seems to represent an escalation of the strike. It implies weakness, actually, because if they felt like they had the upper hand in these negotiations they wouldn’t need to do this.

And, worse, in order to flex economic muscle, you have to be able to prove your impact. The union, however, has no way of knowing in the short term if anyone listens to them.

Poor timing by the union

To know that, they’d need to keep striking long enough for public reporting of the casino revenues from a full month to emerge — and that put us in late January looking over December’s data. Even then, they probably would be hard-pressed to pinpoint a dip and claim themselves as the cause.

(Aside: the DCC’s timing here is poor. Even if it persuaded some people to bet elsewhere, we’re heading into a high-volume sports betting period anyway with the red-hot Wolverines soon to confront Ohio State in The Game and the surging Detroit Lions generating real interest and excitement for the first time in decades.)

This gambit is generating some headlines, sure. There’s certainly an argument to be made that casino profits from online enterprises ought to help provide for brick-and-mortar employees.

But this is the union believing they have control over something other than their own employees. It can’t work. And it makes them look foolish.

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Photo by Paul Sancya/AP photo; 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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