From The Picket Lines: Detroit Casinos Workers Say They Are Holding Strong

Written By Drew Ellis on November 3, 2023
Photo of Detroit casino workers on strike for story on Detroit casino workers talking about being on the picket lines for a third week

Now into their third week on the picket lines, some striking Detroit casino workers told PlayMichigan the loss of income and increasingly colder weather have been the biggest challenges.

Despite that, they remain steadfast in their cause to earn a better contract.

With 3,700 union workers on the picket lines at the three Detroit casinos, both sides are feeling the impact as the strike lingers.

Third week on the picket lines presents added challenges

Alicia Weaver

With the strike now passed 14 days, striking workers have now gone past a full pay period without work.

That was certainly a possibility they were aware of when they elected to take to the picket lines, but it has now become a reality.

What also is a reality is a significant drop in temperatures with the early days of winter arriving in Detroit in the last week, creating elemental challenges for the picketing workers.

“I’m a little stressed out, but I mean, it’s one day at a time,” said Alicia Weaver, a 60-year-old guest room attendant and 24-year employee of the MGM Grand Detroit. “As they say, ‘One day longer, one day stronger.’ We are just trying to just stay together, but most importantly, we’re just trying to keep everybody lifted up,”

“Some of them are struggling, of course, especially with the elements now being cold outside, but everybody’s still strong and staying on the same page. We just want to win and get a good contract. So with that being said, everybody’s kind of just making the adjustments they need to make.”

Upon authorizing the strike, the members of the five unions – UNITE HERE Local 24, UAW, Teamsters Local 1038, Operating Engineers Local 324, Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters – were unsure how long the strike would take to get the contract they wanted.

“I personally thought maybe a week,” Weaver said of what she expected for the strike. “I didn’t think it would be this long. I thought the casinos wouldn’t want it to get to this point. But, as they say, ‘Anything worth fighting for, you have to make sacrifices to get it.’”

Health care remains a big focus of negotiations

Terri Smith

The picketing workers are fighting for five key bargaining issues. Those are:

  • Increased wagers
  • Health care
  • Retirement benefits
  • Workload reductions
  • Job security from technology advancements

One of the main issues for the workers is health care and making sure their needs are met when it comes to covering costs.

“Health care is number one for me. I’ve lost family members. I lost my mom at a young age due to cancer. So health care is number one for me, because without that, it would have been so hard financially to actually deal with covering those costs for her. I wouldn’t want that for anybody,” said Terri Smith, an 18-year dealer at Hollywood Casino at Greektown.

Health care has an added impact in these negotiations as many of these union workers agreed to a lesser contract in 2020 that had just a 3% wage increase. That was in order to help the casinos make it through the pandemic.

Striking workers say pandemic put them at risk

While also sacrificing a lesser contract, the workers also put themselves at risk by working in the public spaces during that period of time.

“No one ever looked at us as frontline workers, but we were, because we were dealing with the public during a time that there was real uncertainty. Everybody was uncertain about what was going on. It was a scary time, especially being a guest room attendant cleaning rooms, because you are dealing with personal items and things of that nature,” Weaver said.

“We worked all the way through that. We did what we had to do to keep the doors open, just so that the revenue could keep coming through. Not only just to benefit us, but just to benefit the city of Detroit, because that’s big revenue for the city. So, I felt like we did our part and we sacrificed for them. They told us they were going to take care of us when we went back to the (negotiating) tables, and then all of a sudden, they lost sight of that. It’s disheartening, it hurts.”

Urging the public not to cross picket lines

Throughout the strike period, the three Detroit casinos – MGM Grand Detroit, MotorCity Casino and Hollywood Casino at Greektown – have remained open at a limited capacity.

The picketing workers are seeing customers continue to patronize these locations during the strike, which has been disappointing for them.

“We’re in a union town, so I never imagined that anybody would want to cross our picket lines. But, it’s the casino industry, some people have that jones where they just have to go in. I try to be understanding of that, but at the same time, knowing that the workers are not in there, I would think that they would want to support us,” Weaver said.

“A lot of the community is behind us, and they are supporting us, and I love that. Of course, there’s always going to be that small group that’s just not really thinking straight and have to get in there.”

For White, she implores potential casino-goers to put themselves in the workers’ shoes.

“I would like to tell them, stop the hustle and bustle of just trying to make money and win money and look at the bigger picture of what is going on. If this was your sister, or your brother, or could even be you, would you want people to support your cause? I think they would, so please support ours,” White said.

Growing solidarity keeping them motivated

Though the strike may continue for an unknown amount of time, the workers say they are more unified than ever.

After receiving support from the Detroit City Council last week, this week the workers made a stop in Lansing to earn support from members of the state government.

“I’ve been getting a lot of good feedback, even when we went to the city council, and then when we went to Lansing, everybody is in support of us,” White said. “They are motivating us and it makes me feel competent in our fight because we’re getting a lot of support from everywhere.”

Along with outside support, Weaver said the new relationships formed between the striking workers has helped keep her motivated.

“I’ve been working at MGM for 24 years, I’ve walked them halls and many days, didn’t really know nobody. Everybody just kind of stands within their classifications, as far as friends. Nobody really talked to each other. But throughout this process, I have watched how people that have never spoken to each other are now actually holding hands and walking together and talking together. New relationships are being born right before my eyes. I just think it’s just the most wonderful thing. But what’s even more wonderful is that it’s not just in one casino, it’s all three that are unifying together.”

Ultimately comes down to respect

Though the workers are fighting for five key issues, Weaver said the strike is about one key thing.

“It’s about respect,” she said. “We talk about health care, we talked about wages, but what really is important to us is the respect. We need the respect back. The companies have gotten used to disrespecting us, and we just want our respect back.”

With the strike feeling very personal for many of these workers, some may question how the working relationship gets repaired when the picket lines ultimately end.

“I’m sure everybody’s going to feel a certain kind of way. But right now, our main objective is to get all the workers back into the building. That’s the most important thing,” Weaver said.

“I think this is going to be a learning experience on both sides. I think that the company now will have a better understanding of what we do every single day, because they’re the ones doing it now. So, I think the respect level would definitely come back. It may take a little time to get past the feelings of all this, but once we do everybody can go back to work. As time goes by, I’m sure everything can get back to normal.”

This is the first casino workers strike in the history of Detroit. The last notable casino workers strike took place in Atlantic City in 2016 and lasted 100 days.

Photo by Drew Ellis / PlayMichigan
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Drew Ellis

Drew Ellis is the Lead Writer of PlayMichigan, the No. 1 source for online gambling news in Michigan. A lifelong resident of the state, Ellis has been working in various forms of media since 1998, including more than a decade in the sports betting industry prior to transitioning into US casino markets in 2020.

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