On a recent scorching Sunday afternoon in Atlantic City, New Jersey, more than two dozen striking workers from UNITE HERE Local 54 walked in a tight circle on the boardwalk in front of the Trump Taj Mahal chanting “Taj Mahal, on strike! If we don’t win, shut it down!”
Casino workers walked off the job early on the morning of July 1 after contract negotiations between Local 54 and owner and multi-billionaire Carl Icahn failed.
Last week, the strike, which is now the longest in Atlantic City since the first casino opened almost 40 years ago, was dealt a fatal blow. Taj Mahal Entertainment, the company that runs the casino, announced that it will close this fall due to lackluster profits and the negative impact of the strike on the casino’s bottom line.
The struggle between Local 54 and Icahn over a number of worker concerns — including the lack of health care and pension benefits, along with mostly stagnant hourly wages — has been ongoing since Icahn assumed ownership of the casino this past March.
Employees lost their health care and pension benefits 23 months ago when the casino’s previous owner, Avenue Capital Group, filed for bankruptcy in 2014, making workers at the Taj Mahal the first casino employees to go without heath care since the industry opened shop in Atlantic City in 1978.
While many workers have enrolled in government programs to make up for the gap in health care coverage, 33 percent still have no coverage, according to a UNITE HERE Local 54 survey from earlier this year. For some, the absence of health care can prove fatal. One striker, Esau Ivan Madrid, who had a health condition which required regular medical attention that he couldn’t afford, died last month.
Another workplace concern is wages. Workers with the most seniority have seen just 80 cents per hour in raises over the last 12 years, while the cost of living has increased by almost 25 percent. On average, the housekeepers, servers, bellmen and cooks at the Taj Mahal make $11.17 an hour. Moreover, following the bankruptcy proceedings in 2014, employees lost their paid lunch breaks and the number of rooms housekeepers were required to clean increased from 14 to 16 rooms per eight-hour shift, which means housekeepers are often running from room to room to make the quota.
Tina Condos, a casino floor cocktail waitress who has worked at the Taj Mahal for the past 26 years, said that employees in the hospitality industry “do the jobs that nobody else wants. We work weekends, nights and holidays. There’s been many a Christmas where I had to get up and celebrate with my four children at 3 a.m. so I would be at work.”
Condos makes $8.99 an hour and hasn’t had a raise in almost 12 years.
She is also a cancer survivor and suffers from asthma. When asked how she has been getting by without health care for the last 23 months, Condos said she stocked up on her three different cancer medications for which she’s been paying out-of-pocket because she was worried she might not have the money to buy them in the coming weeks. She also tries to cut back on using her inhaler.
“You try not to hit the inhaler so much. You try to savor it,” Condos said.
Condos, along with nearly 200 of the 1,000 Taj Mahal employees on strike, has worked at the Taj Mahal since it opened in 1990.
“When I started this job, there was no question. You knew you were going to get a salary, a pension and benefits,” said Al Wallinger, who has worked as a bellhop at the Taj Mahal since opening day.
Wallinger said that the Taj Mahal’s financial decline, coupled with Icahn’s refusal to reinstate health care and pension benefits, is difficult for employees to watch.
“We’re a family, we all know each other,” Wallinger said. “It’s kind of sad that this has gotten to this point. Personally, I never thought this place would do this.”
As contract negotiations got under way this spring for five of Atlantic City’s eight casinos, Local 54 members were prepared to go on strike if they didn’t see commitments to increased wages and health care benefits. Of the 24,000 employees at the eight casinos in Atlantic City, 10,000 belong to Local 54.
The four other casinos that were also in contract negotiations — Caesars, Bally’s, Harrah’s and the Tropicana (which Icahn also owns) — managed to reach agreements before the midnight deadline on June 30.
Wallinger, who also worked for 10 years at the Playboy casino before starting at the Taj Mahal, says that Local 54 members, regardless of which casino they work at, will come out to support union members when they’re on strike.
“I’ve helped other casinos out over the years, we all picketed with them,” Wallinger said. “We have to do this. And at one time it was the whole city that may have gone out on strike. But the other casinos got their contracts. Everybody but us.”
While the Taj Mahal has only had one other strike — a three-day walkout in 1999 that was part of a city-wide strike — the current strike at the Taj Mahal is Wallinger’s sixth in 36 years. The longest strike in Atlantic City, until the recent walk-out at the Taj Mahal, was a city-wide strike in 2004 that lasted for 34 days.
Another tactic that Local 54 has used to raise awareness of workers losing their healthcare and pension benefits was to organize a boycott of the Taj Mahal starting in the fall of 2014, and a number of regular customers took their business elsewhere.
Ben Begleiter, a spokesperson for UNITE HERE Local 54, says that the push for workplace rights at the Taj Mahal is directly connected with the struggle to form unions in the gaming industry.
“All over the East Coast, when casino workers talk about good jobs, the example that’s held up is Atlantic City,” Begleiter said. “So the need to expand those jobs is paramount to the ability to get representation for workers.”
A history of broken promises
Back in the 1870s, Atlantic City was a bustling seaside resort, known for its beaches and wooden boardwalk, and, when the city reached its heyday during prohibition, for easy access to liquor and gambling.
By the late 1950s, though, Atlantic City’s golden age began to fade. The increased availability of cars meant that tourists could visit for a few days rather than weeks, and cheaper plane flights and suburban affluence meant that tourists could eschew the Jersey shore for the recently-opened Disneyland or the Bahamas.
When New Jersey voters decided to legalize gambling in Atlantic City in 1976, the Garden State became the only location in the country other than Nevada where casinos were permitted. The decision to allow gambling in Atlantic City was an attempt to breathe new life into the city’s struggling economy, transforming many jobs from seasonal summer gigs to solid careers that offered a pathway to the middle class.
However, the history of the gambling industry in Atlantic City has been riddled with broken promises. While the casinos have created jobs, they have also routinely failed to contribute to the development of the city as a whole and have been slow to invest money in community projects, despite being legally obligated to do so. Since 1984, casinos have reinvested 1.25 percent of their annual revenue into community and economic development projects through the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, or CRDA, which has pumped $1.5 billion into Atlantic City since 2011. While one of the CRDA’s original initiatives was housing and neighborhood development, most of the authority’s recent projects are aimed at bringing tourists to the shore.
The last decade has been rough for Atlantic City. The increasing number of competing casinos in Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and New York, coupled with the ripple effect of the economic recession in 2007 and Hurricane Sandy in 2012, led to the closure of four of the city’s 12 casinos, and the loss of 8,000 jobs, in 2014.
The gambling industry is starting to make a comeback, with casino operating profits up 40 percent from 2014 to 2015, and the Taj Mahal posting an operating profit of $3.1 million in 2015, compared to an operating loss of $1.1 million in 2014. However, the rest of Atlantic City is barely limping along. The city’s tax base decreased by 70 percent after the casino closures in 2014, and the city has more than $550 million in debt. Further, according to data released during the first half of 2016, Atlantic County has the highest foreclosure rate of any major U.S. metropolitan area. Legislation approved by New Jersey lawmakers this past spring gives the city until this fall to craft a plan to balance its municipal budget for the next five years. Otherwise, a state takeover could be triggered.
Workers have repeatedly made concessions with the hope that casinos will be able to keep their doors open. In 2011, workers at many of the city’s casinos, including the Taj Mahal, agreed to significant reductions in paid time off, overtime and severance contributions in order to help keep their health care benefits and keep the industry afloat. These concessions meant casino service workers’ take home pay took a significant hit.
For Condos, the difference between what she could accomplish when she started working at the Taj Mahal and now is stark.
“I was able to support my family and take care of all their healthcare. I can’t do that anymore,” Condos said, noting that, for her two children that have braces, “it’s like they’re slapped on their mouth and you can’t fix them.”
The ‘eighth wonder of the world’
When the Taj Mahal opened in 1990, then-owner Donald Trump described the casino as “the eighth wonder of the world.” Trump spent $1.1 billion to build the casino, and even flew in Michael Jackson for the opening. A year later, the Taj Mahal filed the first of four bankruptcies
While the casino’s once-grand exterior, replete with gold-topped minarets, still conjures images of the Indian mausoleum for which it is named, the building is rundown and ragged, with the $16 million chandeliers that Trump installed in 1990 reminding customers of a more glamorous era.
From 1990 through 2000, the Taj Mahal was the most profitable casino in Atlantic City. But while Donald Trump collected millions in salary the casino still floundered, due to high amounts of debt. After two more bankruptcies in 2004 and 2009 Trump gave up his ownership stake in the company, and Avenue Capital Group took over in 2010.
When the Taj Mahal declared bankruptcy in 2014, Icahn (who is often referred to as a “corporate raider”) gained ownership of the casino by buying up its debt at a steep discount. He used the same approach when he purchased the Tropicana in 2010. Icahn pledged to pour $100 million into improvements to the dilapidated casino. However, Icahn has only spent $15 million so far on fixes that guests will easily spot, including 250 new slot machines and offering live entertainment every night in the recently renovated Ego lounge. Prior to his decision to close the Taj Mahal, Icahn said he would hold off on putting in more money until New Jersey residents vote this November on a referendum asking voters to decide whether to allow gambling in North Jersey.
According to interviews with Taj Mahal employees, the improvements that Icahn has made are far from enough, and many problems that had begun with Avenue Capital Group have only gotten worse. Currently, elevators are consistently on the fritz, ice machines are broken, and a section of the roof on the 39-story Chairman Tower that was damaged during Hurricane Sandy in 2012 has yet to be repaired. Even the insulated carts that staff use to transport food during the 10-minute walk from the kitchen to the in-house restaurants have broken wheels, making it difficult for workers to move them.
‘Stay steady on our course’
At a demonstration late last month outside of the Taj Mahal, the mood was defiant, with chants of “si se puede” and “all day, all night, everybody’s on strike.” Around 1,500 union members from along the East Coast attended — including members from UNITE HERE locals in New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., as well as the New Jersey AFL-CIO.
The Taj Mahal has filed notices with the state labor department, and the casino is scheduled to close on October 10. Trump Entertainment Resorts previously filed a similar notice with the department back in September 2014 when the company was in the midst of bankruptcy proceedings, but the casino ended up staying open.
While nearly 3,000 workers will lose their jobs if the casino closes, employees are disappointed but Local 54 members will continue the strike.
“The workers don’t want to see this place close down. They want to see it thrive. They want to see it do better,” said Diana Hussein, a UNITE HERE spokesperson who has been on the ground with the workers since May.
Frank Joseph has worked as a chef at the Taj Mahal for 22 years. Joseph, who has eight children, all of whom are on track to graduate from college, says that they were part of the reason why it is important for him to participate in the strike.
“My fight is not about me anymore because I’m almost done,” Joseph said. “My fight now is for the young people because older people fought and worked hard for me to have what I have today, and I have to continue to fight for them, too.”
Condos, who recently started a part-time job working the twilight shift at Bally’s Atlantic City, will be splitting her time between work and the picket line. She says that while the closure of the Taj Mahal will be difficult, the struggle continues.
“In a community like this, it’s going to be devastating. We’re a tight community. I’m hoping our politicians and our government don’t let Icahn do business like this,” Condos said. “Nothing worth fighting for is ever achieved without personal sacrifice and will. We’re going to stay steady on our course.”