ATLANTIC CITY — Hannah Taleb traveled 366 miles to get arrested.
Taleb, a 26-year-old employee of the Rivers Casino in Pittsburgh, sat in a circle with dozens of other casino workers at the intersection of Virginia and Pacific avenues Wednesday evening, blocking traffic in front of Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort.
In the latest chapter of Carl Icahn vs. Local 54 of UNITE HERE, about 70 people were arrested in the union’s largest and loudest protest yet over sweeping benefit cuts supported by Icahn, the property’s incoming owner.
“I’m here because if the standards are lowered in Atlantic City, how can I expect to fight for high standards in my city?” Taleb said. “All casino workers are linked in that way.”
More than 1,000 people were on hand from Local 54 and its allies. There were shirts and signs from UNITE HERE Philadelphia, the Hotel Trade Council in New York and the Amalgamated Transit Union, which guided a giant camel float down the Boardwalk that read “It’s Hump Day” on its back.
The New Jersey State American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations was in town this week for its political endorsement convention. Charles Wowkanech, president of the state AFL-CIO, was among those to speak at the rally and get arrested.
“We’re here today because the fight is right here,” Wowkanech said on stage on the Boardwalk behind Taj. “We’ve got a billionaire who’s sitting over in New York who took away our health care away, who took our pensions away and took our lunch break away. And you know what? When we’re done, we’re going to send him away.”
About 50 police officers were at the scene and eventually made arrests after Lt. James Sarkos twice asked with a megaphone that the protesters vacate the area. Those arrested were charged with “obstructing highways and other public passages” and “refusal to obey a reasonable request or order to move.” They are petty disorderly persons offenses.
Local 54 leader Bob McDevitt grinned as an officer wrapped his wrists with zip-tie handcuffs. In October, about two dozen union supporters, including McDevitt, were arrested for sitting at Arkansas and Arctic avenues in a similar protest over the decision to stop paying health and pension benefits to about 1,100 Local 54 workers. The move, said to be part of a cost-saving campaign to save the bankrupt company $14.6 million annually, has been appealed to the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
“Yes I am,” McDevitt said on being a repeat offender now. “I would take a thousand arrests if it would mean we win.”
Icahn responded by saying the union cares more about collecting fees for its health insurance plan than protecting its members' jobs, and repeated his contention that costly union work rules contributed to the closure of three of the four Atlantic City casinos that went belly-up last year.
“It's absurd that instead of working to improve Atlantic City at a time when the city is down on its luck, this union spends time, effort and money to purposefully destroy one of the few remaining employers in town,” Icahn said. “I'm baffled by how they don't see that their destructive efforts may well result in 3,000 less jobs.”
He said that even with the savings from the cuts, the casino is still losing “millions every month.”
There was plenty of political support for the casino workers. State Assemblymen Vince Mazzeo, D-Atlantic, and Chris Brown, R-Atlantic, were in the crowd, although they chose not to get arrested. Atlantic City Council members Marty Small, William “Speedy” Marsh and Aaron Randolph also were at the Boardwalk gathering. Local 54 tweeted out a letter of support from Mayor Don Guardian dated Wednesday.
Lucille Ace, 52, of Absecon, was one of the locals willing to get arrested, albeit for a small offense.
“I’m getting arrested because this man came to my town and wants to mistreat my workers, pay them a poverty wage,” said Ace, who works at Bally’s. “We want to send a message that we’re not going to be Icahn-ed.”
Ace later joined the long line of arrested protesters, who waited to have their information and picture taken before being placed in black vans and a white school bus.
The latest protest featured some of the same chants and anti-Icahn signs seen in the past. But there were a few new bells and whistles. A semi-truck from Teamsters 107 blasted its air horn as it followed the parade of protesters from the Boardwalk to the city’s streets. One young couple in a Lexus got trapped in the parking garage as the army of casino workers passed by.
The protest began on the Boardwalk at 5 p.m. and those arrested were off the streets by 6:30 p.m. As the “mass civil disobedience” came to a close, the casino workers made a promise.
“We’ll be back,” they chanted.
The Associated Press contributed to this report