July 19, 2016
By Steven Wishnia
New York, NY – Striking casino workers from Atlantic City alighted in New York City, marching two blocks down the luxury-brand strip of Fifth Avenue to protest outside the Trump Tower, their former boss’s headquarters.
“We’re out here to send a message to Donald Trump and Carl Icahn. We’re not going to allow these guys to turn folks who are working class into working poor,” UNITE HERE Local 54 organizing director Ben Albert told the crowd of about 500 people. About 75 of the 1,000 striking workers at the Trump Taj Mahal hotel and casino had just arrived by bus from Atlantic City. They joined members of the Hotel Trades Council and smaller contingents from New York UNITE HERE locals and the Communications Workers of America.
“We know it’s hard,” Al Russo of CWA Local 1101, which recently went through a 45-day strike at Verizon, told the crowd. “But we know you can win.”
The Trump Taj Mahal strike began July 1, and there are no negotiations currently scheduled with the casino’s owner, billionaire investor Carl Icahn. “We’re waiting for them to come to the table with a proposal that respects the workers’ commitment to the company and the industry,” said Local 54 spokesperson Ben Begleiter. “These workers have sacrificed in the hard times to keep the property going.”
Wages are a big issue, he says—the highest-paid workers’ pay has risen only 80 cents an hour since 2004—but the strikers are also trying to win back their health and pension benefits, which were eliminated in 2014 when a federal bankruptcy court let Icahn abrogate their contract.
“I haven’t had a raise in 15 years. I’ve been here 26 years and I’m still making $14.42 an hour,” says housekeeper Patsy Heath. “They took away our lunch breaks too.” But “the main issue is health care,” she says. “I’ve never seen things this bad. Words can’t express how most of us feel when we can’t even afford health care.”
“We gave back to our bosses through contracts to keep our health care intact,” beverage server Valerie McMorris, who like Heath has worked at the Taj Mahal since it opened, told the crowd. Now, people “have cancer treatments they can’t get any more because [Icahn] took away our health care.”
“The health care is what made these middle-class jobs,” Albert told LaborPress.
About half the casino’s workers are either on Medicaid or Obamacare, estimates longtime bellman Peter Battaglini, and probably 30 to 40% don’t have any health insurance. In 2004, he says, “we made concessions to the casinos because things were slow”—giving up their personal days and half their vacation days. “But now, they’re making profits again.”
Operating profits at Atlantic City’s eight casinos increased by 40% in 2015 and were up another one-third in the first quarter of 2016, says Begleiter. Of the other seven, three are operating under contract extensions, three just had a new contract ratified, and one will vote on that contract this week. While Icahn has said restoring benefits will force him to close the Taj Mahal, Begleiter believes that’s just bluster.
“Workers literally have been through five different shutdown dates,” he says. “You’re never going to rebuild a business without a partnership with the men and women who serve the drinks, clean the rooms, and cook the food.”
“Carl Icahn is doing at the Taj Mahal what he’s been doing to workers all over America,” Michael Kink of the union-backed Strong Economy for All Coalition declared as the crowd pushed up against police barricades outside the Trump Tower. “And Donald Trump wants to put Carl Icahn in charge of the American economy. Everything you hate about the American economy, Carl Icahn has done.”
“You know, we made that casino. My blood, sweat, and tears are in that casino,” says Patsy Heath. “And I’m still doing it. I’m out here with my people because we deserve this.”