Jean-Homer Lauture from New Jersey, a member of Unite Here, joins striking MotorCity Casino workers on Oct. 17, 2023. (Photo by Quinn Banks)

In a year that has been defined by labor unrest, thousands of metro Detroiters have decided it’s worth walking off the job to push for improved wages and benefits.

This story also appeared in Detroit Free Press

The latest workers to walk are those at three downtown Detroit casinos.

They join auto workers and UAW-represented employees of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan (BCBSM) and employees at three nursing homes in metro Detroit.

Those are just ongoing strikes. Earlier this year, some 2,000 graduate student workers at the University of Michigan went on strike in the spring and reached a contract just before classes started, and workers last week at General Dynamics who have voted to authorize a strike last week.

Across the board, workers are demanding higher wages and more benefits, from health care to retirement.

“Companies, businesses — they need to pay attention because people are tired. When you start not being able to feed your family, it’s a problem,” said Maisha Blessett, 50 of Detroit, a Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan employee who was on the picket line Wednesday.

Here’s a roundup of some of the labor activity brewing across industries in the region: 

Detroit casino workers 

Thousands of Detroit Casino workers, represented by the Detroit Casino Council, are on strike after failed negotiations with the city’s three casinos – MGM Grand, MotorCity and Hollywood Casino at Greektown. 

The Detroit Casino Council, comprised of five union locals, rejected a final proposal from the companies late Tuesday morning over concerns about protecting health care, job security and wage increases. The union is made up of 3,700 members employed as casino dealers, cleaning staff, food and beverage workers, valets and engineers. 

The union says Detroit casino workers bore the brunt of heavier workloads, with fewer staff, after the pandemic. In 2020, workers agreed to a three-year contract extension with minimal wage increases and since then casino workers have received 3% raises, according to a news release. 

The three casinos, as of Thursday, remained open. 

UNITE HERE Local 24, UAW Local 7777, Teamsters Local 1038, Operating Engineers Local 324 and the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters make up the Detroit Casino Council.

Health insurance workers 

More than 1,000 Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan workers walked off the job two days before the auto workers’ strike began.

Workers are demanding that BCBSM eliminate a two-tiered pay structure and stop outsourcing and contracting out jobs. The workers, represented by the UAW, have jobs in customer service, billing and call centers. 

Charles Solomon, a UAW representative for Local Union 1781, was out on the picket line Wednesday morning in front of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan’s Rennaisance Center offices in downtown Detroit. Solomon said workers have been striking for the last month because they want fair wages and retirement benefits and COLA. 

He also said the insurance company’s two-tier pay system is an important sticking point. The union wants to bridge the gap between two wage tiers. It takes, he said, employees 15 to 20 years, to advance to the higher tier and make more money. 

“We just want a fair and equal contract,” he said. Negotiations are ongoing, he said, and the union is waiting for a response and hopes to get some answers by the end of this week. 

Blessett, who prices claims in her role at BCBSM, has been with the company for more than two decades. This is her first time on the picket line and she said she is motivated to fight for better conditions for her coworkers. She knows colleagues, she said, who have more than one job.

Maisha Blessett, 50 of Detroit, is a Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan employee who was out on strike demanding better wages and benefits on Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2023. She is among 1,000 workers who have been out on the picket line for more than a month. (Photo by Nushrat Rahman)

During the pandemic, workers like her physically came into work because, she said, they were regarded as essential workers. 

“We’re the ones that kept the company going during that time,” she said. 

She’s on strike because, with the sky-high cost of living, workers should not have to work multiple jobs.

“Nobody should be working a 40 plus hour week, going to work another 40 hour week job because they can’t afford to pay their rent, to feed their kids and things of that nature,” she said.

Blessett said she’s thankful for her job because it has allowed her to raise her kids and live comfortably. At the same time, she wants to see improvements. It’s her first time out on the picket line. 

In a statement, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan said it has “put contingencies in place” to continue providing services but there are longer wait times over the phone. The Blue Care Network is not a part of the strike.  

“We encourage our members and customers to use our online and app-based services during this period, and we regret the inconvenience caused by this situation – which we desire to resolve quickly, consistent with the spirit of collective bargaining, with our partners at the UAW,” the statement said.

Nursing home workers

A new strike involving nursing homes in the region started last week. Nearly 250 workers at Fountain Bleu in Livonia, Four Seasons in Westland and Greenfield in Royal Oak started striking last week, according to SEIU Healthcare Michigan. At issue are staffing levels, wages and benefits.

In June, the union ended an eight-day strike at a Redford nursing home with a tentative contract, and early in the year threatened to strike two nursing home groups as it renegotiated contracts.

Auto workers 

The United Auto Workers’ historic strike against the Detroit Three automakers — General Motors, Ford Motor Co. and Stellantis — crossed the one month mark last weekend, with 34,000 workers picketing at 44 sites across the country.

The union has a number of demands, including eliminating wage tiers, a 40% wage increase and restoring the cost-of-living adjustment (COLA). As the three automakers made record profits and CEOs received millions in compensation, the union says workers deserve higher wages, too. 

Meanwhile, companies continue to lose production, with GM estimating the cost of the UAW strike at two sites to be about $200 million during the company’s third quarter call

Union workers at ZF Chassis Systems Alabama, which produces axles for a Mercedes-Benz factory, ratified a contract Thursday after being on strike for strike for nearly a month.

Fain on Friday said UAW workers at Thombert, Inc., which makes wheels and tires for forklifts, in Iowa; at Dometic, which makes appliances like coolers for boats and RVs, in Pennsylvania and at West Rock, a packaging company in New Jersey, are still on strike. Nearly 4,000 UAW workers are on strike at Mack Trucks in three states.

“They’re holding the line for a fair contract and are holding out against concessions,” Fain said.  

The UAW also represents workers at General Dynamics, a defense contractor. Last week, 1,100 members in Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania voted to authorize a strike. Contracts expire Oct. 22. 

Free Press staff writers Jamie L. LaReau, Phoebe Wall Howard, Eric D. Lawrence and JC Reindl contributed to this report with previous reporting.

Nushrat Rahman covers issues related to economic mobility for the Detroit Free Press and BridgeDetroit as a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.

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