ATLANTIC CITY — Four years after its last citywide bargaining session, UNITE-HERE Local 54 is preparing to return to the bargaining table, this time as a far smaller union, facing serious headwinds beyond membership numbers when it hammers out new deals with six casinos.

While the union’s membership has shrank by about one-third since 2008, the potency of its ultimate bargaining chip in negotiations — threatening to strike — hasn’t been diluted, said Steven Cohen, an attorney who negotiates labor contracts for police and fire unions in New Jersey.

At the table, what matters isn’t the union’s size so much as its ability to disrupt an employer’s business. And on that front, not much has changed, Cohen said.

“If the employer has 100 employees and 100 don’t show up, and if the employer has 10,000 employees and 10,000 don’t show up, isn’t the effect the same?” he asked.

That reasoning reflects a concept called “union density,” said Stockton University professor Deb Figart, a labor economist who profiled Atlantic City’s casino workforce for a book released this year.

Sheer membership in Local 54 is down by nearly a third — to about 10,700 in 2014 from about 15,900 in 2008 — but the union is still a force in Atlantic City. It represents virtually all eligible porters, housekeepers and other service workers at the casino-hotels.

Even with fewer members, the union can still rock casino operators with a strike — something that last happened in 2004, when about 10,000 workers walked out of seven casino-hotels for a month.

“Our numbers have gone down, but so have the number of casinos,” said Local 54 President Bob McDevitt, who was at the helm of the 2004 walkout.

But heading into negotiations, tentatively scheduled for January, McDevitt has other numbers to grapple with — a 9.1 percent Atlantic County unemployment rate, a casino industry that lost more than 6,600 jobs in 2014 and a city that’s generating 10.3 percent less gambling revenue through August than a year ago. Those numbers could overshadow membership losses as he tries to stave off givebacks some of the casinos are likely to seek.

Because in a region where thousands pine for jobs, casinos have their own bargaining chip: the unemployed.

Executives at Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort in July said they had “a large number of applicants” on call to replace unionized workers if Local 54 makes good on a threat to strike at that property over canceled health and pension benefits.

It’s “textbook theory and practical reality,” Figart said, that “when the economy is soft, when the labor market is relatively weak, the bargaining power of the employer is stronger than the bargaining power of the union.”

Translation? Casinos may feel particularly empowered to extract concessions from workers next year. But “there is a bottom line that labor will not cross,” Figart said.

By all outward appearances, McDevitt seems to have drawn that line at health insurance and pensions.

For a year he’s been fighting full-bore to get Trump Entertainment Resorts to reinstate those benefits for union members at Trump Taj Mahal, where virtually all the workers, including about 1,000 represented by Local 54, have been working with neither for about 10 months.

The company dropped the benefits to cut costs as part of a bankruptcy restructuring. Local 54 is fighting that move in court, and some unionized Taj workers say they may call a strike at the property any day.

Publicly, he’s taken a hard line with the company, demanding a full restoration of benefits. Anything less, he says, will set a dangerous precedent for other Atlantic City casinos in an industry in which health insurance and pensions were long inviolable.

He’s right to worry, said Alan Model, a Newark-based attorney who’s negotiated labor contracts on behalf of employers for decades but has no direct involvement in the Atlantic City casino negotiations.

“Employers will come in and say, ‘These terms exist over at my competition or across the street at some other company. Why don’t we have those same favorable terms? You’re putting us at a competitive disadvantage,’” Model said. “Certainly it would flavor negotiations.”

Contact: 609-272-7239

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