United Auto Workers union sign-up cards circulate among 3,500 gaming employees at the Mashantucket Pequot-run casino.

David Ellsworth first went to work at Foxwoods Resort Casino more than nine years ago, dealing cards at the same table games he liked to play.

"I enjoy both sides of the table," he said.

But that joy has been eroded in recent months, the 48-year-old Norwich man said, by the management's odd promises, eroded benefits and ever-changing policies.

"I believe this is a profession that should be respected," Ellsworth said. "Sometimes I feel that Foxwoods wants cheap bodies behind the table versus the experience."

Now, as United Auto Workers union sign-up cards circulate among 3,500 gaming employees at the Mashantucket Pequot-run casino, Ellsworth has landed in the middle of the drive. He has been suspended from his job, reinstated after the UAW filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board and, upon his return, lauded with a standing ovation by co-workers in the cafeteria.

"I just feel that we're part of a change, a much needed change," he said. "We're going to have a voice in our own future now."

Mashantucket spokesman Bruce MacDonald said the casino administration does believe there is a need for a union and Foxwoods remains a good place to work.
"We respect our employees," he said. "We don't feel we need an intermediary."

The administration, MacDonald said, declined to talk about the UAW charges now under investigation with the labor board's Hartford office. In three separate charges that encompass a number of allegations, the UAW alleges Foxwoods has spied on employees' union activities, threatened retaliation as well as termination and offered employees bribes to cease their union support. Ellsworth's suspension was also part of the charges.

John Cotter, assistant regional director for the board, said the investigation will probably take six to eight weeks to determine whether to proceed with a complaint.

"Complaints are very common," Cotter said. "About 40 percent of our cases are found to have merit."

If the two sides cannot settle the matter, he said, the issue will be litigated to end the discrimination.

Ellsworth said he wants respect and a voice.

"The sands only seem to be shifting one way lately," he said, "and it wasn't for our benefit."

Reach Erica Jacobson of the Norwich (Mass.) Bulletin at 425-4241 or ejacobs@norwichbulletin.com.