Alicia Weaver still remembers the excitement of her first day on the job as a guest room attendant at the MGM Grand Casino. She had previously been training to work as a dental surgical assistant, but the allure of getting in on the action in a brand new Detroit industry that would allow her to work with the public made applying for a casino job appealing.
“I remember when we opened up in ’99 at MGM, the line literally was around the corner, people were excited and waiting to get into [the] doors,” says Weaver. “It was really cool to see all the slot machines and it had that Vegas feel, but it also had a Hollywood feel, because we were dealing with MGM Grand.”
After much anticipation, the opening of the casinos — MGM and Motor City Casino opened in 1999, while Greektown Casino (now Hollywood Casino at Greektown) — felt like a new chapter for the city. Employees at the time were called cast members, a nod to MGM’s history in Hollywood, and she says the vibe in the early days was very much family-oriented. Eventually, Weaver’s youngest son got a job at the casino as an environmental specialist.
“I always tell my husband, I was a part of history back then because nobody ever thought that we would even get the casinos, because it had been talked about for many years,” she says.
But as the years went by, Weaver says that camaraderie from the company began to diminish, along with the “cast member” moniker.
“I think everybody felt like the company that we first encountered back in ’99 was a different company. The empathy was not there anymore, and the respect started leaving slowly.”
Weaver was among the first class of workers to be hired by one of Detroit’s casinos. Voters approved the legalization of casino gaming in 1996, in part as an attempt to stabilize the city’s tax revenue.
Today, the wagering taxes these three casinos pay is the second highest source of revenue for the City of Detroit, according to the Detroit Casino Council, surpassing property taxes. Yet as gaming revenue has grown within the city, union leaders representing casino workers say that wages have failed to keep pace, and have even fallen in the face of inflation.
As of October 17, for the first time in Detroit casino history, Weaver and some 3,700 workers employed in food and beverage, dealing, housekeeping, valet, and other fields by the city’s three casinos went on strike. The Detroit Casino Council, a coalition of five unions representing casino workers, is made up of members of UNITE HERE Local 24, the United Auto Workers, Teamsters Local 1038, Operating Engineers Local 324, and the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters. Union organizers are fighting to protect healthcare benefits, win job security and technology language that already exists in other casino markets, improve the value of retirement benefits, reduce the workload of employees, and to secure the largest wage increases in the history of Detroit casinos following what they call years of sacrifices made to help the hospitality and gaming industry stay afloat during the pandemic.
Heading into its fourth week of striking as temperatures have begun to dip below freezing temperatures, hundreds of casino workers descended upon a Detroit City Council meeting on Tuesday, November 7 to urge council members to consider a resolution in support of a Detroit Strikers Bill of Rights. According to a memorandum outlining the bill of rights, strikers would have the right to use personal heating sources such as outdoor heaters to stay warm while picketing; the right to breathe — not have to inhale exhaust from idling cars — the right to move about safely without barriers being placed on public sidewalks; and the right to be heard — in other words, for strike supporters to be allowed to make loud noises like honking their car horns. The City Council is expected to vote on the proposed resolution next Tuesday. The Detroit strike comes as the powerful Culinary Workers Union representing Las Vegas casino employees threatens a strike that could impact 22 Nevada casinos if significant progress isn’t made towards a new contract. (Members voted to authorize a strike in September and hit picket lines in October.)
The pandemic prompted temporary closures, capacity limits, and health and safety measures that prompted widespread layoffs at Detroit’s casinos. However, union leaders argue that the gaming institutions bounced back quickly. Gaming revenues have surpassed pre-pandemic levels to reach a new record high, with the Detroit casino sector generating $2.27 billion in gaming revenue in 2022, according to the council. The city’s three Detroit casinos collectively reported $813 million more in total gaming revenues in 2022 than in 2019, yet wages paid to union workers were $34 million less during that same period, according to the council.
A spokesperson for MGM Grand disputed the Detroit Casino Council’s figures, citing numbers from the Michigan Gaming Control Board’s website that state that total land-based revenues (meaning physical casino properties) were $1.3 billion in 2022. The spokesperson argued that the union’s $2.27 billion number includes iGaming and online sports revenues from online platform providers who were required by the Michigan Gaming Control Board to partner with brick-and-mortar casinos in Michigan to obtain a license. For example, MGM Grand Detroit is the licensee partner with Bet MGM — a separate, standalone public company operating in approximately 30 states — whose revenue isn’t reflected in the MGM Grand Detroit’s annual casino revenue.
The council says that each day that workers strike could put an estimated $738,000 in city and state tax revenues and $3.4 million in casino operator revenues at risk.
Ulysses Bryant, a barback and bartender at Motor City Casino, says that when he started the job in 2009, $15 an hour was still considered a decent salary in Detroit. But wages haven’t caught up with inflation. Bryant says that he frequently has to work 60 to 70 hours a week to support himself. Bryant tells Eater that he’s become ill three times after contracting COVID-19 on the job, only to have to work overtime to make up for the lost time. “You’re not compensated [if you contract COVID]. You’re just put off work five to 10 days, no compensation, no pay, nothing. So now you’re in a hole. Now you dip into savings. Hopefully, you have that — everybody’s finances are different,” he says. “If you don’t have anything to lean on, you go back... but you don’t see any wage increase, and so it’s just like you’re constantly in the red.”
Bryant estimates, citing union official figures, that the three casinos are operating with about 1,500 vacant positions. “Imagine being down that amount of people — you’re picking up the workload of two to three people and that’s not easy, especially when you feel like you’re not being compensated,” he says.
Eater caught up with the local union heads a day after the launch of the strike during a lunch break at Mexican Village Restaurant, where a Teamsters bus was parked right out front, partially decorated with picket signs and union stickers.
The organizers say that demonstrating as a united front at Detroit’s casinos has its advantages, explaining why, in the history of the city’s casinos, a strike has been averted for so many years. “Detroit is a union town, right? [The idea was] instead of having unions fighting, let’s bring them together and the way to do it was to form this coalition,” says Veronica Sawyer, director of the casino division for the Teamsters Local 1038 and an assistant director for the international Teamsters’ casino division.
Each local union chapter represents workers in different fields. The Teamsters represent casino workers employed in valet, front desk, warehouse, retail, spa, phone operations, and wardrobe departments. UNITE HERE represents casino food service and hospitality workers. Both the Teamsters and UNITE HERE already had a presence in Vegas casinos. The UAW, meanwhile, represents workers employed as dealers, slot technicians, cage cashiers, and related fields.
Nia Winston, president of UNITE HERE Local 24, tells Eater that each department in a casino complements one another to round out the experience for the average customer.
“When you come into a casino, you pull up in the valet, that’s the Teamsters, you open the door, that’s a UNITE HERE member, a bellman, you go to the front desk, that’s a Teamster, then you get on the gaming floor,” Winston says. “These workers, they’re family so it just makes sense, it’s very organic for us to be in the [Detroit Casino Council] and [that] the workers are standing up together.”
Winston has been a union organizer for going on 20 years, but before that, she too was among the first wave of workers hired by the casinos in 1999. She told Crain’s Detroit in a 2021 interview that she worked as a cashier at Motor City Casino when her eyes were first opened to the power of workers at the negotiating table.
“People may not have wanted [casinos] in the beginning, but just look at all of the Detroit residents we have that can take care of their family, who can buy a home, who have great health care for their children. We did not have that, like it is now, for many Detroiters outside of the auto industry,” she says.
The journey toward creating those thousands of union-protected casino jobs in Detroit started with legalizing gambling in the first place — an effort that dates back to the 1970s.
When Coleman A. Young first won the mayor’s office in 1974, the city and the rest of the country had been in a recession. Years of population loss exacerbated by white flight after the 1967 uprising disrupted Detroit’s tax base and in turn city revenue and school funding. The Big Three car companies were struggling to contend with a bad economy, rising gas prices, and fierce competition brought on by the then-new fuel-efficient automobiles being manufactured overseas. By then, it had been decades since the Detroit automakers began moving many of their factories — and their jobs — outside of city limits. The future of Detroit was at stake and government leaders were in search of a way to climb out of despair.
Among the proposed solutions: casinos.
But it would be decades before gambling in Michigan, let alone casinos, would be legalized. In 1976, a proposal backed by Young asked voters to weigh in on whether gambling should be allowed in up to six state-regulated casinos in the city. The argument in favor of legalization was simple, as stated in this 1976 letter to the editor printed in the Detroit Free Press a few months ahead of the election.
I have always considered myself an outsider, not involved with the problems of Detroit. Now Detroit is in a terrible financial crisis. This could easily spread by domino effect to the suburbs. Suddenly, I am a part of Detroit’s problems.
I feel that the solution to this crisis is not to raise the city’s taxes. This would only cause more individuals and small businesses to leave Detroit.
One cure may be to legalize gambling in the state. The tourists who would come from all areas of the Midwest would all bring their wallets. If Detroit is to solve many of its job and financial problems, steps such as this are going to have to take place.
Though legalizing casinos wouldn’t become a reality for another 20 years, Young and others agreed with these sentiments and continued to push initiatives that would move the needle of public opinion. In 1981, weeks before one piece of legislation was introduced, Young said that the city could “shoot some craps” to help ease Detroit’s budget woes, according to a Free Press article.
Turning to gambling as an economic driver was seen by opponents as an invitation for vice. “The quality of life in southeastern Michigan will not improve if we have more people dependent on drugs, gambling and alcohol. It will improve if more citizens see their wealth being put into constructive programs. I urge my representatives in Lansing to vote a resounding ‘No’ on Mr. Oganowski’s (sic) bill to legalize casino gambling in Detroit,” wrote Gerald L. Cox of Garden City in a 1976 Free Press letter to the editor, in response to Proposal G, a referendum backed at the time by Rep. Casmer P. Ogonowski that asked Detroiters to weigh in on whether gambling should be allowed in up to six state-regulated casinos in Detroit.
Just days after announcing his run for a fifth term in 1988, Young persisted in his ambitions for casinos in Detroit by creating a commission that would examine the possibility, according to a Free Press article at the time. At one point, the commission recommended the construction of up to a dozen casinos within city limits. Other ideas included building casinos right on the Detroit Riverfront. In 1988, the mayor continued to lay the groundwork by establishing a new gambling commission. In 1994, after seeing the millions of U.S. visitors who were flocking to the newly opened Windsor Casino (now called Caesars Windsor), voters approved a pair of proposals that would open the doors for gambling on a docked riverboat and tribal gaming — key to the development of the then-Greektown Casino — which sits on land then owned by the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians.
Young died in 1997, a year after voters finally approved casino gambling on a state level.
After much pushback and political maneuvering, MGM Grand and Motor City Casino opened the doors to temporary casino locations in 1999. The opening of the Greektown Casino would follow a year later. The casinos never made their way to the riverfront. Nevertheless, they have provided a generation of Detroiters with good-paying union jobs.
A 1999 Free Press article says that within months of opening, MGM Grand had already hired 3,000 workers, 1,600 of whom were Detroiters.
For Weaver, the current casino strike is a manifestation of a broken promise. Weaver, a guest room attendant, says housekeepers like herself played a crucial role as frontline workers keeping the casinos in operation in 2020 and beyond.
The work of a guest room attendant is a race against the clock to get the job done within an eight-hour day, says Weaver. Carpal tunnel and back issues are common in this line of work, with the repetition of having to flip heavy mattresses to make beds multiple times a day. At Greektown and Motor City, attendants are required to clean 16 rooms a day, which equals about two rooms an hour. The hustle leaves no time for lunch, she says. At MGM, Weaver says the staff fought for, and won, a reduction in the number of rooms they would be asked to clean each shift, down to 15. They were also granted extra time to clean double rooms — 45 minutes instead of 30.
“During the pandemic, we are the people that helped [the casinos] keep the doors open,” she says. “We were interacting with people on a personal level, we were in their rooms, the pandemic was alive and well. We were terrified... We still were under quarantine, we had to wear our masks, bring the Lysol and spray the rooms down before you go in so nothing lingers in the air. At that time, we were still trying to educate ourselves about what COVID really was. It was really hard during those times. But we still pushed through, still persevered. We still did what we had to do for the company,” she says.
“[The casinos] told us they wouldn’t forget about us. So now we are past the pandemic, things are simply trying to get back to normal and we have not forgotten what they told us.”