Labor groups join aldermen in critique of casino plans over lack of living wage guarantees

The president of the Chicago Federation of Labor said none of the proposed casino operators has agreed to negotiate union contracts.

SHARE Labor groups join aldermen in critique of casino plans over lack of living wage guarantees
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President of Chicago Federation Labor Robert Reiter

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Chicago’s casino proposals, already getting berated from neighbors close to the three potential sites, drew fire Monday from organized labor groups who want the gambling kingpins to accept a unionized labor force. Alderpersons eagerly supported that demand.

None of the casino applicants has agreed to negotiate with unions traditionally in the casino and hospitality sectors, labor leaders said during the first hearing of a special City Council committee.

Robert Reiter Jr., president of the Chicago Federation of Labor, told aldermen they should not approve any proposal until a labor agreement for operations is in place.

“What good is millions in revenue if it keeps thousands of marginalized workers below the poverty line? It doesn’t make sense,” Reiter told the committee.

Reiter said that if casino operators agree to bargain with unions, it would assure a “living wage” for the staff they will need. Reiter said the lack of discussions with the unions was a “slap in the face” to unions in a city that is “the hometown of the labor movement.” He said only one of the three applicants, which he did not name, has expressed an interest in negotiations.

“All too often, projects like these make workers an afterthought,” Reiter said. The CFL represents 300 unions.

In response, Tim Drehkoff, CEO of one of the casino applicants, Rush Street Gaming, said, “We have every intention of entering into a labor peace agreement for the Chicago casino. As Chicagoans ourselves, we know this is a union town and this will be a union casino.”

Christopher Jewett, vice president of corporate development at Bally’s, said the company has engaged with the CFL and is working toward an agreement. “We have strong relationships with labor unions at properties we own across the country and expect Chicago will be no different,” he said.

There was no immediate comment from the other applicant, Hard Rock. Bally’s has proposed building at the Chicago Tribune printing plant, 777 W. Chicago Ave. With partners, Rush Street’s proposal involves the development site called The 78 southwest of Roosevelt Road and Clark Street. Hard Rock would build over the Metra tracks west of Soldier Field, part of another proposed development site called One Central.

Echoing Reiter’s comments were members of Unite Here Local 1, the Chicago union representing hospitality workers, and its president, Karen Kent.

The union pressure raises another obstacle for any casino plan in Chicago. The three active proposals already have had community hearings, and each has drawn heavy criticism from neighbors angry about possible impacts from gambling.

A parade of alderpersons joined the union leaders in demanding a so-called “labor peace agreement” they hope will result in higher casino wages.

“I hope the bidders are out there and they’re listening. The city is projected to make a lot of money on this. And we need to make sure that the employees have a living wage and are working with the unions,” said Far North Side Ald. Debra Silverstein (50th).

Ald. Sophia King (4th), chairwoman of the Progressive Caucus, acknowledged that “revenue is important” for a casino that will be used to shore up police and fire pensions hovering dangerously close to insolvency. But King questioned whether the “revenue projections” from the three casino developers “take into consideration high-quality labor jobs.”

“I know some of those things are being worked out. But I don’t know how they can have those revenue projections without that,” King said.

The city’s chief financial officer, Jennie Huang Bennett, acknowledged that labor peace and subsequent wage agreements “need to be discussed and they need to be negotiated” for casino operations. She said the casino companies have agreed to adopt project labor agreements with construction unions before any work can start.

“As a part of the evaluation, the city will consider very heavily the agreements that are in place before it is that it proposes something to Council. We understand the point that those agreements need to be in place,” Bennett said.

Earlier this month, City Hall held consecutive nights of public hearings on each of the three casino finalists.

That gave area residents and businesses and their elected representatives an opportunity to unload their concerns about crime, traffic congestion and gambling addiction and convey fears that a mega-casino and entertainment complex will destroy the character of their neighborhoods and maybe even hurt local businesses.

Monday’s meeting was the first by the special City Council committee created by Mayor Lori Lightfoot — and filled with her handpicked leadership team — to make all decisions related to a Chicago casino. The hearing was only for testimony and no vote was taken.

Lightfoot has said she wants a site picked this summer. The Illinois Gaming Board would review any applicant that gets the city’s endorsement.

The hearing gave local alderpersons yet another opportunity to play to the crowd of voters who will decide their fate in aldermanic elections now just 10 months away.

Downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) said reaction to the Bally’s development has been “overwhelmingly negative” with 86 percent of River North residents and “well over 80 percent” of residents ward-wide against the casino.

“Perhaps if the city had engaged with the aldermen on potential sites and helped gear that conversation and guide it with the potential developers and operators, that might have produced less acrimony and more up-front consensus on how best to locate this casino,” Reilly said.

Samir Mayekar, deputy mayor for neighborhood and economic development, said that because of the disruptions caused by COVID “to the real estate market and what it takes to get financed,” the city shied away from “pushing one site.”

West Side Ald. Michael Scott Jr. (24th) didn’t buy that argument.

“The pushback that you’re gonna get from the elected officials or community around not having a site identified beforehand is gonna be the big barrier you’re gonna have to figure out,” Scott told Mayekar and Bennett.

Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) peppered top mayoral aides with so many questions about the One Central site she strenuously opposes, Monday’s hours-long committee hearing wouldn’t have been long enough for the answers. Dowell also demanded a labor peace agreement with a living wage. “If that isn’t in there, this ain’t going nowhere,” Dowell said.

The only local alderperson who showed any willingness at all to swallow a Chicago casino was Ald. Walter Burnett Jr. (27th), whose ward includes the Tribune Printing Plant site. It happened after Bennett essentially reiterated the question that Lightfoot posed to those who don’t want a casino in their backyard: Would you prefer a pre-election property tax increase to bail out police and fire pensions?

“We would need to start to make choices fairly soon, in the upcoming budget year likely in order to get to that stable state. And the only really viable alternative source of this magnitude would have to be property taxes,” Bennett said.

“It’s the primary source of revenue that has funded our pension contributions. It’s about $1.4 billion out of the $2.3 billion pension contribution that we pay every year. And it’s the only revenue source that we have available that could really cover that shortfall.”

Said Burnett: “I don’t want to be involved with increasing anyone’s property tax. Hopefully, we won’t have to do that,” he said.

Zoning Committee Chairman Ald. Tom Tunney (44th), who is chairing the special casino committee, said his hope is to recommend a specific site in “two or three months.”

“We need to be up and running — have a plan, so to speak — for our fall budget season. Otherwise, we’re gonna have to find some other alternatives to replace this proposed casino revenue,” Tunney told his colleagues.

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