Bally’s, praised by labor here, faces strike threat in Rhode Island

The winner of the Chicago casino bid, who promised good labor relations here, nearly had to contend with a walkout over the July 4 weekend at its operation outside Providence.

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Soohyung Kim (right), chairman of Bally’s, chats with Mayor Lori Lightfoot during her May 5 announcement that the company has her support for a Chicago casino. With them is Ald. Walter Burnett Jr. (27th).

Soohyung Kim, right, chairman of Bally’s, chats with Mayor Lori Lightfoot during her May 5 announcement that the company has her support for a Chicago casino. With them is Ald. Walter Burnett Jr. (27th).

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

Bally’s, which won its bid for a Chicago casino in large measure on its backing from organized labor, is facing a possible strike at its casino in Lincoln, Rhode Island.

Members of Local 26 of Unite Here, the hospitality workers union, overwhelmingly voted to authorize a strike at Bally’s Twin Rivers Casino outside of Providence. The union had raised the specter of a strike timed for the busy July 4 weekend, but a spokeswoman said Friday it agreed to work at least another two weeks because of progress in bargaining.

Still, the situation could raise doubts in Chicago about how Bally’s will deal with unions once it sets up shop here. Bally’s won City Hall’s backing to build a $1.7 billion gambling and entertainment complex at Chicago Avenue and Halsted Street. It also has the right to open a temporary casino in Chicago’s Medinah Temple, with a possible launch by mid-2023.

“The mayor and [Chicago Federation of Labor President] Bob Reiter insisted that Bally’s was the only union supporter of the three Chicago casino finalists. Doesn’t look that way in R.I.,” Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) wrote in a text message to the Chicago Sun-Times. He led the charge against Bally’s plan for a River West casino in his ward.

In a follow-up interview, Hopkins noted that labor leaders had described Bally’s as the “only pro-union” of the three finalists. After the strike vote in Rhode Island, “it doesn’t add up,” he said.

“That indicates a significant dissatisfaction with Bally’s management,” Hopkins said.

“It raises questions about them adhering to their commitment to the unions here. ... They did sign a labor agreement. We’ll see if they honor it.”

Downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd), who joined Hopkins in opposition to Bally’s, said the overwhelming strike vote in Rhode Island is a cautionary tale for Chicago.

“Bally’s made some pretty big promises to organized labor in Chicago in order to win their casino bid here. Now, at their `flagship’ in Rhode Island, 92% of the Unite Here union just voted to authorize a strike,” Reilly wrote in a text message.

“That’s a pretty overwhelming vote and suggests Bally’s doesn’t play well with its partners in organized labor. I hope that Labor Peace Agreement with Bally’s is rock-solid here in Chicago because it’s looking pretty weak & wobbly in Rhode Island.”

Reiter reacted angrily to the comments from Hopkins and Reilly, saying they should discuss their objections with the CFL. “Bally’s is a union employer and they signed a labor peace agreement with us,” Reiter said. The other two finalists for a casino, Neil Bluhm’s Rush Street Gaming and Hard Rock International, can’t match that record, he said.

Bluhm owns the nonunion Rivers Casino in Des Plaines while Hard Rock “never made so much as one phone call to us,” Reiter said.

Formidable support from organized labor, in general, and Reiter, in particular, helped Mayor Lori Lightfoot deliver the lopsided casino vote just weeks after the mayor’s surprise endorsement blindsided a special committee of the City Council stacked with members of Lightfoot’s leadership team.

In April, Reiter told the casino committee that it should not back a license to an operator before it commits to having a unionized workforce.

Within days, Bally’s finalized such an agreement with the CFL. In turn, the CFL applied enormous lobbying pressure on City Council members to approve a license for Bally’s.

Alderpersons approved Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s recommendation of Bally’s May 25 on a 41-7 vote.

Bally’s Chairman Soohyung Kim said a labor issue in Rhode Island should have no bearing on Chicago. “Obviously, we feel confident about our relationship with all the unions. I believe this will be settled amicably in Rhode Island,” he said.

Lynette Ng, a spokesperson for Local 26, said workers in Lincoln agreed to stay on the job at least through July 14 because of progress in bargaining Wednesday. She said the union represents about 200 employees at the casino. Issues include staffing levels, with full-time shifts lacking even though the casino is bouncing back from the pandemic’s downturn, and raises for certain classifications, she said.

Kim noted that Bally’s had no labor problems at a casino it owns in Atlantic City, even though a Unite Here local there had threatened a strike against MGM Resort Properties and Caesars Entertainment. Tentative agreements reached Thursday ended that threat.

Separately, Bally’s said Wednesday it plans to sell and lease back its Rhode Island casinos in Lincoln and Tiverton. The company said its deal with GLP Capital is worth about $1 billion. Bally’s said it will continue to own, control and manage the gaming operations on a long-term lease.

“We saw an opportunity in a weakening market to get an attractive price for our real estate,” Kim said. He said the company can put its cash to work on expansion plans in Chicago and elsewhere.

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