Saturday evening at Atlantic City’s Showboat casino seemed almost like any other night. The gambling floor teemed with people jabbing at slot machines and drinking enthusiastically. Other patrons strolled around, gazing at the sheer immensity of the place.
But at the bar on the east side of the bustling casino floor, normality broke down. A small crowd of casino employees huddled together, dabbing at their eyes with cocktail napkins. Bartenders alternated between serving drinks and hugging co-workers goodbye. Their workplace had become the latest victim of Atlantic City’s declining casino industry, and Showboat was scheduled to shut its doors the next day. Employees had hoped rumors that a last-minute buyer could be found were true, but by Saturday, the casino’s fate was undeniable. The casino closed as scheduled on Sunday afternoon, destroying more than 2,000 jobs — more than half of them full-time and most of them members of UNITE Here Local 54, the city’s principal casino and hotel workers union.
“I really don’t know what will happen here,” says Ruthann Joyce, who has worked with her husband as a bartender at Showboat since it opened in 1987. The couple has raised their family on the union jobs they held at the casino, which provide decent pay as well as strong healthcare and retirement benefits. “Think of all the people still raising their kids. Ours are all grown, thank God. [New Jersey] Governor Christie says what’s happening in Atlantic City is not a disaster. I guess his definition of disaster and my definition are different,” says Joyce.
Following Showboat, Revel, Atlantic City’s newest casino, closed on Tuesday, and the long-struggling Trump Plaza will be shuttered later this month. That’s a total of nearly 6,000 jobs lost in a one-month period, in addition to the 1,600 casino employees who were laid off when the Atlantic Club closed earlier this year. The pain may not end there: More casinos could soon follow suit.
With few options to save jobs, the union is attempting to soften the blow to laid-off workers. UNITE Here has partnered with the state Department of Labor and other social service agencies to set up stations in the Atlantic City Convention Center where casino employees can go to receive assistance filling out unemployment applications, as well as information on how to obtain healthcare, job training and utility and food assistance. The union dubs its resource center “AC Unites Here,” although UNITE Here’s Ben Begleiter stresses that it is open to casino workers, regardless of membership.
Atlantic City once had a near-monopoly on gambling in the Northeast, a few hours by bus, train or car from two of the nation’s largest cities and richest metropolitan areas: New York and Philadelphia. Until Revel opened in 2012, all of the city’s casinos had been unionized since the industry’s early days, ensuring that the profits were more evenly distributed between casino owners and workers. In 2006, Atlantic City pulled in gambling revenues of $5.2 billion, but its take began falling the next year after neighboring Pennsylvania’s newly legalized casinos began opening along the border. While gaming in New Jersey is restricted to Atlantic City, Pennsylvania’s new casinos were spread across the state, earning it a geographic advantage. In 2012, Pennsylvania became the second most profitable casino market after Nevada. Atlantic City never recovered.
When Revel opened two years ago, Atlantic City was already in free-fall, and the casino never turned a profit. UNITE Here, as well as local Tea Party groups, had predicted as much when they fought a $261.4 million package in tax incentives for Revel: They argued that a new casino would merely cannibalize an already shrinking market.
Prior to the implosion of the casino industry, Atlantic City’s job market had already been weakened by the Great Recession and Hurricane Sandy. Just as the flight of manufacturing capital devastated cities like Camden and Trenton, the collapse of tourism will strike a heavy blow to Atlantic County The tens of thousands of career-track jobs provided by the unionized casino-hotel complexes, most of which are year-round positions, have provided stability for thousands of workers in a region with few other good jobs for people without a college education.
“When we opened, Showboat was operated by a family, the industry was good, we were treated amazingly well,” said Eve Davis, a cocktail server, in an interview earlier this year. A union member for 31 years, Davis bought a house and sent three kids to college on her earnings. “We used to be cherished. Now they keep you aware of [the declining local economy] every day.”
This decline will be felt beyond Atlantic City. Before the closings, more than 20 percent of Atlantic County’s employed labor force worked directly for the casino industry. The compounded effects of increased unemployment and reduced consumer spending and tax revenue could intensify poverty, which already exists at a higher rate in Atlantic County than the statewide average. With a diminished casino industry, Atlantic County could come to resemble its neighboring counties to the south, which struggle with higher poverty rates and schizophrenic seasonal labor markets.
Atlantic City’s new mayor, Don Guardian, believes his town can resist those trends. He argues the city and county can survive on the summer attractions — the beaches, the Marina, the Boardwalk — alongside with the surviving casinos and existing convention and entertainment infrastructure. He also believes that the casinos that closed earlier this week could still be resurrected.
“There are people kicking the tires of Showboat and Revel … you could buy that place for $50 million now [without the crushing debt burden of the original property],” Guardian tells In These Times. “I think they have a really good chance of being open next summer. These are bargain basement prices and we still have 25 million people coming to Atlantic City [annually].”
Guardian is trying to bring other jobs to the city, too. He says 300 positions will be created by the new Bass Pro outdoor store currently under construction. Guardian is especially excited about the possibility that Stockton College could move more of its facilities, including student housing, into Atlantic City: “Moving some of our workforce beyond tourism … is more sustainable during downturns.”
But it is unlikely that the jobs will be of the same quality as those offered by flush casinos where unions forced owners to share the fabulous profits. Moving beyond tourism will be essential for Atlantic City’s future, but it’s unclear what new jobs will materialize, or whether they’ll be the same quality as those lost. “The mayor talks about a sporting goods store, but that’s not a job you can raise a family on. You can’t pay your bills or a mortgage with those jobs,” says Joyce.