Dan Haar: It’s unions vs. unions in casino battle

March 12, 2018

No one should be surprised that unions are opposing unions in the casino debate, after a weekend when we saw a union fighting for fired UConn basketball coach Kevin Ollie to get his $10.6 million in salary.

Both oddities are happening.

In the casino battle, we have the $300 million East Windsor plan by the Connecticut gaming tribes, the Mohegan and the Mashantucket Pequot nations — with support from a coalition of at least four unions including the UAW, which has workers at Foxwoods, plus the Building Trades Council in the Hartford area.

And we have the Bridgeport plan, which calls for open bidding for a commercial casino — with support from UNITE HERE, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and others, along with the Fairfield County section of the building trades council.

That’s the bill that’s up for a vote this spring. It could lead to a go-ahead for MGM Resorts International to build its $675 million casino in Bridgeport.

The unions will clash on Thursday — the second weather-related rescheduling — when lawmakers at the state Capitol will hear comments on the open-bidding bill. Lori Pelletier, president of the state AFL-CIO, won’t take sides; her affiliates remain divided, though not necessarily in a bitter way.

“It would be better if labor was all on the same page but it doesn’t always work like that,” said Beverley Brakeman, assistant director of UAW Region 9A, a leader in the union coalition backing the tribes’ plan. “It’s unfortunate that this has gotten so complicated, but that’s where we are.”

The way the bill stands, both sides can’t win. The open-bidding bill, backed strongly by MGM, calls for the state to revoke the East Windsor casino license. MGM is set to open its $960 million casino in Springfield, Mass., this fall, just 13 miles from the East Windsor site.

The tribes, operating as MMCT Venture, began demolition last week at the vacant movie theater where they would build that casino.

For the unions in Fairfield County — and UNITE HERE, which is aligned with MGM and has tens of thousands of unionized hotel, casino and food service workers in Las Vegas — the politics of what happens in East Windsor are less important than the chance to see a Bridgeport casino rise up.

“I don’t know how anybody could be opposed to creating 7,000 jobs and spending $675 million with no state dollars,” said Peter Carroll, business manager of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers local 488 in Monroe, and president of the multi-union Fairfield County Building Trades Council.

He was referring to the MGM plan in Bridgeport. And the answer is, union backers of the East Windsor plan vehemently oppose revoking a bill they fought hard to pass from 2015 to 2017.

“From our perspective, the open-bidding bill is kind of a sham,” Brakeman said. “The reason they want to repeal last year’s legislation is that MGM could lose a lot of money if we build in East Windsor.”

Both MMCT and MGM have good relations with their unions, although Mohegan Sun is non-unionized and MGM in Springfield did not agree to remain neutral if dealers attempt to organize in Springfield.

And both sides are likely to lose, barring a negotiated deal to break the logjam. Carroll said he’s not against East Windsor in the least.

“That’s the work of another area and they’re fighting for their work and I’m fighting for my work,” he said. “I’m not opposed to that one but I’m 100 percent in favor of this one here. ... It’s all about jobs.”

Adding yet more complexity is a federal lawsuit over East Windsor’s approval, which MGM will follow with a lawsuit claiming MMCT was picked unfairly. Then there’s the matter of more than $200 million in yearly payments the tribes make to the state, which could be lost if another company wins a license.

And then there’s regional politics. “The largest city in the state always gets a black eye,” Carroll said of Bridgeport, adding that it “always plays second-fiddle to Hartford.”