Several Tropicana Casino and Resort workers suspended for a month after protesting at the casino returned to the streets with picket signs — and other casino workers — in another attempt to force the casino to negotiate a contract.
Local 54 of UNITE HERE remains angry over Tropicana’s decision in February to declare an impasse in the contract talks. At that time, Tropicana unilaterally imposed its own contract terms on Local 54’s members, including ending their traditional pension plan.
Tony Rodio, Tropicana’s president and chief executive officer, characterized the Local 54 protest as an “utter waste of time.”
“It’s a frivolous exercise,” he said. “What they don’t understand — the union or the members — is that they can pick and demonstrate 24-seven for the next five years and there’s no way the company is going to change their stance on this.”
Rodio said the pension plan is underfunded by about $1.5 billion and would have put Tropicana’s finances at risk if the casino did not withdraw from it. 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.
“We have fiduciary responsibility to our shareholders, and it’s just out of the question,” he said.
But the employees say they have given years to the casino, and they just want to receive the same benefits they were promised when they began their jobs decades ago.
“I want Tropicana to come back to the table so we can negotiate a fair contract,” said Shari Schugar, 50, a cocktail server at the casino since it opened in 1981. “Give us something so we can vote not (Rodio).”
Schugar, who has two children and is paying for college, said the month without work was difficult. She said she was shocked when she received the call that she would be suspended for participating in the June 15 protest in which 49 union members were arrested for sitting in the roadway and blocking traffic to the casino.
Rodio said the arrests show the suspensions were warranted.
“There’s a difference between their right to protest and picket and breaking the law,” he said Saturday. “They’ve been handling themselves fine today, so I don’t see there being any issues this time.”
He noted that there didn’t seem to be a large turnout for the daylong protest, which spanned the block in front of the casino on Pacific Avenue. Some protesters said the suspensions may have kept others from participating.
“If you follow the rules, there’s nothing they can do,” said Danny Newmones, of Pleasantville, a 23-year employee who was not at the protest that got workers arrested.
He said he was not worried about retaliation.
“They’ve already taken a lot from us,” he said.
“It’s a short-term pain for a long-term gain,” Local 54 President Bob McDevitt said, calling Tropicana “a criminal enterprise.”
“I’m fighting for a contract right now,” said Stan Cherry, a cook who has worked at the casino for 25 years.
But he said it was difficult to be without work for a month while raising three children in Mays Landing.
“They’re going to do what they’re going to do,” said Rodney Mills Jr., 38, who — despite his one-month suspension — said he was not worried about retaliation by the casino. “I feel I’m doing the right thing morally. They just need to treat the employees fairly and sign a contract.”
Staff writer Donald Wittkowski contributed to this report.
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