Wynn takes on conventional wisdom — again

If any Las Vegan ever pushed the envelope more than Steve Wynn, it would be a surprise. He turned the downtown Golden Nugget into the equivalent of a Strip resort. He built The Mirage when Las Vegas seemed dormant and helped trigger a boom. He put Siegfried & Roy in his main showroom, charged high prices to see them and changed how the Strip presented entertainment.

Now he’s focused on dealers and their tips, creating controversy and forcing rethinking — as usual.

As of Sept. 1, Wynn Las Vegas dealers had to start pooling their tips not only with one another, but with their supervisors as well. Dealers are upset: this could cost them an estimated $ 10,000 a year. Floorpersons and pit bosses could make up to 50 percent more annually. Attorneys say the plan is legal.

While they disclaim such intentions now, other gaming companies may follow suit. Since their tips put some of them into the six figures, Wynn Las Vegas dealers are unlikely to leave en masse. Whether dealers elsewhere would fight it may not be at issue; the question is whether they can.

No Union

The main problem for unhappy dealers is that they have no leverage — meaning no union. Culinary workers who receive tips probably will never face this issue because they have a successful union.

Several have tried to form dealers unions. In the late 1950s, Tom Hanley made an attempt. In his oral history (for which I interviewed him), longtime attorney Ralph Denton recalled Hanley trying to meet with gubernatorial candidate Grant Sawyer in 1958 and handling it himself.

„Tom’s explaining how they need the union, how unfair management is: They walk into a pit and just fire everybody. That’s terrible! We get to talking more,“ Denton said. „His beef wasn’t that the house was stealing money from the public, it was that they weren’t cutting it up with him fairly. He wanted a share of what they stole. He didn’t mind them being a thief, he just wanted his share.“ Later, Hanley participated in the murder of Culinary leader Al Bramlet, telling authorities that Bramlet hadn’t paid him for bombing anti-union restaurants.

Less colorful (thankfully) organizers since have tried and failed to organize dealers. When the IRS began taxing tips, the chances looked better, but the effort subsided. One reason is that casinos more strongly opposed unionizing dealers than the other workers with whom the Culinary has been so successful. Some dealers were „crossroaders,“ meaning they moved from property to property, stealing until they were caught and then moving on.

Policing via Violence

A union protects employees, but casino executives were concerned about how the house and its reputation would suffer if a dealer known to be cheating could stay on the payroll. Without a union, some operators merely discouraged crooked dealers from coming back. Baseball bats across your knuckles can be discouraging.

A dealers‘ fate varies from place to place. If you deal baccarat at the Bellagio, your tips are higher than they are for those dealing „21“ at the Poker Palace. Organizing dealers making such disparate tips is tough. Never mind that you’re lucky to top out at $ 8 an hour by the time your career ends.

My father spent 30 years dealing at the Stardust and then the Showboat. He has warm memories of Frank Rosenthal — Robert DeNiro played the ersatz version in „Casino“ — firing dealers simply because previous Stardust executives hired them. He shared some of those memories with my CCSN colleague Lee Barnes, who wrote a wonderful book, Dummy Up and Deal, about the culture of dealing.

In that culture, dealers who got along with floormen were rare. Floormen are supposed to make sure the games run well and honestly and that dealers aren’t „hustling“ for tips. If floormen get a cut, will those at Wynn Las Vegas do the hustle? Whatever the cause for concern, Wynn has taken on conventional wisdom before and triumphed. What remains to be seen here is whether the dealers are the losers.