How Richmond's unions are supporting the casino question
In 2022, Unite Here opposed a second Southside casino vote. Now, it's knocking on doors for Richmond Grand.
Just a year after expressing concern about one of the companies that wants to bring a casino to Richmond, a hospitality workers union has thrown its weight behind the proposal, knocking doors using nearly $1 million from the pro-casino political action committee.
Unite Here represents 8,000 workers in Virginia, including hospitality workers at Colonial Williamsburg and food service workers at The College of William & Mary, Old Dominion and Virginia Commonwealth universities, a union spokesperson said.
In 2022, Unite Here supported a successful effort to keep Richmonders from voting on the casino a second time. State budget language prevented it from being on the ballot, in order to give Petersburg a chance at studying a casino there. After that effort stalled, Richmond City Council and Mayor Levar Stoney passed legislation this past spring bringing it to the fall ballot.
“We are concerned that Urban One, the current developer for the proposed Richmond Casino, is going to create low wage jobs with poor benefits,” Unite Here Local 25 political director Sam Epps wrote in a statement at the time. “That is why we strongly support further studying the state and local revenue impacts, so that we can ensure that any new casino creates equitable economic development and high-quality jobs.”
Then, Unite Here and the developers of Richmond Grand Resort & Casino — Urban One and Churchill Downs — signed a labor peace agreement “earlier this year,” Epps told VPM News in a Tuesday interview.
Such agreements set forth a process for unionization free from employer interference. Labor law prevents pre-hire negotiations, Epps said.
“At that time. I think we sat that out, [because] there was no labor peace agreement at all. There was no there was no announcement of what the city was requiring them to do,” said Epps. “That is just a negotiation, you approach who was doing the development and sit down and have a discussion about bringing good jobs to an area that had not had that.”
Another agreement with organized labor, a project labor agreement, was also signed between the casino’s general contractor and the Richmond Building and Construction Trades Council.
Dennis L. Martire, vice president and Mid-Atlantic regional manager of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, said in a statement that this sets strong labor standards to protect Richmond’s workers and ensures that the development of Richmond Grand Resort & Casino will drive economic prosperity for the entire Richmond community.
Despite both signed labor agreements, the Richmond Grand Resort & Casino ballot question remains undecided. Results won't be available until after Election Day polls close on Nov. 7.
Unite Here has a strong presence in the political ground game for Richmond’s casino question, bolstered by an $800,000 donation from the developers’ $8 million political war chest — and $250,000 from other groups, including other unions, to their referendum committee.
Epps said that money goes toward compensating the 65 union members knocking on all those doors.
“You never gonna know what conversation you gonna get at that door,” said Rosalyn Carter, who oversees a team of five knocking on doors in Gilpin Court on a sunny Tuesday. “I’m feeling very positive about it happening this time … we’ve got some people against it and don’t want it, but the people that want it here are outweighing them.”
Carter focuses on sharing her story about unionizing at VCU and the benefits that came there, rather than convincing, she says. The casino’s proponents have driven hard the promise of 1,300 jobs coming from the project, with the union talking about the jobs’ quality.
Carter said she was excited to move the needle a little bit on one woman’s vote: “She didn’t say yes, but I got her on the fence from being against it.”
Dozens of people in wearing Unite Here shirts packed into a meeting for 6th District Councilor Ellen Robertson in September. Before heading in, a VPM News reporter heard them rehearse questions to ask. The group departed after the casino presentation, leaving about 14 people for a presentation about property tax assessments.
They’ve also protested outside Richmond Lodge No. 1 of the Good Lions Inc, a nonprofit that runs gaming events at a bingo hall in Southside and unsuccessfully sued to keep the casino question off the ballot. At the protest, the building owner who rented space to Good Lions called it intimidation.
Early voting is currently underway. In 2021, voters sided against approving the casino by a margin of less than 1,500 votes.