Mohegan — In Mohegan Sun's 16 years of existence, no labor union had ever tried to organize the casino's employees.
That's no longer the case.
Both Mohegan and United Auto Workers officials confirmed Monday that the UAW has been soliciting interest in the union among Mohegan Sun's roughly 1,400 table-games dealers.
"We've observed employees trying to solicit other employees," said Jeffrey Hartmann, Mohegan Sun's president and chief executive officer. "It's all been carried out in a respectful manner."
Hartmann made it clear that the casino is trying to discourage workers from affiliating with the union.
"We recognize and respect the right of our employees to join a union, but we believe it's best for us to deal with employees on a one-to-one basis," he said. "That's been a hallmark of our success the last 16 years. Unfortunately, that would be lost" if employees joined a union.
Hartmann said casino management has communicated with its employees about the UAW presence and was "asking them not to sign the cards," a preliminary step in the union process.
UAW officials charged Monday that the casino was trying to intimidate employees.
"We are deeply concerned that management is not respecting the right of these employees to organize," Julie Kushner, a UAW regional director, said in a letter to elected officials. "… We want management to allow workers to make a decision free of intimidation and threats in deciding to form their union."
For more than a week, the union has been asking employees to sign the "authorization cards" that indicate interest in joining the union. If a sufficient number of employees sign cards, the union will petition for a vote on union affiliation.
It's not known whether the union would petition the National Labor Relations Board to conduct a vote, or whether it would proceed under tribal law.
"That decision hasn't been made yet," said Ted Feng, the UAW's assistant regional director.
Under the Mohegan Labor Relations Ordinance, a tribal law passed in 2010, at least 30 percent of the eligible employees — in this case 420 of the 1,400 dealers — would have to sign cards to trigger a union vote. A majority of those casting ballots in the election would have to favor union affiliation for the organizing effort to succeed.
UAW and Mohegan officials are expected to meet in the weeks ahead, both sides said.
Mohegan Sun dealers approached the UAW several months ago about wanting to organize, Feng said.
"They saw what we were able to accomplish with the dealers at Foxwoods," he said. "They want to be able to have equal footing with management. Over the last four or five years, things have not gotten better for them."
Dealers at Foxwoods Resort Casino voted in favor of affiliating with the UAW in 2007 and ratified their first contract in 2010. Foxwoods and the union are currently in arbitration as they seek to reach agreement on a new contract to replace the first one, which expired last December.
One pro-UAW dealer at Mohegan Sun acknowledged that the experience of Foxwoods' dealers was a factor in the latest union movement.
"We're not looking to duplicate Foxwoods' contract, but we do know the UAW brought a lot of improvement to Foxwoods in terms of working conditions, benefits and pay," said Linda Fedor of Norwich. "Our pay has been cut and frozen. Our benefits have been reduced, our health care cost has risen. Someone put pencil to paper and figured out we were making about 25 percent less than we were four years ago.
"We can't afford more cuts," she said.
Fedor, who has been a dealer for almost seven years, said Mohegan Sun was no longer worthy of its reputation for treating employees well and fairly.
"I chose to go to Mohegan Sun because it had a good reputation in the community," she said. "It was touted as the workplace to go to — well, in the last four years, not so much. I think the UAW can be a big part of bringing it back, of providing good jobs for the community."
Another dealer who spoke to The Day complained that co-workers had approached him on behalf of the union while he was working on the casino's gaming floor. He said he was further solicited at home by two men who introduced themselves as members of the UAW but refused to give their names.
"I told them to get off my property," said Tim Epperson of Ledyard. "There's no protection for people who aren't interested (in union affiliation)."