Working together

In 1995 at the Fourth World Conference on Women in China, there were women who described abuse they endured at the hands of governments, spouses or partners, or non-government entities around the world. They were from nations like Algeria that, with our Western bias, would probably not surprise us. But they were also from nations like Ireland.

Daphne Scholinski of the United States spoke at the conference.

“Most of my childhood, I was mistaken for a boy,” she said.

Plagued with childhood depression, she was committed to a mental hospital where, unfortunately, someone put a name on her problem: gender identity disorder.

“The goals set for me were to learn about make-up, dress more like a girl, curl and style my hair, and spend quality time learning about girl things with female peers—like, what boys like.”

Harrah’s Casino didn’t go that far in the case of Darlene Jesperson, who declined to wear make-up under a new company program. Instead, ignoring past service, company loyalty, customer praise, and an excellent work record, Harrah’s cast her out.

But that is not all there is to this case. Most of the attention in news coverage has been on the worker and the corporation. However, there is more to be said. The fault for the difficulties faced by casino workers doesn’t lie just with the casinos—it also lies with the workers themselves.

Although Jesperson enjoyed substantial support among her fellow workers (as well as, to be sure, some disdain), they were never heard from. When Jesperson needed support, she found it where she could, from Lambda Legal, Nevada’s Alliance for Workers Rights, and a few fellow workers.

This is a chronic problem with casino workers. In dispute after dispute, the casinos win because the workers won’t support each other or even themselves. Remaining silent and fearful, they do the corporations’ work. When times are good, they stay silent. When times are hard, they stay silent. Jesperson’s fight was newsworthy in part because it was so rare.

Five years ago, casinos were experiencing one of the worst labor shortages in the industry’s history. They were putting together worker benefit packages and running television ads begging for applicants. It was exactly the time for workers to get some protections for themselves, but because they had never bothered to develop any kind of unified voice, they were in no position to make demands of any kind. Today the industry is back in the driver’s seat, and nothing has changed.

The conduct of the industry in the Jesperson case is no surprise, but the lethargy of casino workers never fails to astonish. It is difficult to take seriously their complaints of working conditions when they won’t stand up for themselves.

The casinos have a responsibility to their workers, but the workers have a responsibility to themselves, too—and to each other. If conditions and rights within the casinos are ever to improve, workers must begin to speak up for themselves and each other. Sister Act, a 1992 movie set in part in Reno casinos, contained a song, one lyric from which said, "If my sister’s in trouble, so am I." Americans need to take this idea to heart.