ATLANTIC CITY — For more than two weeks, the late-night silence in front of Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort has been interrupted by the sounds of drums and chants for a new contract.
Unite Here Local 54 members have been picketing around the clock at Taj Mahal since July 1. But the overnight shift can be challenging — even for a veteran cocktail waitresses used to walking in high heels with a full tray of drinks.
“This is harder than our cocktail job,” Jamie Feldman said as she picketed Thursday night.
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Feldman usually pickets from 8 p.m. to midnight every night.
“We sat in the rain one night and got pounded,” Feldman said, joking that some thought picketing would be easy.
Nearly 1,000 Local 54 members at Trump Taj Mahal went on strike after negotiations on a new contract with casino owner Icahn Enterprises fell apart. It’s been more than two weeks since the two sides held talks, union officials said.
The resort has given the union until 5 p.m. Monday to accept its current contract offer, which includes restoration of contributions toward an employee health insurance plan. Taj owner Carl Icahn said after the strike started that the casino offered the union a health care deal he thought members would accept. But union officials called that offer a “shadow” of what the union got from negotiating with Bally’s Atlantic City, Caesars Atlantic City, Harrah’s Resort and Tropicana Atlantic City, all of which signed new deals with Local 54 in the past month.
The physical and emotional toll of striking is one reason unions use it only as a last resort, said Ellen Mutari, professor of economics at Stockton University.
“Strikes are draining,” Mutari said. “People have to be pushed to the wall.”
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Over the past several weeks, union members have been working to get their message out, no matter the time or the weather conditions.
“In the last month, I don’t think that anyone has had more than two days off,” said Bob McDevitt, president of the union. “We went from heavy negotiations to organizing, then right into a strike. Everyone is working well beyond their normal capacity.”
Workers are required to be on the picket line for four-hour shifts, five days a week, McDevitt said. The picketing requirement allows workers to have time for their second jobs, which many of them have because of the cuts at the Taj Mahal, McDevitt said.
“Walking the picket line can be very taxing, no matter the time of day, in this weather,” McDevitt said. “It’s brutal with the heat. They are tired and hot, but they understand what we are fighting for.”
Striking workers receive “strike pay” from the union, McDevitt said, adding it’s a “reasonable amount of money” but declined to go into specifics about how much it was.
James Pomarico, a cocktail waiter who has worked at the Taj for more than 25 years, said Local 54 Taj employees had “no choice” but to strike. Their main goal at night is to convince people not to visit the casino, which is still open and on Thursday hosted a high-profile aerial stunt by Erendira Wallenda.
“The most important thing is that we get the message out to the public,” he said.
For some, picketing is a family affair. Greg Natale Sr., an employee at the Taj Mahal since it opened in 1990, said the only reason his son, who also works at the Taj, was not demonstrating Thursday night was because he went with other Local 54 strikers to protest against Icahn outside his offices in New York.
“Every other casino in this city has a contract,” added Natale, a bartender.