One of New Jersey’s most high-profile labor leaders is facing an election challenge from two rivals who claim he has been in office too long and has lost touch with the casino workers he represents.
Bob McDevitt, president of Local 54 of UNITE-HERE since 1996, counters that his opponents are dissidents who “show up” at elections in a grab for power and then vanish when the union members reject their bid for office.
“They slander me or the union. Then they lose the election. Then they disappear for three years. They participate in nothing,” McDevitt said.
At stake in Friday’s election is the leadership of Atlantic City’s largest and most powerful casino union for the next three years. Local 54 represents housekeeping personnel, cocktail servers, bartenders, cooks and other service workers at 11 of the 12 casinos.
Over the years, the 51-year-old McDevitt, an Atlantic City resident, has fashioned a reputation as an outspoken union president who is not afraid to confront the casinos. He led Local 54 in highly publicized strikes against the casino industry in 1999 and 2004.
McDevitt says the union membership is currently about 13,500, down from its 2006 peak of 15,500. His opponents contend the membership is really closer to 11,600, blaming McDevitt for the slide. McDevitt says thousands of jobs have been lost throughout the casino industry due to Atlantic City’s six-year slump in business.
So far, McDevitt and Local 54 have been unable to unionize Revel Casino-Hotel, Atlantic City’s newest casino. McDevitt’s opponents criticize him for what they say is his failure to negotiate in a business-like manner to reach a settlement with Revel.
“McDevitt tried to bully the casino. He wants to use force to negotiate better contracts,” said John Johnson , a Caesars Atlantic City buffet server who leads one of the opposition slates.
McDevitt defended his tactics, saying, “You don’t get a nonunion company to be union by being nice.” McDevitt added that union-organizing efforts have begun at Revel, although he declined to divulge details while Local 54 is in the midst of building a campaign.
Johnson, who has been in the casino industry for 20 years, is seeking the union presidency for the first time. He characterizes his election team as a collection of newcomers who hope to overhaul Local 54 with fresh ideas and member-friendly reforms.
“We feel the current president has been there too long,” said Johnson, 39, of Egg Harbor Township.
McDevitt said Johnson and his allies are running in the election simply because they are angry at Local 54 for not supporting their attempts to bypass the union’s seniority rules after they were transferred to other casino jobs.
McDevitt also claimed that Johnson and his running mates have been disinterested in union affairs. He said they didn’t participate in the latest round of Local 54 contract negotiations or the union’s community relief programs following Hurricane Sandy.
The other opposition slate is headed by Al Tabei , a former McDevitt ally who is making his third bid for Local 54’s presidency. Tabei lost to McDevitt in 2007 and 2010. Tabei said he initially didn’t want to run again but decided to jump into the election after union members urged him to challenge McDevitt’s power structure.
“They kept calling me and asking me to run. In their view, there was no other credible or qualified candidate out there,” said Tabei, 62, of Somerdale, Camden County. “Bob McDevitt has failed us miserably. First and foremost, he has used his office to further his personal and political agenda.”
Tabei, a 25-year casino worker, said he was fired in May from his bartending job at Bally’s Atlantic City. He said he lost his job for allegedly violating company policy forbidding employees from punching off the clock more than three minutes after their shift has ended. Claiming he was unjustly fired, Tabei says he is fighting Bally’s parent company Caesars Entertainment in arbitration.
McDevitt made no mention of Tabei’s firing in an interview with The Press of Atlantic City. But he criticized Tabei for his campaign tactics, including posting cartoons on his website that depict McDevitt as a cash-hungry leader detached from the union members.
“The Tabei group, they make things up,” McDevitt said. “They insult everyone. They slander me, but it’s really an insult against the union members.”
Tabei slammed McDevitt for his alleged “lies and deceptions.” In an interview, Tabei stopped short of accusing McDevitt of personal corruption, but called for an investigation of Local 54 business practices.
While Johnson accused McDevitt of being too combative with the casinos, particularly Revel, Tabei contended McDevitt has been too cozy with the casino companies. Tabei argued that McDevitt has agreed to far too many concessions in the union contracts negotiated last year.
“He has given back all of our gains over the past 40 years,” Tabei said. “Throughout his office, in 17 years, he has been a big advocate for the company instead of the membership.”
Since 2011, Local 54 has been able to negotiate new contracts with all casinos where it has workers except for Tropicana Casino and Resort. Disagreement over the pension plan has prevented both sides from reaching agreement at Tropicana.
McDevitt said despite the casino industry’s economic meltdown, Local 54 has won new contracts that provide for pay raises and preserve the union’s pension and medical benefits.
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