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Atlantic City Hospitality Workers Are On Strike. Here’s Why.

In their own words: health care, declining wages, and “simple rights"

Every day for the last week and a half, restaurant, hotel, and casino workers clad in red T-shirts have crowded the stretch of Atlantic City's boardwalk between the Trump Taj Mahal and the Steel Pier amusement park. They march in a tight oval carrying signs that scream "Atlantic City Trump Taj Mahal Workers On Strike" and "Unite here!" On the edge of the oval, a young man yells — "Sca-a-a-b!" — into a bullhorn whenever anyone leaves or enters the casino. This deters some tourists, who stand on the sidelines posing for photographs instead. But it doesn't keep everyone away. One barefoot man carrying beach chairs emerges from the hotel's double doors onto the boardwalk. "Shame on you," the picketers cry. "Shame on you," he responds.

These are the cooks, bartenders, bellhops, and housekeepers of the Local 54 chapter of the Unite Here union. Since July 1, they've been picketing the Trump Taj Mahal — which is now owned by billionaire Carl Icahn but retains the presidential candidate's name under a licensing agreement — after the two sides failed to reach a deal on benefits. As the Associated Press reports, Trump Taj Mahal employees lost their healthcare and pension benefits while the casino was in bankruptcy under a previous employer; Icahn offered to restore healthcare, but to a lower level than the union desired.

"If you’re going to invest in a property, you’ve got to invest in the workers as well."

Neither side seems ready to fold. Tony Rodio, the CEO of the Tropicana casino who also oversees the Trump Taj Mahal, told the Philadelphia Inquirer that the company had made a good-faith offer that it had expected the union would accept. He accused the union organizers of being "hell-bent on trying to close this property." In turn, Bob McDevitt, president of Unite Here Local 54, told MSNBC that Icahn "saved almost $20 million over the last 20 months skinning it off the back of the workers who work there with no benefits and not even a half-hour paid meal break. If you're going to invest in a property, you've got to invest in the workers as well."

There's a romantic notion of Atlantic City that's very much rooted in its history: ice cream and saltwater taffy, booming real estate on the boardwalk, mobsters carousing, and Frank Sinatra performing at the Steel Pier. But in the July heat of the boardwalk — and from the casino's main entrance on Pacific Avenue — rank-and-file workers seem resigned to their struggle. Gaming in neighboring states has sapped tourism from Atlantic City; a University of Nevada Las Vegas Center for Gaming Research study found that the Atlantic City gaming industry has declined by a rate of -7.56 percent from 2007 to 2015. Hurricane Sandy ripped through the region in 2012. And in an economic climate that's given rise to a powerful Fight for $15 movement, it's no surprise the workers here feel left behind.

"I'm just hoping that anyone can take care of us," says Hany Ragheb, a cook in the Trump Taj Mahal's production kitchen. When the Taj Mahal's sister casino the Trump Plaza closed in late 2014, there was less work available for him. Ragheb says the production kitchen went from producing 200 gallons of soup and sauces for the casinos to just 80 or 100 gallons at a time. Nobody is making 40 hours a week anymore, he says, and there's no more overtime or health benefits. Though he doesn't blame anyone, these are the changes he's witnessed in Atlantic City. They're also the things he'd like to see changed back. "We're just asking for simple things, simple rights," he says.

Many of the workers on this picket line have been working at the Trump Taj Mahal since it opened in 1990. Eater spoke with a handful of casino food-and-beverage workers out on the picket line to learn how their lives and work have changed over the years.

Richard Marin, cocktail server
Has worked at the Trump Taj Mahal for 26 years

How have you seen your financial situation change over the past 26 years?
It's been pathetic. A couple years ago, they took away our half-hour paid break, they took away half of our vacation pay. I've been here for 26 years. As you see business going down, the tips go down with it, so you actually depend on your paycheck, however little it is. Tips are very inconsistent. During the week, you can make $30 to $60. And on the weekend, some of the stations are busier than other stations, depending whether they have a show or not. Meanwhile, we only got a 40-cent raise over the last 10 years. It's ridiculous. I don't understand what they expect us to do in terms of how to live.

Some of us have gotten part-time jobs... Six months ago, I ended up in the hospital. I got government assistance. I never had to have government assistance in my entire life.

Debbie Best, bartender
Has worked at the Trump Taj Mahal for 26 years

How has your financial situation changed over the years you've been working here?
When I first started here, there wasn't much money for me because of the seniority factor. Everything in the union is based on seniority. Through the years, I was able to hold a couple steady full-time positions, but I always more or less had a part-time on-call spot. Financially, though, it's been very hard for the last couple of years. And I think a lot of it has to do with what's happening in the city and the state of New Jersey. When casinos started to open in other areas of the region, Atlantic City could feel that.

I believe we have a lot of really good people working here at the Trump Taj Mahal. We're never going to be millionaires. We're just middle-class tax-paying citizens that are having a hard time making ends meet because we have no healthcare and some of us have been forced to go into other avenues like Obamacare, which puts a burden on our personal budgets because now we've started paying for exorbitant premiums for our spouses and for our kids. I had to get a second job so that I could pay for some of my healthcare.

What are tips like?
Tips have been lower. I don't know if that's because of the general economy, but you don't see big tips as often. Before, it was nothing for somebody to leave you a $5 or a $10. Now that $5 or $10 is going to be $2 or $3. Which is fine. We're still making a living, don't get me wrong. But it's the way that we're treated. Our work conditions are not good. The building needs a lot of repairs, particularly in the back of the house. A lot of things are unkempt: mold, germs, filth. Un-emptied trash cans and ashtrays. [Things started to change] right after Hurricane Sandy. They expect us to work harder for less money. Which is fine, but when does it end?

Ed Watson, food and beverage bartender
Has worked at the Trump Taj Mahal for 26.5 years

How have you noticed changes in the years you've been here?
I've worked here since Day One. When Donald Trump was here, everything worked well. He took care of employees very, very well. Donald Trump gets a lot of grief because of his bankruptcy, but in all honesty, he just played the game. Things started to change as soon as Carl Icahn got involved. He brought in an aggressive management team and would not put any money into the property, driving it into disrepair. And he convinced a judge to take apart our collective bargaining agreement, stripping us of healthcare, pensions, severance fund, and paid meal breaks. We also had poor working conditions, like the mold and the mildew.

What did that mean for you in your day-to-day?
I wore contacts at the time, and I had to take them out every day when I came to work. There were bad smells. We had mice, rats, and roaches. And they wouldn't do anything to make it better. We lost a lot of business. For maybe seven or eight months, I was only working 13.5 hours a week. The payscale gets down so far that you can't collect unemployment. I started paying $703 a month for healthcare and now it went up to $1,485 a month. It's the only healthcare I can get, but at age 66, I can't go without hospitalization insurance. So I'm forced to pay it. I basically was just working to pay for my healthcare.

Icahn took the Taj out of bankruptcy in April and has started putting money into it to fix it up, but offered us nothing as a contract. There was a cheap healthcare plan that was worth nothing — it would have been a $5,000 deductible with no real medical care — and still no paid break. That was their offer. So we have no choice. I'm going to stay on the picket line until it's done. I won't give up. I will not leave my co-workers. I'll be the last person to leave if I have to be. We know the property has the potential to be the best property in Atlantic City again.

Vince Scotti, bartender
Has worked at the Trump Taj Mahal for 26 years

How have you noticed changes in the years you've been here? What are the legacies of Donald Trump and Carl Icahn?
I started in 1984 working as a bartender at the Trump Plaza and then moved over to the Taj in 1990. When Donald Trump was in town, as far as the employees were concerned, we did extraordinarily well. Trump signed agreements with the union. While he was here, he made Atlantic City prosper. Of course, other business owners around town hate him, but as far as employees were concerned, we flourished. I lived a very comfortable little life when Donald Trump was in charge. But he must have seen the writing on the wall.

Everything has been downhill since Carl Icahn came in. He's known for busting unions and that's what he's trying to do now. We're not here [picketing] just for the money. We have no healthcare. We gave away our vacation days, our sick days. We only have something like three holidays. Our half-hour lunch comes out of our paycheck. People are lucky to get $20 an hour. There are guys working two or three days a week. Guys like me, we're over the hill. We're here for the younger people. These are employees being subsidized by taxpayers because a billionaire won't give them anything.

Amy McKeever is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia.
Editor: Erin DeJesus