by AmyJo Brown
Representatives from the Steel City Casino Workers' Council, who hope to unionize employees at the Rivers Casino, have been visiting Illinois in recent weeks, hoping to increase pressure on casino management with the help of investors in the fund that owns a majority stake in the property.
The employees are alleging an organized campaign by management to intimidate them from unionizing 800 of the casino's 1,800 workers. They have filed 38 separate complaints with the National Labor Relations Board naming 19 supervisors, including General Manager Craig Clark.
The workers appealed to the members of the Illinois Teachers Retirement System investment committee during a meeting Thursday morning in Springfield, according to the business publication Crain's Chicago Business. No vote or action was taken, according to the publication.
TRS invested about $100 million nearly a year ago in a fund managed by Walton Street Advisors, which has majority ownership in the casino on the North Shore, as well as the Sugarhouse Casino in Philadelphia.
Workers were also in Illinois in May. On May 22, the executive director of the Illinois State Board of Investment, William Atwood, sent a letter to Walton's managing partner, Neal Bluhm, saying he had met with the workers and was not happy about the complaints he is fielding.
The letter, signed by Atwood who confirmed Friday that he had authored it, was provided by representatives of Unite Here Local 57, which is helping organize the workers.
Atwood was out of the office traveling Thursday and could not be reached by phone.
"The workers spoke of arbitrary and capricious termination of health care benefits; inadequate and improper application of Family and Medical Leave Act provisions; inadequate worker training; activities on the part of management to impede workers' efforts to organize; and a general work environment described as hostile and disrespectful.
Clearly, I am in no position to determine the veracity or validity of these issues. However, it was apparent that the individuals were sincere in their expressions of concern and disappointment. Further, it struck me that the workers who came by today, who indirectly work for ISBI and ISBI's annuitants, took these issues seriously enough to travel from Pittsburgh and Philadelphia to Chicago to meet with ISBI and other Walton Street Limited Partners.
... As in the past, I made clear ... that ISBI is a limited partner so has virtually no role in the operation of Walton Street portfolio companies. Further, I respectfully submit to Walton Street that these issues do in fact fall into its portfolio, and as a limited partner, ISBI would greatly prefer for Walton Street to manage these issues so that aggrieved parties might have an alternative to directly approaching limited partners."
Management of the casino has consistently stuck to the same message when approached by multiple press organizations, including City Paper, about the workers' complaints. Jack Horner, a spokesman for the casino, in an emailed statement to City Paper in April said:
We take great pride in our team and respect the rights of our Team Members to choose. So far, the overwhelming majority of our Team Members have consistently chosen to remain independent. That is their choice and their right.
The workers have also sought and received the political backing of a number of local politicians, including several who marched with them April 11 when they began their organizing drive: those included state Sen. Jim Ferlo, Pittsburgh City Councilors Dan Lavelle and Natalia Rudiak, and long-time labor leaders such as Allegheny County Councilor and United Steelworkers' representative John DeFazio; President of the Allegheny County Labor Council, Jack Shea; and the Teamsters' Joe Molinero.