This piece is one in a series of opinion pieces by Jon Baliles about the proposed Richmond Grand Resort and Casino. You can read his other pieces HERE.
The casino advocates made a big deal about their labor peace agreement that was reached with the Washington, D.C.-based hospitality union Unite Here 25 as well as with construction and trade unions in the area for construction jobs. Casino advocates claim their project will create 1,300 hospitality jobs here in Richmond and hundreds of jobs during construction.
Unite Here was against the referendum when the mayor tried to revive it in 2022, but a year later they are all on board. Perhaps it is a coincidence that the union received an $800,000 donation from the developers’ $8 million war chest funded by Urban One and Churchill Downs and $250,000 from other groups and unions. Unite Here has been providing 65 people per day to knock on doors.
They have also touted the labor peace agreement in advance of the referendum and any collective bargaining should the casino be approved. They say it would allow the power to unionize without employer interference for fair labor practices and providing workers with the right to bargain for wages, benefits, etc. (but labor law does not allow pre-hire negotiations).
However, amidst all the harmony and peace, just four years ago, WDRB-TV in Louisville reported that Churchill Downs Inc. (CDI) filed a lawsuit in August 2019, “in hopes of avoiding hiring union workers for maintenance and housekeeping roles at their Derby City Gaming” facility that had opened just 11 months before. Derby City is a $62 million facility in Louisville, KY, similar to Rosie’s Gaming Emporium in Richmond with 1,000 historical horse racing terminals that are similar to slot machines.
Churchill Downs outsourced maintenance work to a private local firm and the Laborers International Union Local challenged the hiring and won a favorable arbitration ruling; and then Churchill Downs sued to have the ruling overturned. The Local had a five year collective bargaining agreement running from 2018-23 and the discord started within months of the opening.
“Churchill Downs decided that binding arbitration means nothing to them,” said Cornelius Cotton, president of LIUNA Local 576, in an interview on Monday. “The way I feel, we will have our day and Churchill Downs will pay the members what they owe … They have all types of folks in there doing the work that our members are supposed to be doing.”
WDRB reported that Churchill Downs said the arbitrator’s ruling was rooted in his “personal sense of industrial justice rather than the terms” of the company’s contract with the labor union. The union then countersued Churchill Downs in January 2020 to get them back into arbitration.
According to the collective bargaining agreement, Churchill Downs was allowed to hire part-time workers after the spring racing season as long as they were let go by the time the fall racing season started. The union filed a grievance claiming they were kept on and cost their members the chance to work, so they sued for lost wages and benefits. They could not get a reply from CDI, so they filed in federal court.
“Defendant’s failure to and refusal to arbitrate the Grievance has been willful, in bad faith, and it constitutes a blatant disregard of Defendant’s obligations under the Contract,” the union’s lawsuit states.
It took more than three years to resolve it (probably delayed some by the COVID-19 pandemic) and just this past August the court ruled in favor of the union for back pay (but not attorney’s fees) in a 17-page decision issued by the U.S. District Court of Western Kentucky.
So put aside for a moment all of the talk about harmony and the casino hiring union workers to build and operate the casino at good wages (VPM News had a deeper look into the promises, which are less than advertised). As part of the peace labor agreement, standards have been outlined between both sides (for things like opportunity for apprenticeships in neighborhoods that are disadvantaged, the hiring of businesses that are minority or female-owned, and solid safety standards), but nothing has yet been agreed upon.
So it is not unreasonable to wonder or ask, given recent history, if Churchill Downs will also look to cut costs a few months after the casino opens if the referendum passes and they face skyrocketing costs or wages and not enough people dropping dollars in the slots. It could be foreshadowing and yet just another example of promising and saying and buying anything to get the votes.
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