Full-time jobs saved at casino

Casino Windsor avoided its fourth strike in five rounds of talks Wednesday by agreeing to keep one of the highest ratios of full-time workers in the industry.

Ken Lewenza, president of CAW Local 444, said his casino members should be extremely grateful to have dodged both a strike and a major concession on the number of them who work part-time.

Casino management went into talks insisting that the existing ratio of full-time to part-time workers — currently 66 per cent of the 3,000-person workforce is full-time — be changed significantly to help it remain competitive in the face of declining revenues and intensifying competition from the three casinos in Detroit.

The resulting deal is „absolutely incredible under the most difficult times,“ Lewenza said after ending 30 straight hours of bargaining Wednesday morning.

„I’d like to see 100 per cent ratification,“ he urged his members.

The tentative contract is for three years, instead of the four the company wanted, and freezes wages in the first and second years.

A 30-cent-per-hour wage increase will take effect in the third year, boosting the base wages in all wage and job categories by the same amount. There is a CAD 1,500 signing bonus.

A ratification vote will be held in two stages today at the downtown St. Clair College Centre for the Arts, at 2 p.m. and 5 p.m.

George King, legal counsel to the casino and spokesman for the company’s bargaining team, called the deal „an historic collective agreement“ because it involves „creative solutions“ to the challenge of keeping so many of its employees fulltime in an industry that skews much more heavily to part-time workers than 66/33.

With its revenues on a steady decline in recent years, controlling labour costs has become a prime concern for the casino, King said, particularly in a year in which it is opening a CAD 400-million addition.

With its new convention centre, luxury hotel wing and entertainment centre scheduled to open in June or July, „we were obviously under some pressure to get this done and get it done without any interruptions,“ King said.

„Our team is thrilled that we reached a tentative agreement,“ King said of the company. And he emphasized the „symbolic“ importance of the two sides announcing the agreement while seated side-by-side, „rather than in separate rooms like last time.“

Lewenza said the two sides, which have been at loggerheads for years, leading to one exceptionally bitter strike three years ago, appear to have made a breakthrough in their relationship this time. „There is respect here.“

King, who has acted for the casino through all five rounds of talks, said that „in the past it was a little more traditional and a lot more head banging.“

Lewenza said he went into talks with a direction from his members to „save what you’ve got.

„Our members are intelligent. They see the declining business.“

But the strike vote and close-to-the-edge bargaining as the deadline neared was necessary, he said, „to push this as far as we can.“

Lewenza said the economic realities facing the Windsor economy, competition from the Detroit casinos and the challenges facing the opening of the „West Block,“ as employees call the casino’s new addition, hung heavily over the bargaining table.

The union had hoped to have talks wrapped up by 8 p.m. Tuesday to avoid triggering the staged shut-down process that under Ontario casino regulatory laws must start days before a strike begins. The shut-down procedures alone annoy customers, Lewenza said, which the company and union wanted to avoid.

Lewenza — who uncharacteristically suppressed a sob at one point while summing up the deal — several times referred to the „emotional“ level of the talks. He said they were in „constant“ danger of failing during mediated sessions which broke for only eight hours of the last 72 hours.

The key issue facing bargainers on both sides of the table, he said, was the ratio of part-time workers.

„We had a bad experience with layoffs over the last three years,“ he said. „We couldn’t allow our full-time members to be laid off and called back as part-timers. Their standard of living would have changed through no fault of their own.“

Casino Windsor said it had to have more part-timers to increase its flexibility and cut costs on slow business days. But the company agreed at the last moment to find a way to do both without resorting to part-timers.

Lewenza said the fact a strike was avoided will bode well for a successful final push to get hiring completed to staff the West Block, and get the entertainment centre open without any hitches.

The Detroit casinos, Lewenza said, „are very disappointed this morning that we have an agreement. All of our competition would like (talks) to break down.“ The Detroit casinos picked up major shares of Casino Windsor’s business during the last two strikes.

Reg Pearson, director of dispute resolution services for the Ministry of Labour, said labour agreements for casino workplaces are more difficult to negotiate because of the extremely wide range of skill sets involved.

„It’s a complicated facility — even more complicated now“ with the advent of a Las Vegas-style show facility in the West Block, he said. Employees covered by Casino Windsor’s agreement range from bankers to hotel housekeepers and from stage hands to highly skilled technicians and world-class chefs, King said.

„And the economics are not what they were,“ Pearson added, recalling the lineups that used to snake around the building in its early days. „That was a challenge to everyone.“

The two sides spent a major part of the two months working out new contract language for some of the 400 or more new employees who will be added to the operation to staff the West Block.

The Fine Print

– Three-year deal; CAD 1,500 signing bonus

– Wage freezes in the first and second years. A 30-cent-per-hour wage hike in the third year.

– Ratification vote today at downtown St. Clair College Centre for the Arts at 2 and 5 p.m.