Tribe contests legitimacy of union vote at Foxwoods

Hartford - In the days and weeks leading up to this summer's union election among Foxwoods Resort Casino bartenders, the buzz among workers featured some talk about their jobs being in jeopardy.

It had been reported that the casino's owner, the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe, planned to eliminate monthly payments to tribal members, meaning, some reasoned, that those tribal members would be needing jobs - at the casino.

Leaflets got printed. Conversations took place. Postings appeared on Facebook, the social networking website. Some of them suggested tribal members' need for jobs and the preferential employment rights granted them under tribal law would cost nontribal employees. That should be reason enough to join the union, the argument went.

Both sides in a dispute over the outcome of the election - Foxwoods and Local 371 of the United Food and Commercial Workers union - agreed Wednesday that such communications took place. But they disagreed about whether it matters.

"Union agents found a boogeyman" in the fear of layoffs that gripped employees, Richard Hankins, a Foxwoods attorney, said during a National Labor Relations Board hearing on Foxwoods' challenge of the July 31 election in which Foxwoods bartenders, beverage servers and bar porters voted 190 to 145 to affiliate with the UFCW.

Foxwoods charges that union organizers tainted the election by "making inflammatory appeals to voters' political, racial and/or ethnic prejudices" and claiming employees could protect themselves from the effects of tribal preference laws by joining the union.

"They were told the tribe needs jobs, plain and simple. Vote 'yes,'" Hankins told Judge Raymond Green, who presided over the hearing. "It shouldn't be tolerated. The (election) result should be overturned."

Thomas Meiklejohn, the union's attorney, expressed a different view, saying the union has the right to say it can protect workers' seniority and that there is no case law establishing that tribal preference laws override all other considerations. After the hearing concluded for the day, he said it was the union's position that "there was absolutely nothing wrong" with the statements made by union organizers and employees. He said the tribe's characterization of some of the statements as "racial" was "a gross distortion."

While as many as 20 Foxwoods employees filed into the hearing room at one point, only one was called to testify after the attorneys spent hours negotiating behind closed doors.

Eventually, the parties agreed to enter into evidence nearly 20 exhibits, among them a union flier and several Facebook "page grabs" - snapshots of postings that no longer exist. Attorneys for both sides stipulated that the postings were widely disseminated among employees during "the critical period" leading up to the union election.

Seth Borden, another Foxwoods attorney, questioned Cynthia Ayotte, who said she has worked as a bartender at Mashantucket properties for 22 years, since before the casino opened. She described how a union representative had visited her at her home several days before the election, offering to discuss what she said was "false information" about "tribal people taking your job."

Under cross-examination by Meiklejohn, she said seniority figured greatly in determining job placements at Foxwoods, particularly when all the jobs in a particular category are periodically "rebid." She said a tribal member with little seniority had gotten a prized bar porter position earlier this year because of his tribal status.

The hearing was scheduled to resume today.


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