Unions seeking a piece of Lincoln Park expansion

The $220 million expansion and renovation of Lincoln Park, which is intended to transform the downtrodden dog track into a regional gaming destination, is raising the stakes for labor unions that have represented workers at the park for decades.

About 80 percent of Lincoln Park’s work force of 1,000 is currently unionized and the venue’s owner, BLB Investors LLC, plans to add 300 to 400 new union jobs as the site’s total work force grows to about 1,800, said spokeswoman Cynthia Stern.

Nearly 400 union construction workers, sheet metal workers and other contractors are working daily at Lincoln Park to upgrade and expand the facility, Stern added. After the project’s completion, Lincoln Park will operate more than 2,000 video lottery terminals and will boast a new gaming area and a sports and entertainment arena.

In November, BLB and the Teamsters Local 251 reached agreement on a new contract under which valet service workers at Lincoln Park will become unionized for the first time, Stern said.

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But labor advocates and representatives of the unions that represent the majority of Lincoln Park’s permanent work force said they have significant concerns about the future of union jobs there.

“As Lincoln Park was being sold to BLB, there was a lot of discussion about their desire to keep the jobs at Lincoln Park good, middle-class jobs, that part of selling it to a private company was going to be maintaining that promise,” said Rachel Miller, director of Rhode Island Jobs With Justice, coalition of union and pro-labor community groups.

UNITE HERE! Local 217, which represents about 200 caterers and other workers at Lincoln Park, returned to the negotiating table in November in hopes of hammering out a new contract with BLB. The union is concerned it will be locked out of the new jobs created by Lincoln Park’s expansion, said Jenna Karlin, Local 217’s Rhode Island director.

Local 217 employees, whose numbers at Lincoln Park have increased on a regular basis, have been working without a contract since June. One of the major stumbling blocks in negotiating a new contract – apart from the question of whether or not future expansion at the park will be covered – has been BLB’s proposal to increase costs to workers for family health insurance, Karlin said.

Service Employees International Union Local 334, which represents more than 300 food and beverage workers and is the largest local at Lincoln Park, will head into contract talks in a few months. Gordon Gould, a business agent for SEIU Local 334, said the looming negotiations bring an unusual measure of uncertainty, because BLB is not a union shop at its other gaming parks.

Concern from the unions about the future of organized labor at Lincoln Park was sparked, at the end of last year, when BLB chose not to renew the contracts of about 20 longtime Lincoln Park employees who were described by their union as patron assistants and by the park as admissions collectors.

On Jan. 8, UNITE HERE! Local 217, SEIU Local 334 and SEIU Local 615 held a rally outside Lincoln Park’s main entrance to protest the elimination of the 20 jobs and call attention to the unions’ greater concerns, Rivera said.

The affected jobs – many of them part-time – were created many years ago when Lincoln Park charged admission, and became redundant when the park stopped charging, Stern said. BLB honored the workers’ contract through its expiration date, she said, and it notified the union 60 days in advance of its decision not to enter into a new contract due to the obsolete nature of jobs.

BLB also offered the laid-off workers preferential hiring in current and future job openings, Stern said. While some of the workers have pursued the offer individually, the union that represents them – SEIU Local 615 – rejected the offer, she said.

“They were offered to apply for other positions and told they would be given a higher priority. The union didn’t accept that proposal,” Stern said.

Roxana Rivera, director of the Rhode Island division of SEIU Local 615, said all of the laid-off workers had worked at Lincoln Park for 15 to 50 years, but BLB would not specify whether they would be re-hired into nonunion jobs or would be forced to start as new employees.

“We’re looking to sit down and talk to BLB about what can be done to offer continuing employment for these folks that values their years of service,” Rivera said.

In December, in a related clash between organized labor and both Lincoln Park and Newport Grand, several unions in the state’s gaming industry filed a lawsuit challenging new state requirements for employees licensed to work at the casinos that the unions say violate workers’ constitutional privacy rights.

Among other new requirements by the R.I. Department of Business Regulation, casino workers would need to file their Social Security numbers and bank account numbers with the DBR and they might be subjected to random searches at work. BLB supports the enhanced security measures, which are standard in the heavily regulated gaming industry, Stern said.