Casinos and Captive Labour Markets

Casinos are emblematic of a strategy to create low-skilled service jobs in economically depressed cities. States and provinces encourage casino developments based on the ability of these facilities not only to create jobs but to provide “good jobs” (i.e. with high wages, benefits, and job protections) in host communities. Existing research offers competing scenarios of what casinos mean for workers in these host communities. Some scholars find that workers benefit from casinos via employment and wage growth.1 Others find that casinos exploit host communities, including their workers.2 While little research focuses specifically on the quality of casino jobs, some scholars suggest that the compensation and conditions of casino employment may decline as the casino gaming environment becomes more competitive.3 However, research also identifies two caveats concerning the ability of casino workers to cope with work-quality decline: first, casino employment tends to attract those who treat the work as temporary and/or supplementary work; [End Page 199] and second, workers are free to seek employment at other casinos – casinos being a growing industry – and to “chase tips” if they are unhappy with their working conditions or remuneration.4

Unlike previous research, which focuses on geographic areas with multiple casinos, such as Las Vegas and Atlantic City, the purpose of this article is to understand whether and how casinos provide “good jobs” in locales where casinos are increasingly being used as an economic revitalization tool – that is, in deindustrializing settings – and with a single operator in a region. I examine the case of Casino Windsor, a unionized casino in a peripheral gaming market – Detroit-Windsor – in Windsor, Ontario, which is one of Canada’s former automotive capitals. To enrich understandings of whether casinos provide “good jobs” over time, the findings in this study suggest that Casino Windsor initially offered workers with employment histories in the low-wage service sector the prospect of higher compensation and union representation. In interviews conducted in 2014 and 2015, employees shared how Casino Windsor provided them the ability to pursue a higher standard of living. These workers also highlighted that Casino Windsor represented an opportunity, particularly for women, in the female-dominated service sector (60:40 female to male). For these workers, the tips, wages, benefit packages, and union representation meant that employment at Casino Windsor represented upward economic mobility.

Their experience of economic mobility, however, was short lived, spanning from 1994 (when the casino opened) to 2000. The decline of Casino Windsor’s revenues coincided with the establishment of three casinos across the US-Canada border in Detroit. As casino competition increased, remuneration and working conditions at Casino Windsor deteriorated. Tips declined and wages stagnated. Casino management also streamlined its labour costs by laying off workers, relying on a more flexible workforce, and outsourcing venue space to non-union corporations. In addition, workers also reported that management’s disciplinary action against employees has increased as revenues and visitation have declined. In fact, during the 2004 round of collective bargaining, Casino Windsor workers went on strike for “respect” – something they felt they were losing in their interactions with management. They insisted that the strike was about “respect” rather than simply wages. Among their grievances were the increase in management’s disciplinary action against them and insinuations by management to workers that they were not only replaceable but unlikely to find comparable compensation elsewhere. Despite these tactics, Casino Windsor workers remain (turnover is low) and have internalized the [End Page 200] importance of providing quality customer service.5 Casino employees treat their provision of quality customer service as essential to keeping Casino Windsor competitive and open for business.

These findings provide an alternative story of the employment implications of casino development when the workers themselves are not mobile. Immobility allows management to rule through disciplinary actions while still reaping the benefits of worker “loyalty” and effort. Casino Windsor workers have little choice other than to offer good service to keep their jobs. In theory, they are “free” to go elsewhere, but in fact, there is nowhere else to go. With Windsor on an international border, with the city…

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