By Daniel Tseghay
“One of the things I was told shortly after the ratification vote by somebody that was there was that one of the people was crying as he was voting for his new collective agreement because this was going to change his life,” said Stephanie Smith, President of the B.C. Government and Service Employees’ Union (BCGEU), in an interview with Rankandfile.ca
When nearly 1,000 workers at River Rock Casino unionized with BCGEU near the end of September, their average wage increase was 19 per cent. But for some classifications it was high as 57 per cent. “He was getting a 10 dollar an hour wage increase,” Smith continued, “which would now allow him to support his family to maybe not work a second or third job.”
That worker was one of the many at River Rock who was earning the minimum wage. Workers there hadn’t seen a wage increase in over 8 years – other than when the provincial minimum wage was increased. They were earning less than other casino workers in the province – especially compared to unionized ones – until they joined BCGEU.
Near the end of 2015, workers at River Rock contacted the BCGEU organizing department to say they wanted to unionize and, according to Smith, in a very short period of time a large number of the workers signed union cards. “Often these organizing drives can take an extended period of time but within about a couple of weeks we had over 400 cards signed [of the nearly 1,000 workers],” said Smith.
In December of 2015, the union was certified. But bargaining for a first contract didn’t come easily.
The employer turned out to be a real obstacle and delayed meetings. When they did set meeting dates, they would often be cancelled or postponed.
So the union took some creative measures. There was a cookie campaign where a message from the union regarding bargaining was on each cookie. There was an attempted sticker campaign with each sticker including the amount that the casino brings in every two weeks but the employer wouldn’t let the workers wear them. Union representatives invited the members outside of the bargaining committee to observe a session of bargaining with the employer. “We thought maybe a hundred people might come and observe the bargaining process and see what happens at the table,” said Smith. “We had almost 300 show up to observe and of course that made the employer extremely nervous and they decided not to participate that day.” The union even had a petition that was signed by 85% of the membership.
“What all those actions did was really bring together the staff,” said Smith. “They were playing an active role in the bargaining.”
They put enough pressure on the employer that they came back to the bargaining table and responded to the monetary proposals which they had not done up until that time.
Because bargaining was still not going as well as the union had expected, they took a strike vote in August of this year. “There was a belief amongst the employers that this was not a solid group, that they would not take job action, that the departments were perhaps not connected in a really solid way,” said Smith. “But the strike vote of 99. 4% sent a very strong message to the employer that there really was solidarity amongst the workers.”
In the last month and a half with their new contract, Smith points out that workers are feeling empowered. And they’re now “utilizing that collective agreement language to redress issues they were facing prior to being unionized. We’re seeing a number of grievances.”
“In my view,” said Smith, “this is almost a textbook example of what collective action can accomplish when workers are resolved to stick together, to support each other, and to be supported by their union.”