The Rivers Casino is the only business of its kind in the city of Pittsburgh. It is also one of the only nonunionized casinos in the state, a fact the workers there intend to change. Socialist Appeal spoke to Fred Lapka, one of the workers organizing the union drive, about the union campaign at the casino.
Socialist Appeal: What do you do at the casino?
Fred Lapka: I’m a server in the sports bar and have worked in the food service industry for the past five years.
SA: Who else is employed by the casino?
FL: Over eighteen hundred workers are employed by the casino. Many are veteran casino and hospitality workers. Some have little to no prior work experience. We are a racially and ethnically diverse group, though the casino loves to relegate nonwhite workers to back-of-the-house positions, washing dishes, preparing food, and cleaning restrooms. Nearly all of the front-of-the-house workers are white. Management has tried to exploit the racial and ethnic differences of workers as a union-busting tactic. Despite management’s efforts to divide us, workers are standing together in solidarity, united by our combined labor, which makes the casino run.
SA: What are the conditions like there?
FL: The company has created a culture of fear. Workers are fearful of being fired without cause. Workers are under constant surveillance. The company has a very punitive attendance policy that allows them to somewhat arbitrarily fire workers. Pay is atrocious; it’s bad. When the casino came in four years ago, the company made promises to the city. They said casino workers make good pay, enough to support a family, and they provided statistics of average casino worker wages. But their statistics were in fact based on union casino wages. In reality, we make about half of what was promised, half of what a union casino worker makes. Many of my co-workers are in positions that pay less than the normal minimum wage and rely entirely upon tips. Most workers you talk to struggle to support themselves and their families. And yet the casino has been making increased profits.
Over time, many workers have been making less money, as hours have been slashed as more part-time workers are being hired in lieu of full-time workers. This is how the company thanks us—with low pay, slashed hours, and union-busting. We’re the only casino without a union in the region, and in the entire state of Pennsylvania there are only two other nonunion casinos. We make the casino run but aren’t given the pay, benefits, or dignity we deserve, and it’s clear that that won’t change unless we are organized.
SA: Tell us about the union drive happening there.
FL: A group of workers from multiple departments in the casino got together and formed the Steel City Casino Workers’ Council. We’re working with organizers from a coalition of unions. Right now we’re fighting for a fair process to organize a union. We’re talking to workers about unionism, and workers are signing union cards. We’re also doing actions inside the casino to show management how strong we are. In many ways we are acting like a union. For example, if workers have an issue on the job, instead of only complaining to each other as we had done in the past, groups of workers have been confronting management about the issue and collectively making demands.
SA: How have the bosses responded?
FL: Initially, when we went public with our demands, the company responded with an intimidation campaign. Myself and other workers were specifically targeted, and they had security officers following us around the building. They crowded the break rooms with management personnel in an attempt to stop us from talking to co-workers about the union and told workers not to sign union cards. Three of my co-workers have been fired for union activity. In response, workers marched on management, demanding their jobs back, and one was restored. But even after all of this, the workers doing the organizing are standing strong and are confident in their strength and are winning through collective action holiday pay, pay raises for four departments, more and better supplies, and the return of a number of workers who were unjustly fired. Throughout our organizing drive, the company’s line to the press and community is that the majority of workers remain neutral, and that it’s only a small handful of troublemakers that want the union. We recently countered by having a 100-worker march on the casino to demand a fair process for organizing. (http://www.pghcitypaper.com/Blogh/archives/2013/11/19/rivers-casino-employees-march-for-right-to-unionize)
SA: How do you see the working class freeing ourselves from this exploitation and repression?
FL: Right now workers everywhere need to organize and demand better pay, better conditions, and dignity. We need militant leadership in our unions, and class struggle methods and solidarity to fight the bosses. We need unions to stop endorsing politicians who are backing anti-worker legislation, and we need to build a mass party of labor. Fundamentally, our fight is against the entire system. Capitalism is incompatible with workers’ rights; it must go.
SA: You’re a Marxist and a member of the WIL. What led you to your convictions?
FL: Most workers already subconsciously understand the basic ideas of Marxism. They know the system is rigged against them, that the bosses’ interests are opposed to theirs, and the only way out is solidarity. The key is consciousness. I never really had a definitive moment at which I became a Marxist. Growing up in a former steel town during the latter part of the last century, I witnessed the ravages of poverty and social decay as a result of de-industrialization and outsourcing. Seeing the impact this had on my working-class community led me to these beliefs at an early age.
SA: What do you see in humanity’s future?
FL: Workers can only take so much before we start to fight back everywhere. Already, this is being seen in places like my workplace, fast food restaurants, and retail stores. Ultimately, our final victory will come with the defeat of wage-slavery; the working class must take control of society away from the capitalists and put the economy and government under workers’ democracy. At the heart of it, socialism is the belief that we, the workers of the world, can together achieve great change for great things.