Negotiations began this week on a new contract for unionized employees of Casino Rama.
And while Unifor officials pledge to do everything they can to avoid a strike, there are some “critical” issues to be addressed amid “high expectations” from employees.
“We’ve exchanged our proposals and we expect bargaining to take some time,” said Corey Dalton, president of Unifor Local 1090, the union that represents about 1,500 dealers, slot workers, cashiers, food/beverage staff and others at the popular gaming site east of Orillia.
The union's bargaining committee met with representatives from Casino Rama management and executives from the casino’s new operator, Gateway Casinos and Entertainment, Tuesday morning. There are three days of bargaining planned this week, before negotiators break for the holidays.
They will return to the bargaining table in the new year and time is of the essence; members could be in a legal strike position as of 12:01 a.m. Jan. 24.
According to Dalton, the key issues are wages, benefits and pensions.
“Casino Rama members are, on average, the lowest compensated workers in the industry in the province,” said Dalton. He said Rama employees also have “the lowest wages, weakest benefit package and weakest pension package.”
He said that’s in part to Casino Rama being relatively new to Unifor; the first Rama contract was ratified in 2016 after employees voted 71 per cent in favour of joining the national union in 2015.
Dalton said new deals at other casinos in the past two years means those employees “have leapfrogged us, especially from a wages, benefits and pension perspective.”
There is a large gulf to bridge, he said.
“We’re very far behind and we have pretty high expectations on what we believe we require to get us on to an even playing ground with other casinos in the province,” he said.
There are other issues at play, he said, noting turnaround times between shifts and changes to employees’ schedules are items to be addressed.
“These issues are no different than at other casinos,” said Dalton. “Certainly, the casino industry is challenging; we work while other people play.”
There are also industry-wide challenges emerging. The opening of a new casino at Woodbine, the addition of gaming tables at Gateway Casinos Innisfil and Gateway’s planned expansion in Wasaga Beach present potential issues to Casino Rama.
That impact is already being felt. When the first union contract at Casino Rama was negotiated, there were 1,700 members. Today, there are about 1,500.
“There are less employees in total in the workplace and less unionized employees,” said Dalton, noting many have moved to Woodbine and others are expected to move to the Innisfil site.
“It’s certainly an issue we are aware of and one of our priorities we’ve made clear here will be job preservation,” said Dalton, noting the union is trying to “fight back erosion of full-time jobs.”
He said the continuing emergence of technology and dealer-less tables are threats also on the union’s radar.
While this will be the first negotiation with Gateway in Rama, Unifor has successfully negotiated with the company in the past – with security workers at Georgian Downs and at casinos in Point Edward and Dresden.
“In each case, we managed to reach a deal .. without any labour disruption, which is good,” said Dalton. “Our goal here is the same.”
That goal has been “made clear” to Casino Rama members, he said. In a memo to members yesterday, union officials said a “strike will only be used as an absolute last resort if we cannot reach a fair agreement.”
Casino Rama is also hoping for a fair deal.
"We look forward to working with Unifor in the best interest of our crew and are hopeful for a mutually positive outcome," said Natasha Borutski, a public relations specialist at Casino Rama.