Atlantic City’s main casino union filed a complaint Wednesday with national labor officials challenging the suspension of 21 workers who took part in a protest last week at Tropicana Casino and Resort.
Local 54 of UNITE-HERE told the National Labor Relations Board that the workers were exercising their constitutional right to free speech during a peaceful act of “civil disobedience.”
In a letter to the NLRB accompanying the complaint, Local 54’s attorney wrote, “Tropicana, however, chose to use this demonstration to restrain, coerce and intimidate its employees by suspending shop stewards and bargaining committee members.”
Tropicana President Tony Rodio defended the suspensions, saying that the workers engaged in “illegal activity” and disrupted the casino’s business for about an hour. He denied any union leaders were targeted by Tropicana.
“We didn’t pick and choose. We suspended any of the employees who engaged in illegal activities at our doorsteps,” Rodio said. “We suspended every Tropicana employee who was arrested.”
Altogether, 49 union members were arrested Friday evening when they sat down in the roadway and blocked traffic near Tropicana’s entrance. Tropicana responded by suspending 21 of its workers who participated in the protest, the latest twist in an ongoing contract dispute.
Tropicana has suspended the workers indefinitely and indicated they may be fired, depending on the outcome of disciplinary action. Rodio said no final decisions have been made.
Local 54 is asking the NLRB to seek an injunction to stop Tropicana and get the employees back to work. Bob McDevitt cq, the union president, criticized Rodio cqfor the suspensions.
“We’ve done civil disobedience before, and no company has had the audacity to fire its workers over it. This just shows how outrageous Tony Rodio’s leadership is,” McDevitt said.
Rodio responded that Local 54 is wrongly trying to cast Tropicana’s management “as a villain.” He said union members broke the law this time, unlike a larger Local 54 demonstration at Tropicana in April that resulted in no arrests.
“There’s a big distinction between lawfully conducting yourself and breaking the law. I think that needs to be pointed out,” Rodio said.
Local 54 has 14,000 members and is Atlantic City’s largest casino union. It represents bartenders, cocktail servers, cooks, housekeeping staff and other service workers. Tropicana is the only casino that has not reached a new deal with Local 54 since the old union contract expired last September.
Tropicana and Local 54 have clashed following the casino’s decision in February to declare an impasse in their contract negotiations. Tropicana unilaterally imposed its own contract terms on the Local 54 members, including ending their traditional pension plan. Over the union’s objections, Tropicana now gives Local 54 members the option of accepting cash payments or enrolling in a 401(k) plan instead of participating in the former pension program.
Local 54’s protest was in reaction to the pension dispute. New Jersey State AFL-CIO President Charles Wowkanech cqcalled on Tropicana to return to the bargaining table to negotiate the pension payments.
“This is a new low for Tropicana in labor relations. No other casino has suspended their workers from their jobs for engaging in the peaceful protest,” Wowkanech said in a statement.
Rodio, however, said he will not reopen negotiations.
“It’s simply not an option,” he said. “We had tried to negotiate for three months and they ignored us. Now, all of a sudden, they want to negotiate.”
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