Union UNITE HERE Local 54 will avoid striking against Carl Ichan and Atlantic City’s Trump Taj Mahal Casino but are ready and willing if necessary.
ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — In recent weeks, workers at the Taj Mahal casino have been loading a storage pod with all the necessary gear they need for a looming strike. Amongst the tools they place in the pod were a bull horn and “Randy,” an inflatable rat meant to symbolize dirty business practices. This move is the latest salvo in a mounting struggle between Taj Mahal workers and incoming casino owner, billionaire Carl Icahn.
The battle between the casino workers, represented by UNITE HERE Local 54, and Carl Icahn has been gaining momentum this summer. Currently Icahn is in the process of acquiring the casino from bankruptcy court, though the transfer is not yet official. In the court proceedings, the union is demanding the restoration of health insurance and pension benefits, which were stripped away by the previous owner, Trump Entertainment Resorts, as part of a $14.6 million cost cutting campaign. Icahn has called the benefits unaffordable, and he contends that he will close the casino if the appeals court reinstates the health and pension benefits.
Prefer to see this story unfold? Watch Building a Sandcastle: The Struggle for Healthcare in Atlantic City:
Union leaders and workers see the fight at the Taj Mahal as bigger than the one casino. If Local 54 doesn’t regain benefits and pensions, the rest of the casinos in Atlantic City can negotiate the same contract with the remaining 9,000 union members throughout the region, through what is referred to as a “most-favored employer” clause. For this reason, the struggle at Taj Mahal is ground zero for the future of casino work in the city.
With their backs to the wall, Taj workers have kept the heat on Icahn throughout the summer. In June, workers did a civil disobedience action outside of the entrance to the Taj Mahal casino and over 70 workers were arrested. Later that month, Unite Here released a report that detailed that amongst other things, 44% of the 1,000 workers they surveyed at the Taj Mahal do not have health care and another 23% of Taj Mahal workers are dependent on medicaid or other forms of federal or state health care. Finally on July 17, Taj Mahal workers overwhelmingly voted to authorize a strike at the casino. Ben Begleiter, spokesperson for UNITE HERE Local 54 explained, “they shouldn’t have a license to kill at the Taj Mahal…. they killed workers health care and job security and now they are retaliating against workers that are standing up for themselves.”
“Our whole livelihood, the welfare of this city, depends on these workers getting the contracts they deserve…”
The problems in the casino industry have had a ripple effect throughout the region, with long-term joblessness rate among the highest in the country. Rev. John Scotland, a Presbyterian minister in Brigantine captures the growing concern: “Our whole livelihood, the welfare of this city, depends on these workers getting the contracts they deserve….that was the promise the casinos made when they came here….and they’re taking their money and running to places like New York and building buildings instead of taking care of the community here.”
Taj Mahal workers have been appealing to Icahn directly to reinstate health care through a series of short videos, which detail the dire consequences of having their insurance cancelled. Paul Smith, who has been at the Taj for 21 years, is now just scraping by: “I had to move from my apartment into a 1 bedroom with friends because I can’t afford rent and because everything is going to my medical expenses. I need 3 surgeries…I was scheduled for surgery about 2 weeks after Carl Icahn took my benefits away, so I had to cancel that because I would have ended up paying cash and there’s no way I could afford that.”
Patrice Mays, who is suffering from advanced stages of multiple forms of cancer was on her husband’s health insurance through his job at Taj Mahal, expressed how her family is coping. “Right now, we’re paying out of pocket…it’s getting in the way of my mortgage, it’s getting in the way of my medications…We try, we go without just so that we can make the insurance payment, but in a minute we’re going to be in trouble.”
“We are giving them one more chance to do the right thing before we strike.”
While the situation is dire workers are still attempting to avoid a strike. The last time casino workers went on strike was in Atlantic City, 10,000 workers left the job for a 32-day strike in 2004. The situation in Atlantic City since those strikes has taken a turn for the worse as multiple casinos have been shuttered and thousands of jobs have been lost. The workers are prepared to strike, however, as Begleiter explains it, “we are giving them one more chance to do the right thing before we strike.”
Icahn Enterprises was asked to respond to the story and video, but no response was given.