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Workers at Casino Woodbine fight and win

June 1, 2023
On May 8th, over 800 workers at Casino Woodbine, represented by the Public Service Alliance of Canada, were locked out by their employer.
Early in the negotiation process, the casino tabled an unacceptable and disrespectful “final offer”, effectively telling the workers that they must either accept sub-par working conditions or be locked out of their workplace. The workers, however, were far from intimidated by this. They voted down the employer’s offer and reiterated their resolve to win a fair contract.
In the tense lock-out that lasted around 3 weeks, the workers held strong and resolute picket-lines at each of the entrances to the casino, costing the employer millions of dollars in revenue every day. Eventually the casino was forced to present an acceptable offer with several gains, which was finally ratified by the members on May 26th. 
This story of working-class resistance and fightback at Casino Woodbine is a small milestone on the trail of the growing militancy of the working-class struggles in Canada.
The Casino industry
Since the 1970s, provincial governments have become incrementally dependent on gaming revenues. The growth of the casino industry in Ontario goes hand-in-hand with the larger story of de-industrialization of the Canadian economy. Since the late 20th century, as capital expanded globally in search of new markets as well as cheap labour, much of traditional industries of North America shifted their production-sites to the Global South, leading to a sharp decline in industrial capacities and activities here. In this context, service-oriented economic activities emerged as the main industry. The growth of gaming and gambling activities, a part of this larger trend, continued to accelerate as governments sought to tackle the revenue deficits caused by the 2008 crisis of capitalism. 
The original incentive behind the development of the Ontario casino industry was to capture tourist and gambling dollars from the US, funneled through establishments that were approved and developed along de-industrialized border cities, such as Windsor and Niagara Falls. However, with the rise of competitive casinos on the US-side of the border as well, and the erosion of the tourist market post the 2008 crisis, this no-longer became a viable target demography. In 2010, the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation was pressed by the crisis to develop an alternate approach – what it dubbed as a “modernization project”. The focus now shifted towards cities with high population densities such as Toronto, and the target client demography became local residents of Ontario. However, what has remained constant across this shift is the ever-deepening dependency of the city as well as the province on gambling dollars to offset revenue deficits caused by the long crisis of capitalism. When it comes to casino capital, the state itself appears to be a gambling addict.
Today, there are 70 ‘gaming establishments’ in Ontario of which there are 28 casinos, including 7 that are within a short distance of Toronto. Many of these are ‘racinos’, establishments that began as racetracks, but soon incorporated gambling facilities, starting with slot machines. Woodbine Racetracks, now Casino Woodbine, located in and around the suburban Etobicoke wards that once belonged to the Ford brothers, is one such establishment that has benefited from deep and ongoing political patronage especially from the conservatives. 
Within the span of a decade since expanding from a racetrack, the Woodbine Entertainment Group is an incredibly large for-profit institution today – set to launch what they describe as “Canada’s largest” casino resort this summer, costing upwards of $1 billion. With 4800 slot machines, 145 table games, a soccer stadium with its eyes on the 2026 FIFA World Cup, and a mega residential project for 60,000 residents, the group aims to build “a city within a city”.
Yet around 60% of the workers at the Casino are part-time, many work minimum-wage jobs in grotesquely poor conditions, and face severe employer disrespect on a day to day basis.
Pointing to that very newly built resort building awaiting inauguration, a locked-out worker told us “That (building) was built on our backs. We made it possible, and now they tell us to get out? So many of us are working minimum wage and stuck part-time with no shift assurance. The table-hands have to deal with bed bugs on the felt and worry about diseases all the time. We have to put up with harassment from clients that has been normalized by the employer. The casino is ugly on the inside.”
The arguments that were once raised in public debates as “for-casino” points by the political establishment, including Ford, are now nowhere to be seen. The ‘good jobs’ and ‘wealth in the community’ arguments have been rendered obsolete by the crony relations between the state and casino capital. The ‘good jobs’ have been exposed as part-time precarious work that are minimum wage. As casinos rake up profits and make gross expansions, virtually nothing comes back to the workers that make this possible, and they become sites of intense worker exploitation.
Workers fight back
The class anger of the Casino Woodbine workers was palpable through the lock-out. They understood the underlying strategy behind the Employers’ decision of setting premature deadlines to negotiations this spring. The Employer was trying to ensure that the plans for this summer – the launch of their mega-casino – remained unperturbed by “labour disputes”. This was widely understood as an insult. These workers, many of them employed by Woodbine for over a decade, built the casino and are now being told to not interrupt the inauguration.
The fight back was impressive. Workers held hard pickets at each of the 7 entrances to the casino, backing up traffic all along the highway, for three weeks. The pickets were 7 days a week, and strategically coordinated to interrupt construction sites on casino property as well as inflow of clients. While the employer hired private security at each of the entrances to surveil the workers and apply psychological pressure on them, the workers ignored this and continued their pickets for 3 long weeks until the employer succumbed to the economic pressure. 
A worker told us proudly that they were able to cost the employer millions each day of the lockout. Some of the clients at the casino, addicted to gambling, too were aggressive when faced with long delays at the picket line. A few of the workers were hurt over the first few days of lockout, as clients drove into lines that blocked the entrances. But the union responded strongly by taking a day to engage in robust picket-line protocol training, and to strategize the means to ensure that hard pickets could still be held without worker safety compromised. And the workers came back to the lines stronger than before. For the three weeks that followed, the picket-lines were filled with music, dance and resolve. The employer was then forced to resort to cheap tactics, such as mass emails directly to members trying to draw wedges between the different employee groups. But the strong rank and file unity of the local meant that this was easily countered by the workers themselves. 
On May 20th, other PSAC members from across Ontario visited the line on a day of action, and brought solidarity and support. Andria Babbington, the president of the Toronto and York Region Labour Council, gave her message of solidarity to the workers and walked the line with them.
Until ratification, some of the key outstanding demands were: guaranteed part-time hours, a better sick leave plan, and fair wage increases. The new ratified collective agreement sees advances on all fronts, including some assured hours for the members. The workers will see more than a 16% wage increase over the term of the agreement, which is also a significant result of the fightback.
The workers return to work now having achieved something more than just the new collective agreement. 
They have once again reminded us that when workers fight against greedy employers they can win. 

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