They bashed each other in dueling billboard campaigns, television commercials and full-page newspaper ads filled with fiery rhetoric.
“Go to Atlantic City ... Just don’t go to Bally’s or Caesars,” was the message that the United Auto Workers union repeatedly used in its publicity blitz.
“Don’t let the UAW turn Atlantic City into the next Detroit,” Bally’s and Caesars shot back, alluding to the union’s setbacks representing auto workers in the Motor City.
That was 2009, perhaps the nastiest time during the UAW’s hard-fought effort to negotiate the first-ever union contracts for Atlantic City casino dealers. But three years later, there has been an improbable turnaround in relations between a few casinos and the UAW. Now, they are praising each other.
The UAW is hopeful that its friendlier ties with Bally’s, Caesars, and Tropicana Casino and Resort will help it as it prepares to renew its push to unionize table-games dealers at all 12 of the city’s casinos.
“We still have the same goal: We would like to organize each house in Atlantic City. Hopefully, in time, that will happen,” said Scott Adams, the UAW’s regional director for New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York. “Certainly, there is interest there. Eventually, our goal is to be involved and partner up with every house in Atlantic City.”
Adams said the UAW has no plan to create turmoil at other casinos. Instead, he pointed to the “partnership” that has evolved from the union deals at Bally’s, Caesars and Tropicana. Those three remain the only casinos where the UAW has been able to negotiate contracts since it first began its Atlantic City union drive six years ago.
Executives overseeing Bally’s, Caesars and Tropicana say the UAW has cooperated with them and helped the casinos to attract new convention business. Earlier fears that the union would disrupt casino operations have proved unfounded, they noted.
“They partnered with us extremely well in sending us their convention business, so there’s a positive with that,” said Don Marrandino, president of the Bally’s, Caesars, Harrah’s Resort and Showboat casinos owned by Caesars Entertainment Corp. “It started out as very bad, as everyone remembers. It was an adversarial relationship that’s now very good. We’ve made an early bad situation into a great situation.”
The UAW negotiated separate five-year deals at Caesars and Bally’s. The Caesars contract runs through Nov. 18, 2015, while the Bally’s pact expires Nov. 27, 2016. In what was a historic moment in Atlantic City labor relations, the UAW negotiated the first union contract for dealers at Tropicana in 2010. It runs through August 2015.
“They have been wonderful,” Tony Rodio, Tropicana’s president and chief executive officer, said of the UAW. “They have been a good business partner. They understand what is best for the property in bringing business here. They have been receptive to what we want to do.”
Interestingly, while it collaborates with the UAW, Tropicana is in the midst of a bitter contract dispute with another labor union, Local 54 of UNITE-HERE. Local 54, which represents bartenders, cocktail servers, cooks, housekeepers and other service workers, has been staging demonstrations at Tropicana to protest stalled contract talks.
Rodio noted the UAW’s efforts to attract group business to Tropicana, while Local 54’s supporters have been urging conventions to go to other Atlantic City casinos during the contract dispute. Tropicana has indefinitely suspended plans for a $25 million renovation project while the fight with Local 54 continues.
Rodio was once a critic of the UAW. In 2008, he opposed the UAW union drive while serving as president of the former Atlantic City Hilton Casino Resort, now known as the Atlantic Club Casino Hotel. The Hilton’s dealers turned down the union in a May 2008 election, representing a serious setback for the UAW.
Looking back on 2008, Rodio said he believed then that it was unnecessary to have a third party come between the casino’s management and its workers.
“I think that every employer would prefer to deal with employees on a one-to-one basis than through an organized group,” he said.
When the UAW first swept into town in 2006, it promised dealers higher wages, job security and better health benefits — along with less management interference — if they joined the union. But the UAW’s campaign fizzled, never coming close to plans to unionize dealers at every casino.
“It’s a tricky business. You saw how long it took us to get to where we got at Caesars, Bally’s and Tropicana,” Adams said of the protracted contract negotiations.
Michael Pollock, a casino analyst and managing director of Spectrum Gaming Group, said Atlantic City’s post-2006 economic meltdown has changed everything for the UAW. In 2006, Atlantic City’s gambling revenue peaked at $5.2 billion. By 2011, it had plunged to $3.3 billion, driven down by the sluggish economy and fierce competition from casinos in surrounding states.
Pollock said workers and management are more concerned than ever about tough times and simply feel “like they’re in it together” instead of wanting to fight over a union drive.
“Look at what has changed from 2006 and 2007 to today in Atlantic City. It’s a different world,” Pollock said. “The circumstances, to put it mildly, as they’ve changed, do not lend themselves to huge organizing activities. Workers have more immediate concerns.”
Pollock said he was not surprised to hear that Bally’s, Caesars and Tropicana now consider the UAW to be their partner, not their adversary.
“You see that in other industries as well,” he said. “You find common ground and common concerns and common battles to fight.”
Despite an upswing in relations with some casinos, the UAW appears to have a mammoth challenge ahead as it attempts to unionize dealers at other properties.
“I think all things being equal, the circumstances that would lend themselves to effective organizing campaigns are simply not present,” Pollock said.
Adams declined to disclose the UAW’s strategy for targeting other casinos. But his comments suggest the UAW will be less combative than in previous years.
“Economically, Atlantic City has been very hard hit. We are truly committed to trying to turn the city around,” he said.
Adams said the UAW voluntarily withdrew from the former Trump Marina Hotel Casino last year when it was rebranded as Golden Nugget Atlantic City under new ownership. He hopes to work out a deal with Golden Nugget’s parent company, Landry’s Inc., although he noted that dealers would first have to approve the UAW in an election before negotiations could begin there.
Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino won an appeals court ruling in May that overturned a National Labor Relations Board decision in favor of the UAW. The NLRB ruled Trump Plaza had illegally refused to bargain with the UAW after the casino’s dealers approved the union in 2007. But the appeals court has sent the case back to the NLRB for a new hearing to determine whether the Trump Plaza union election was tainted.
Adams, however, said the UAW and Trump are already in discussions to “put a win-win situation together.” He declined to elaborate. Trump representatives did not return messages seeking comment.
The UAW’s biggest potential prize is the new $2.4 billion Revel megaresort. In April, the UAW formed an alliance with Local 54 and the Teamsters to press Revel to negotiate union contracts. Adams said Revel has not yet agreed to sit down and bargain with the unions.
The Detroit-based UAW is best known for representing auto workers, but has branched out to unionize dealers and slot technicians in the casino industry. In addition to its contracts in Atlantic City, it represents workers at all three Detroit casinos as well as dealers at the Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut. The UAW announced last month that it is trying to unionize the dealers at Connecticut’s other casino, Mohegan Sun.
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