Unionized Trump Taj Mahal workers braced Tuesday for a potential strike at the bankrupt casino by loading a storage container with equipment — bullhorns, batteries, Randy the Rat — in a mostly symbolic display meant to show they’re on the verge of a walkout.
The rodent, with its distended, carbuncular belly, was inflated momentarily in a parking lot across from Unite Here Local 54’s Atlantic Avenue headquarters — a portent of what’s in store if casino operator Trump Entertainment Resorts and the property’s soon-to-be new owner, Wall Street maven Carl Icahn, don’t reinstate health and pension benefits for about 1,000 Taj workers.
The company, which had been bankrolling employee health care by contributing about $5 into a union health fund for every hour worked by a full-time Local 54-represented worker, got permission from a bankruptcy judge in October to end those payments as part of a larger cost-cutting campaign, purportedly to save $14.6 million a year.
A call to Trump Entertainment Resorts CEO Robert Griffin was not returned Tuesday.
In an Atlantic City casino market in which decent wages and benefits have long been standard fare, thousands of Taj workers, union and nonunion, were stripped of health care, and many remain uninsured.
They include Tony Davila, a server at Plate American Cafe inside Taj.
“I can’t go to the dentist. I’m scared to eat candy,” Davila, 49 and a father of two, said from the parking lot Tuesday. He sympathized with the money-hemorrhaging casino’s need to retrench. But “you can’t bury us in the process.”
Others, such as Greg Natale Sr., a bartender and Taj worker from Day One, obtained insurance on their own.
“$703.75,” he said from outside the union hall Tuesday, intoning his monthly premium.”That’s a mortgage payment.”
He had just participated in the weekly meeting of the Taj contract committee, an about 70-member body of Taj workers that has the final say on whether a strike occurs.
“I think that most people are on board,” Natale said of the prospect of a strike at Taj.
Local 54 last struck in 2004, when about 10,000 porters, housekeepers and other service workers left jobs at seven Atlantic City casinos for more than a month.
Meanwhile, the union has asked the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to reverse the October ruling, arguing that U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Kevin Gross in Wilmington, Delaware, lacked jurisdiction to green-light the cuts because Local 54’s labor contact at Taj was expired when his decision was issued, and expired labor contracts are the purview of the National Labor Relations Board, not bankruptcy court.
All of Local 54’s collective bargaining agreements were set to expire in September. The Taj contract expired, as did the union’s contract with Tropicana Atlantic City, which Icahn owns. Contracts with the six other Atlantic City casinos have been extended to March.
Core terms of expired labor contracts remain in effect, though prohibitions against strikes and boycotts don’t.
Local 54 president Bob McDevitt said Trump Entertainment Resort’s decision to cut benefits could infect negotiations across Atlantic City if other casinos, in negotiating new contracts for many of about 10,000 workers represented by Local 54, invoke so-called “most-favored employer” clauses in the expired contracts.
Such clauses equalize labor contracts in a given market by requiring a union to give similar deals to competing employers.
So profound changes at Taj “are all linked with the rest of the city,” McDevitt, a former Taj worker himself, said Monday. “That’s why this is so serious.”