Philadelphia’s SugarHouse Casino opened almost four years ago. Unite Here Local 54’s campaign to unionize workers there is almost as old. And at the end of the month, after a history of reported union-busting activity that includes alleged retaliatory firings, SugarHouse will face its first National Labor Relations Board hearing. According to the complaint filed with the NLRB, a manager stopped a few workers from handing out union literature, crumpled it up and threw it away, also known as “interfering with, restraining and coercing employees in the exercise of rights.”
On April 2, in response to the increasingly tense work environment, union members, staffers and a variety of concerned Philadelphians came together to organize a “sip-in” at SugarHouse.
SugarHouse workers cite a wide variety of reasons for wanting to unionize, including low wages (they estimate $11 or $12 to be the hourly median), expensive healthcare, and what they call “rampant bullying and favoritism” by managers. And then there is the exceedingly strict attendance policy. In addition to a few call-out days, workers say they’re each alloted six “points” for their tenure at the casino. According to employees, missing work or arriving late, for any reason, results in a yearlong one-point deduction for each infraction. No more points means no more job.
“People are always ‘pointing out,’” says Dermot Delude-Dix, one of the bargaining committee members, in reference to employees being fired for too many absences. “People have lost points when they passed out on the job, got injured on the job, people who had car accidents on the way to work, or had to spend the weekend at the hospital with their kid. [Managers] don’t make reasonable exceptions for stuff happening in people’s lives, except for certain workers they like.”
At press time, SugarHouse had not yet responded to requests for comment left with the communications department.
Casinos began opening in Pennsylvania in 2007; since then, the market has grown to be the second largest in America. Though there are four casinos in the Philadelphia area, only one is unionized: Harrah’s, in the nearby ex-industrial city of Chester.
Local activists, dissatisfied with the way SugarHouse is treating its workers, planned Wednesday’s action to show higher-ups that people outside the casino — including those Harrah’s employees — are paying attention, too. By early evening on April 2, a crowd of roughly 40 people had gathered in Penn Treaty Park, just down Delaware Boulevard from SugarHouse. The event was organized, of course, by Local 54, although only a few of the union’s staffers were on hand. The rest of the crowd was comprised of union members from local sports stadiums, hotels and casinos; religious leaders; and other Philadelphians of all ages.
Marge Neal, the pastor at St. Michael Church, located on the nearby border of the Fishtown and Kensington neighborhoods, got involved after fighting to keep SugarHouse from ever setting up shop in the city. “I was opposed, I didn’t want any part of it,” she says. “But if they are going to be here they need to treat people right.”
On Wednesday, the crowd intended to essentially occupy The Refinery, a standard-issue Americana restaurant and bar on the east side of the casino. As part of their action, the group would sit down and order only water. Known as a “sip-in,” it’s a disruptive tactic — with any actual customers forced to wait until tables clear — and supporters hoped to use it to draw attention to their solidarity with SugarHouse’s workforce. In this case, each person would leave a $5 tip for the server, so the workers didn’t get screwed, but no other money would be exchanged.
After splitting into groups of four, the activists headed over. SugarHouse is a cavernous place, fitted with all the flashing and whirring accoutrements common to gaming establishments everywhere. Slot machines dominate, but a few table games hold court near The Refinery. And at 6:00 on a Wednesday, the place was packed.
The restaurant was doing most of its business at the bar, so the empty tables filled with activists, who ordered their water; the process took about 15 minutes. Once everyone was in place, the entire group donned union buttons, pulled out signs (written in Chinese and English), and stood to encircle the bar. “We have your back!” a lead organizer loudly told the workers.
Security guards and managers started to gather; cooks emerged from the kitchen to see what was happening as the standing crowd began to chant “Union!” over and over. Despite the hectoring of an older man at the bar — “Bullies! Bullies!” — a few selected groups of union members from other shops explained where they work and why they were there. After each speaker finished, the mass echoed, “And we’ve got your back.”
After 15 minutes of this, management finally took action. The generic music being piped over the speakers in the restaurant suddenly grew so loud that it was impossible to hear the gathered workers. The activists then began a prayer led by Neal and her husband; as they stood, an onlooker snapped at a group of cocktail waitresses from Harrah’s, “If you don’t move, I’m going to fucking bulldoze through all of you.”
The organizers in Penn Treaty Park had been very specific about not “getting into it” with anyone. But another man at the bar, who had been watching the protest unfold over a beer, wasn’t present in the park. “You can’t talk to them like that,” he thundered, shaking his fist, before marching away to report the guy.
A band then took the Refinery stage to commence the evening’s entertainment; the activists filed out of the restaurant and wound their way through SugarHouse, detouring through Jack’s, the on-site sandwich joint, to make sure everyone behind that counter heard the message too. Outside, the chanting began again: “We’ll be back!”
“As a union member, I’m trying to help set a standard for gaming in Pennsylvania, like they have in Atlantic City or Nevada,” says Robert Pâté, a cook at Harrah’s Chester, when asked why he came out to the sip-in. Pâté hopes that more unionized casinos in the state will help safeguard conditions at his own workplace, he explains, “So I’m coming down today to show some solidarity.”