On June 7, members of UNITE HERE Local 1 ratified new contracts covering over 400 workers at Blue Chip Casino in Michigan City, Indiana. The contract settlement represents a major victory for workers at the casino, who have been in negotiations since November of 2009.
Terms of the settlement include retroactive raises across the board and first-time pension benefits for Blue Chip workers. Workers also were able to preserve low-cost health care coverage at a time when employers nationally are slashing employer-provided healthcare and raising health plan costs. Most significantly, Blue Chip agreed to language in the contract that protects jobs for Blue Chip workers by guaranteeing limits on the use of part-time employees.
By contrast, over 30% of the unionized staff at nearby Ameristar Casino are now working part-time and are not eligible for health benefits, and reports surfaced late last week that Ameristar intends to layoff dozens of workers in the coming weeks. The average buffet beverage server at Ameristar currently makes $9.85 an hour, meaning an employee who works part-time at 28.5 hours a week at part-time status, has a gross annual income of $14,598. At that level, one would fall below the federal poverty line as a head of a two-person household and qualify for Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) and Hoosier Healthwise, Indiana’s health insurance program for low-income families. Ameristar workers have testified before the Indiana Gaming Commission in June on the adverse effect of staffing cuts, resulting lost benefits and reduced income, to the regional economy.
“I am really pleased with the outcome of the negotiations,” says Jo Von Lindsey, a snack bar attendant who has worked at Blue Chip for five years. “For the first time, we were able to open the door for a pension plan, while still holding onto health care with no cost to employees. Most importantly, we’ve seen a big increase in part-time employment at the casino this year, and we were able to put a stop to the number of part-time jobs that can be created with this new agreement.”
While the gaming industry nationally has been affected by the economic downturn, northwest Indiana’s casinos have weathered the storm with fewer losses than the industry strongholds of Las Vegas and Atlantic City, but union members have seen their employers use the Cline Ave. closure and the economy as an excuse to reduce hours and benefits.
Contracts between members of UNITE HERE Local 1 and three Indiana casinos–Ameristar East Chicago, Majestic Star Casino in Gary, and Blue Chip Casino in Michigan City expired Saturday, October 31, 2009. In 2004, workers at these casinos won historic contracts that secured fully employer-paid health insurance for individuals for the first time. Workers cite keeping that healthcare coverage as among their top concerns in negotiations for the new contracts. Layoffs and reduced hours, resulting in the loss of health insurance and other benefits, are among other top concerns.