Station Casino Workers Gamble On Unionization

A bad labor market isn't usually considered a good time to unionize. But in Las Vegas, where unemployment runs around 14 percent, workers at Station Casinos are organizing. They say they were driven to it by a sense of "we're next" after watching too many co-workers get laid off. The company says workers are taking advantage of its financial troubles.

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And in other business news, unemployment is hovering at about 14 percent in Las Vegas, and workers at one big casino company are organizing.

Reporter Sarah McBride spoke to an employee who's trying to unionize her coworkers.

SARAH MCBRIDE: Las Vegas cocktail waitress Dawn Vaseur is tallying life's downers. The casino where she works cut her hours and benefits. Her tips are down. Her expenses are up. Over a cup of coffee at the Rancho Town & Country strip mall, she says her savings are almost gone.

Ms. DAWN VASEUR (Waitress): I need my job.

Ms. MCBRIDE: But at the same time, she's doing something she thinks is making her bosses nervous. She's signing up her co-workers to join a union.

Ms. VASEUR: It was to stand up for what I knew was wrong and what I knew was right.

MCBRIDE: Vaseur works for Station Casinos. It's running into financial trouble, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in July. Starting last fall, Vaseur saw lots of employees getting fired.

Ms. VASEUR: These are people I know, I've worked with for a long time - and it was pretty shocking to see them lose their jobs.

MCBRIDE: At most big Vegas casinos, workers are part of unions. If they get laid off, the casino follows strict union rules. They have a right to be called back when business picks up, for example. Not at Stations. When she saw long-time co-workers at a casino coffee shop lose their jobs, Vaseur kept thinking one thing...

Ms. VASEUR: We're next.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MCBRIDE: Back in February, one of Vegas' biggest unions asked Vaseur to help organize her fellow workers. Now she goes into work every day wearing her Culinary Union badge.

Harley Shaiken's a labor economist at the University of California, Berkeley. He says organizing during downturns has a long history.

Professor HARLEY SHAIKEN (Labor Economist, University of California, Berkeley): The birth of the modern labor movement really took place in the midst of the Great Depression, during the 1930s. That was far from ideal. In fact, it was a devastating time.

MCBRIDE: Government legislation played a role in that, and like today, employees were motivated by seeing the dire situation of some of their co-workers. Right now, big union organizing efforts are going on around the country. Thousands of airport security officers are trying to unionize. So are thousands of employees at Delta Airlines. But organizing can be unpleasant.

Dawn Vaseur says she's been harassed and that management puts down the union in the middle of employee meetings.

Ms. VASEUR: And I have to stand up and say you can't do that. It's against the law. And they told me shut up and sit down. That's terrible.

(Soundbite of crying)

MCBRIDE: And then what do you do?

Ms. VASEUR: You stand up and you voice your opinion, because those workers, they're watching. If you show that you're weak and that you can't take it, they're never going to sign. You got to show you got some guts.

Ms. LORI NELSON (Spokesperson, Station Casino): We are not an anti-union company. We're pro-employee.

MCBRIDE: That's Lori Nelson. She's a spokeswoman for Stations, the company where Dawn Vaseur works.

Ms. NELSON: We absolutely respect our employees' rights to be represented by a union if that's what they choose to do.

MCBRIDE: Nelson says Stations doesn't tolerate illegal or inappropriate behavior by its managers. But she also says, by organizing 10 casinos now, the union is taking advantage of Stations' weak finances.

Ms. NELSON: They're using the opportunity of our company going through a restructuring to intimidate and harass our employees and encourage them to join.

MCBRIDE: The union won't say how many Stations employees it's signed up. It's going for 6,000 of them. Once it gets more than half, it can approach Stations management to start negotiating a union contract.

For NPR News, I'm Sarah McBride.

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