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

Chicago’s casino proposals, already reprimanded by close neighbors of the three potential sites, drew fire on Monday from organized labor groups who want gambling kingpins to accept a unionized workforce. The aldermen supported this request with eagerness.

None of the casino candidates have agreed to bargain with unions traditionally in the casino and hospitality sectors, union leaders said at the first hearing of a city council special committee.

Robert Reiter Jr., president of the Chicago Federation of Labor, told aldermen they shouldn’t approve any proposals until a labor agreement for operations is in place.

“What good is millions in income if it keeps thousands of marginalized workers below the poverty line? It makes no sense,” Reiter told the committee.

Reiter said if casino operators agreed to negotiate with unions, it would ensure a “living wage” for the staff they will need. Reiter said the lack of talks with unions was a “slap in the face” for unions in a city that is “the hometown of the labor movement.” He said only one of the three candidates, whom he did not name, expressed an interest in negotiations.

“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 contenders, Rush Street Gaming, said, “We fully intend to reach a labor peace agreement for the Chicago casino. As Chicagoans ourselves, we know this is a union town and it will be a union casino.

There was no immediate comment from the other candidates: Bally’s and Hard Rock. Bally’s proposed to build at the Chicago Tribune Printing Plant, 777 W. Chicago Ave. Along with partners, the Rush Street proposal involves the development site called The 78 southwest of Roosevelt Road and Clark Street. Hard Rock would build on the Metra tracks west of Soldier Field, part of another proposed development site called One Central.

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

Union pressure removes another obstacle to any casino project in Chicago. All three active proposals have already had community hearings, and each has drawn heavy criticism from neighbors angry at the gambling’s possible impacts.

A parade of aldermen joined union leaders in demanding a so-called “labour peace deal” which it hopes will result in higher wages at casinos.

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

Aldus. Sophia King (4th), president of the Progressive Caucus, acknowledged that “revenues are important” for a casino which will be used to bail out police and firefighters’ pensions which are dangerously close to insolvency. But King questioned whether the three casino developers’ “revenue projections” “take into account high-quality, labor-intensive jobs.”

“I know some of these things are being worked on. But I don’t know how they can have these revenue projections without it,” 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 casino companies have agreed to pass project work agreements with construction unions before work can begin.

“As part of the assessment, the City will look very carefully at the agreements in place before proposing anything to Council. We understand that these agreements need to be in place,” Bennett said.

Earlier this month, City Hall held back-to-back nights of public hearings on each of the casino’s three finalists.

This gave area residents and businesses and their elected representatives the opportunity to unload their concerns about crime, traffic congestion and gambling addiction and raised fears that a mega-casino and entertainment complex could destroy the character of their neighborhoods and may even harm local businesses.

Monday’s meeting was the first of the City Council’s special committee created by Mayor Lori Lightfoot — and made up of her hand-picked executive team — to make all decisions related to a Chicago casino. The hearing was reserved for testimonies and no vote was taken.

Lightfoot said she wanted a chosen site this summer. The Illinois Gaming Board would consider any candidate who obtains the city’s approval.

The hearing gave local aldermen another opportunity to perform in front of the crowd of voters who will decide their fate in the municipal elections in just 10 months.

Ald town center. Brendan Reilly (42nd) said reaction to the Bally’s development has been “extremely negative” with 86% of River North residents and “well over 80%” of neighborhood residents against the casino.

“Perhaps if the city had engaged with aldermen on potential sites and helped shape that conversation and guide it with potential developers and operators, it would have produced less acrimony and more direct consensus on the best way to locate this casino”, Reilly mentioned.

Samir Mayekar, deputy mayor for neighborhood and economic development, said that due to disruptions caused by COVID “to the real estate market and what it takes to get funded,” the city has been hesitant to “push a site “.

West Side Ald. Michael Scott Jr. (24th) did not believe this argument.

“The pushback you’re going to get from elected officials or the community for not identifying a site first will be the big hurdle you’ll have to overcome,” Scott told Mayekar and Bennett.

Aldus. Pat Dowell (3rd) peppered the mayor’s top aides with so many questions about the One Central site she fiercely opposes, Monday’s hours-long committee hearing wouldn’t have been long enough for the answers. Dowell also demanded a labor peace deal with a living wage. “If it’s not there, it’s not going anywhere,” Dowell said.

The only local alderman who showed the slightest will to swallow a Chicago casino was Ald. Walter Burnett Jr. (27th), whose neighborhood includes the site of the Tribune Printing Company. It came after Bennett essentially reiterated the question Lightfoot posed to those who don’t want a casino in their backyard: Would you prefer a pre-election property tax hike to bail out police and fire department pensions?

“We would need to start making choices quite early, in the next budget year, probably to get to that steady state. And the only truly viable alternative source of this magnitude should be property taxes,” Bennett said.

“It’s the main source of income that funded our pension contributions. It’s about $1.4 billion of the $2.3 billion in pension contributions that we pay every year. And that’s the only source of revenue we have that could really cover that shortfall.

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

Chairman of the Ald zoning committee. Tom Tunney (44th), who chairs the casino’s special committee, said he hoped to be able to recommend a specific site in “two or three months”.

“We need to be up and running – having a plan, so to speak – for our fall budget season. Otherwise, we’re going to have to find other alternatives to replace the revenue offered by the casino,” Tunney told his colleagues.

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