Caesars vote signals changing times

Dec 31, 2007 5:47 AM

Caesars Palace dealers as a group have always demonstrated a reluctance to let management point them down paths they did not want to walk.

  It was an attitude that suggested: Who do these guys in the suits think they are?

They’re not so relaxed now as industry watchers follow recent events at the trend-setting resort where dealers voted by a nearly 3-1 margin to choose the Transport Workers as their bargaining agent.

The vote to unionize suggests job satisfaction isn’t what it was.

A former middle level manager at Caesars, who exited the Palace several years ago, says half jokingly about the way it once was, "It was like the dealers ran the casino ”¦ They did not recognize competition existed because for a lot of years it didn’t. Dealing at Caesars was the best job on the Strip and Caesars had all the best business."

When pushed, they’ve pushed back — on one occasion years ago by hiring attorney Oscar Goodman to help them deal with a tips-related issue.

But in voting for the union they’ve taken a stand that in so many ways is surprising to people in and out of the company. Call it a response to what several have termed "culture shock."

Times are changing.

Parent company Harrah’s Entertainment is being bought by two private equity groups, an action that suggests the distance between management and the bulk of casino employees has never been so great.

And Caesars is one piece of a very big company.

Although the decision at Wynn Las Vegas to share dealer tokes with supervisors is not likely to be imitated elsewhere, it provided a jolt that convinced dealers they need a "protector," what with the strong scent of charging attitudes throughout the industry.

Why a protector?

Because you never know what tomorrow may bring is the way the thinking seems to go

The Columbia Sussex issue has also figured into the equation, according to some observers. The company bought the Tropicanas in Las Vegas and Atlantic City and proceeded to chop payroll costs at both locations. In Atlantic City, the Sussex action has already helped fuel successful union votes at casinos that include the Caesars facility there.

"A gift that keeps on giving," is industry veteran Roger Wagner’s tongue in cheek assessment of the Sussex action that has sent apprehension throughout the casino industry.

The arrival of dealerless electronic games may be two or three years away, but they will eventually bring with them the promise of further change.

"People get uncomfortable in the face of change," says a senior industry official, "and there is a lot of change on the way."

The myriad pressures of changing times are having an effect on perceptions and when it comes to matters such as union votes, perceptions are everything, says Dennis Gomes, a veteran of the resort business who has nothing to do with Caesars but who has dealt with unions at other companies.

"What management anywhere has to do to avoid something like the Caesars thing is to stay in touch with your employees," Gomes said.

Casino personnel in and out of the company who seem to have a handle on the complicated dynamics affecting the vote, say dealers and management lost touch with each other.

Former Caesars Palace president Dean Harrold says it has always taken a major hands-on effort by management to keep dealers from getting sufficiently motivated to take the kind of action that they recently took.

Harrold says he regularly met with dealers and instituted a policy that prohibited any dealer from being fired until he or she had taken advantage of a standing opportunity to meet with Harrold.

Being visible in the casino was important, he says, to maintaining the satisfaction levels that kept management and frontline employees on the kind of speaking terms that kept unions at bay.

No job on the Strip offered better "tokes." That’s the way it was for years. Casino dealers and waitresses will tell anyone who asks that there was not a better job in town.

"The dealers ran the casino and the owners who enjoyed the most success were those whose top people were highly visible with the rank and file," says another former senior executive.

The inference being that the top bosses at Harrah’s have not had a lot of luck doing whatever was necessary to keep their people feeling good.

A long gone former Palace casino supervisor heard that the dealers had voted to go for a union, but he did not know the name of the union.

It’s the Transport Workers, a Las Vegas reporter was telling him.

"Transport Workers!" he exclaimed, his eyebrows shooting up and the sound of surprise in his voice.

"What do they know about the casino business?"

His listener shrugged in response as in, what does it matter now.

"Some of the old guys," the former Caesars worker grinned, "they’ve gotta be turning over in their graves."