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September 18, 2014

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Dealers sour on Caesars

The story of why dealers at Caesars Palace are organizing a union is part of a bigger story about the transformation of the casino industry from its family-run roots in the mob to the modern era of megaresort operators.

Some of the problems dealers have with their employer are not specific to Caesars but are endemic to the Strip and even to corporate America, where minimum wage workers are vulnerable to the whims of management and Wall Street.

But mostly, the story is more local and more personal, about a long-term relationship gone sour.

Dealers at Caesars are unlike most rank-and-file workers in this country. They can earn more than $70,000 per year with tips and without much formal education. And unlike other skilled laborers, they have a mystique and fame that rises above the mundane aspects of the job.

Caesars, an iconic symbol of Las Vegas, used to be known as "Dealers Palace" for its high-limit, high profile table games and experienced pit crew.

Dealers loved working there. But they say they have come to also feel like abused spouses who have grown accustomed to what has become a dysfunctional relationship.

The organizing effort, they say, is much more than a defense tactic in the face of Steve Wynn's controversial move last year requiring dealers to share their tips with their immediate supervisors - a move that drove angered dealers to unionize at Wynn Las Vegas.

"That was the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back," said Ernie Acevedo, a 15-year roulette and blackjack dealer at Caesars. "But there's a lot more to this."

This union drive comes after years of built-up resentments. They say Wynn's tip policy has given them the courage to call out their abusers in management as manipulative - demoralizing, even.

Bringing in a union, they say, is their last-ditch effort to salvage their relationship rather than abandon it for dead.

But casino bosses, who have successfully fended off unions in their table game pits for years, see them as anything but marriage counselors.

Many bosses believe unions are obsolete vestiges of a time before federal labor laws, when employers were truly abusive. Some say unions are counterproductive to running a business - hampering growth and the ability to respond to changing market conditions, which can end up hurting job prospects as well as profits.

"We support workers' rights to organize ... we have a great relationship with the Culinary Union ... but we feel that dealers are far better served working directly with management," said Jan Jones, an executive at Harrah's Entertainment, which owns Caesars Palace. "We can assure them that pooling (dealer tips with supervisors) has never been one of our policies."

Involving a union means this issue, like others, becomes subject to formal negotiations, Jones said.

Several dealers, including the two profiled here, don't claim to be union sympathizers. They aren't acting in anger like their counterparts at Wynn. Instead, they describe a sinking feeling of frustration, even desperation, with an institution that treats them more like insolent children than adults.

"I often think that some of these people don't have children because if they dealt with children in this way they'd raise paranoid schizophrenics," Acevedo said.

They reminisce about what they call the "good old days" - the early years before they began to mistrust their supervisors and fear they could be fired for a misunderstanding or minor infraction.

"They used to treat us with respect," Acevedo said. "They didn't let customers get out of line and when that happened, they would back you up. They respected our integrity and would say, 'We don't do that here.' "

But table games are less critical in this new world, where slots and even electronic versions of table games are replacing tables with live dealers.

In short, dealers are more afraid for their jobs than ever.

A majority of Caesars' dealers have signed union authorization cards to be represented by the Transport Workers Union.

A National Labor Relations Board-supervised, secret-ballot election will be held in the employee dining room Dec. 22. Dealers with similar gripes have just begun organizing under the TWU banner at other Strip properties.

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