NJ casino workers on strike in fight with corporate raider

As the July 4 weekend gets underway in Atlantic City, New Jersey, nearly 1000 cooks, housekeepers, porters, and servers, members of UNITE HERE Local 54, began a strike against the Trump Taj Mahal casino.

The workers are seeking a decent pay raise and the restoration of their health care benefits that were stripped from them during bankruptcy proceedings in 2014.

The casino’s owner, Carl Ichan, who, according to Forbes, is worth $16.3 billion,  has said that he can’t afford to restore the workers’ benefits.

The average pay for the workers on strike is $12 an hour. About one-third of them have no health care insurance because they can’t afford it, and the rest must purchase their insurance from health insurance exchanges created by the Affordable Care Act.

“It’s time that the billionaire who owns the Taj use the millions in profits he’s taken from the Taj Mahal to provide the people who built those profits with a decent wage and good benefits that let us support our families,” said Mayra Gonzalez, a pantry chef at the Taj Mahal for 26 years. “We’ve given them every chance possible to do the right thing, now we’re going to take it to the streets.”

Donald Trump opened the Taj Mahal in 1990 and called it “the eighth wonder of the world.”

In 1991 he sold a 50 percent stake in the casino to bondholders, who helped finance its construction.

A company created by Trump, Trump Hotels and Casino Resorts, which eventually became known as Trump Entertainment Resorts, purchased the Taj in 1996.

The company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2004 and 2009.

During the 2009 bankruptcy, Trump sold Trump Entertainment Resorts to Avenue Capital Management but maintained a 10 percent share.

During the next five years, Trump Entertainment Resorts sold off all of its properties except the Taj Mahal.

In 2014, Trump Entertainment Resorts filed bankruptcy again. One of its main creditors at the time was Carl Ichan.

At the insistence of its creditors most, notably Ichan, the Taj Mahal filed a reorganization plan that among other things called for it to strip its union workers of their health care and pension benefits.

Local 54 objected to the proposal, but a bankruptcy judge sided with the casino and its creditors.

In 2016, the Taj again emerged from bankruptcy after it was sold to Ichan Enterprises LP. Trump himself no longer owned any interest in the Taj.

Not long after that, Local 54 began preparing for collective bargaining negotiations with the owners of the Taj and four other Atlantic City casinos: Bally’s, Harrah’s, and Caesar’s, all owned by Caesar’s Entertainment Corp., and the Tropicana, another Ichan property.

When the casino business in Atlantic City fell on hard times, Local 54 made concessions to casino owners. but recently, things have turned around.

In 2015, the casinos were operating profitably again largely because four of the city’s casinos had gone out of business, reducing competition.

As a result, Local 54 was looking to make up for lost ground.

But an agreement with the five casinos proved to be elusive.

As a result, the union conducted a strike vote on June 16, and 96 percent of the members voted to authorize a strike at the five casinos on July 1 if a fair agreements could not be reached.

The union continued to bargain, and just before the strike deadline, it reached an agreement with four of the casinos–the one holdout was the Taj.

Local 54 President Bob McDevitt told Philly.com that the health care package offered by Taj Mahal management was “not even close to health plans of the other casinos.”

As a result, McDevitt and other Local 54 leaders began contacting members to tell them not to report to work on July 1.

Those still working when the 6:00 A.M. strike deadline came walked off the job.

As union workers streamed out of Taj, the union established a picket line, which grew as workers who were off the job arrived and joined the picketing.

Members of Roofers Local 30, working on a repair project, came to work Friday morning, but when they saw the picket line, they refused to cross it.

About a week before the strike began, New Jersey state AFL-CIO President Charles Wowkanech said that the casino strikers would have the full backing of the one million member state labor federation.

“The real issue is with these billionaire union-busters like Carl Icahn that just come into a place, suck the money out of it, drive down wages, benefits, so that the whole community at large suffers,” said Wowkanec. “We’re not going to let this guy come into our town, the strongest union town in this state, and take over.”

According to UNITE HERE, Ichan has extracted $350 million from the Taj and “used the bankruptcy proceeding to strip Taj Mahal workers of health benefits, retirement security and even paid breaks. Overall, he cut worker compensation in wages and benefits by 35 percent.”

“We have said from the beginning that it is impossible to revitalize Atlantic City unless the casino industry offers good jobs that let workers support their families,” said McDevitt. “Four other casinos have recognized that simple fact, and it’s a shame that the Trump Taj Mahal can’t get with the program.”

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