West Virginia Workers Authorize Strike at Mountaineer Casino

Morgantown, West Virginia (AP) – Some 200 cashiers, slot technicians and money room employees are set to strike at midnight Saturday at Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack & Resort in Chester, in protest of „poverty wages“ that make health care and other basic needs unaffordable.

If a strike takes place, the track’s attorney says supervisors, managers and other employees will cover for the missing employees.

The contract with Local 23 of the United Food & Commercial Workers expired March 1, and employees had continued working under an extension. But on Tuesday, members rejected the latest offer from Mountaineer, owned by MTR Gaming Group Inc.

Mountaineer lags behind competitors in wages and benefits, paying the unit an average wage of just USD 9.34 an hour, Secretary Treasurer Tony Helfer said Wednesday.

„The cashiers start at USD 6.50 an hour,“ he said. „If they want family health care, it costs them USD 109 a week.“

Mountaineer had proposed wage increases of 65 cents and 85 cents an hour for the lowest-paid employees in its final offer. The federal minimum wage is set to increase from USD 5.85 an hour to $ 6.55 in July, and to USD 7.25 an hour in July 2009.

When West Virginia legislators approved both slot machines and table games, „the intent was to put money into the coffers of the state of West Virginia,“ Helfer said. But many Mountaineer workers are turning to the state for help, relying on the Children’s Health Insurance Program, food stamps and other public assistance.

„The state of West Virginia is subsidizing Mountaineer,“ he charged.

Track spokeswoman Tamara Pettit referred all questions to labor lawyer Marshall Berman, who said Mountaineer’s offer is fair. The union came to the table with 20 major demands and has not relented on one, he said.

Among them was a USD 4-per-hour raise over three years for jobs that pay USD 7 or USD 8, „which is a 50 percent increase,“ Berman said. The union also demanded bonus pay for anyone working a shift other than Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Berman said the union also demanded Mountaineer: add 19 paid holidays; fund a Local 23 health plan in addition to the company health plan; and help fund a Local 23 pension plan in addition to the state-run program that MTR pays into.

„When they accuse us of not bargaining, they’re basically accusing us of not granting that giant list of demands. … These were all enormously costly items, and they wouldn’t prioritize anything,“ he said.

Helfer said workers at nearby Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino-Racetrack, which his union also represents, earn an average of USD 2 more per hour. That track, owned by Delaware North Companies Inc., also pays 100 percent of those workers‘ health care.

Berman said MTR, like other gambling companies, faces ever-growing competition, including from a slots-only casino set to open in downtown Pittsburgh.

Local 23 is willing to return to the table immediately, but Helfer said he’s not hopeful that will occur before Saturday.

Berman, meanwhile, said it’s up to a federal mediator, who has been involved in negotiations from the start, to schedule the next meeting.