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Labor Unions Slam Chicago’s Casino Plans, Demand A Living Wage For Workers

None of the three casino finalists have signed a labor agreement with the city's powerful unions, leaders said. City officials also revealed they're trying to get more up-front cash from a casino to help with the 2023 budget.

Left: A casino file photo. Right: Robert Reiter Jr., president of the Chicago Federation of Labor, speaks at a press conference announcing Chicago's Phase 5 reopening at Gibson's Italia on June 11, 2021.
Pexels; Colin Boyle/ Block Club Chicago
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CHICAGO — As casino finalists contend with widespread resistance from neighbors and a growing chorus of alderpeople, they’ve drawn the ire of a new group: the city’s powerful unions.

None of the three casino finalists have agreed to a union labor agreement for casino or hospitality workers, Robert Reiter Jr., president of the Chicago Federation of Labor, told the city’s newly formed casino committee Monday. It would be a “slap in the face” to pick a casino without a commitment to pay living wages, Reiter said — and many alderpeople agreed.

Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) and Ald. Sophia King (4th), who both represent parts of the Hard Rock site near Soldier Field, were among those who called for the city’s casino to be a union shop.

“That’s very important if this is going to have a snowball’s chance to go anywhere,” Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) said.

The city has asked that each casino finalist have union agreements in place for construction and operations before work can begin, said Jennie Huang Bennett, the city’s chief financial officer.

Only one casino operator has shown interest in negotiating with unions so far, Reiter said, declining to say which one.

Bennett also confirmed that the city is currently negotiating with the three casino finalists, working to get a better deal. The city is eyeing a higher upfront payment of casino cash to float its 2023 budget, Bennett said.

Bally’s proposal for the Tribune Publishing site in River West is the only one currently offering upfront cash, according to city documents.

Alderpeople Concerned Over Lack Of Transparency

At the meeting, city officials also fielded concerns from alderpeople on the transparency of the city’s decision making process. Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) demanded to know precisely who at the city made the call to narrow the proposals to the three finalists.

City commissioners and their teams evaluated the proposals and made recommendations to the mayor, Bennett said.

“I’d like the names of the folks who actually voted to to limit our options to three,” Reilly said.

Ald. Michael Scott Jr. (24th) asked why the city didn’t propose its own sites instead of allowing casino developers to choose potential sites. Bennett argued developers are in the best position to pick a location based on its revenue potential.

Dowell, who has previously said she’s against a casino, came with long list of questions on how a casino will impact traffic, safety and Chicago’s riverwalk. She said she’s heard little support from constituents for the Hard Rock casino or the Rivers casino at The 78 megadevelopment.

Reilly said his ward residents, which neighbor the proposed Bally’s Tribune Publishing site, also largely oppose it, citing a ward-wide survey that shows 80% of respondents are against a casino there.

Ald. Walter Burnett Jr. (27th), reminded his fellow alderpeople that the city needs cash to fulfill its police and fire pension obligations. Saying no to a casino would likely lead to an unpopular property tax increase.

Burnett previously told Block Club he “really doesn’t want to be bothered” with a casino, but on Monday called them a “necessary evil.”

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

The city plans to host more community meetings before the casino committee makes its final recommendation in the next two or three months, said Ald. Tom Tunney (44th), who chairs the committee.

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