Playing Against the House (Hardcover)

The Dramatic World of an Undercover Union Organizer

By James D. Walsh

Scribner, 9781476778341, 288pp.

Publication Date: February 16, 2016

List Price: 26.00*
* Individual store prices may vary.


In the tradition of Barbara Ehrenreich’s classic Nickel and Dimed, a talented young journalist goes undercover as a casino labor-union organizer in this rare inside look at the ongoing struggle of hourly-wage service workers to survive in America.

“Salting” is a simple concept—get hired at a non-union company, do the job you were hired to do, and, with the help of organizers on the outside, unionize your coworkers from the inside. James Walsh spent two years as a “salt” in two casinos in South Florida, working as a buffet server and a bartender. Neither his employers nor the union knew of Walsh’s intentions to write about his experience. Now he reveals hard-won and little-known truths about how unions fight to organize service workers, the vigorous corporate opposition against them, and how workers get caught in the middle.

As a salt, Walsh witnessed the cultish nature of labor organization and was constantly grilled by his union organizer as to whether he had enough grit and determination to win converts to the cause while remaining undercover. At work, Walsh witnessed the oddities of casino life and management’s stunning mistreatment of service industry employees, most of whom were hanging on to economic survival by their fingernails. His meticulous reporting reveals supervisors berating workers for the smallest infractions, even as employees submit to relentless scrutiny, ever-changing work schedules, and the callous behavior of casino customers.

A clear-eyed and balanced account, Playing Against the House explores the trials of day-to-day life for the working poor and the face of twenty-first-century union organizing and union busting in unprecedented detail.

About the Author

James Walsh’s work has appeared on the websites of The New Yorker, Esquire, and GlobalPost. He is on the editorial staff at New York magazine. Playing Against the House is his first book.

Praise For Playing Against the House: The Dramatic World of an Undercover Union Organizer

"The degreeof commitment shown by this young author is stunning. James Walsh used his two years in low wage jobs to help bring a union fight to casino owners and, now, an original, first-hand account to readers. It's an up-close, empathetic portrait of the working poor, in particular the bravest among them, and what happens when idealism meets the sausage-making of union organizing." —Ted Conover, author of Rolling Nowhere and Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing

“James Walsh’s Playing Against the House is a brilliantly conceived and executed undercover expose about union rights at casinos. Set in South Florida, the narrative is full of compassion for the hard-working poor. Every page sizzles. This is New Journalism at its finest!” —Douglas Brinkley, author of Cronkite

“James Walsh has done a remarkable thing here. He has told a story of 21st-century union organizing, not through statistics and received wisdom, but through riveting, accessible first-person reporting. He humanizes the issue, deftly rendering everyone involved—from workers to management—and in the process, has created a necessary text that also happens to be a page-turner.” —Dave Eggers, cofounder of Voice of Witness and author of The Circle and A Hologram for The King

“With a balanced perspective and sharp eye, he reveals the tactics managers use to keep employees from unionizing. The book sketches in the history and politics of Florida's multibillion dollar casino industry, which is reliant on slot machines. It also examines casino culture, showing how Walsh's black coworkers were treated differently from white ones by both employers and customers. In an informative and gripping narrative, Walsh moves from the tactics of covert union organizing to the court case that will determine whether Mardi Gras employees who were fired for unionizing will regain their jobs. Walsh gives an insider's view of the gaming industry, placing the stories and struggles of his coworkers at the heart of this must-read book.”—Publishers Weekly

“Walsh does an engagingly readable job of humanizing the labor battle, showing just how much power the corporations wield and how long they can wait.”—Kirkus