While Donald Trump’s push for the Republican nomination for president is showing no signs of slowing, worker unrest at a hotel and casino that bear his name appears near the boiling point. Strike preparations have begun for over 1,100 non-gaming casino employees at the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The workers, represented by UNITE HERE Local 54, gathered near their local headquarters last Tuesday to load strike materials like bullhorns, signs and drums into a storage container in a public attempt to prove to management that they are ready and willing to strike over large compensation package cuts that occurred last year.
The Trump Taj Mahal has been at the mercy of billionaire investor Carl Icahn since 2009, when bankruptcy led Donald Trump to cut ties with the casino and resort’s operator, Trump Entertainment Resorts. After months of courtroom drama, Trump exchanged the rights to his name and likeness over to Icahn (who Trump has mentioned in recent months as a possible cabinet member if he were elected president) in exchange for a 10 percent stake in the restructured company.
While Trump has run into his own problems in Las Vegas, where workers at his current gaming jewel, the Trump Casino, have started a union drive (though Trump is adamant that his workers love him), conditions at his namesake in Atlantic City have deteriorated into escalated conflict between new management and the organized hotel housekeepers, bartenders, servers, cooks, and sanitation workers at the Trump Taj Mahal.
Since Icahn began his attempt to gain control of Trump’s Atlantic City gaming empire, the unionized workers at the Trump Taj Mahal have consistently derided Icahn’s alleged role in driving the casino-hotel toward bankruptcy, with workers and UNITE HERE arguing that Icahn, as Trump’s main debt holder, pushed higher interest rates onto the company as a way to reach personal profit of hundreds of millions of dollars and ultimately maneuver into ownership position.
In October 2014, Icahn successfully gained permission from a bankruptcy judge to end company contributions to health care and pension benefits as a way of cost-cutting, saying it would help keep the casino-resort open. “Workers were stripped of their health and retirement benefits; they even cut paid lunch breaks. Our calculation was that the average full-time worker would lose approximately $12,000 over the course of the year as a result of these cuts,” says UNITE HERE spokesperson Ben Begleiter.
UNITE HERE Local 54 contends that the bankruptcy court was out of its jurisdiction with the decision, and because Icahn has declined to renew the union’s contract since its expiration in September, the matter is a labor dispute fit for the NLRB, who has since agreed in a January statement. The union’s case against the cuts is currently pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.
A survey of workers conducted by UNITE HERE in March found that 44 percent of responding workers, who had previously been covered under a health care plan since their first day of employment, no longer had health insurance. This was a much-valued health care package that had led workers over the past decade to accept near-stagnant wages in order to maintain their health benefits.
“I’ve been part of the negotiating committee for the past 11 years, and I voted to have my pay frozen numerous times in order to preserve our health insurance. I got one 25-cents-an-hour raise in the past decade,” says Paul Smith, a surveyed cook, who has been at the site for 21 years. “In 2005, I had a massive heart attack. The bill was over $1 million. If I hadn’t had the union health insurance, I would have been destroyed financially. Right now, my health is out of whack. I need three surgeries, which is difficult because I have no insurance since Icahn took it away.”
The survey also claimed to shed light on the mental toll of out-of-reach health care, finding that at least 70 percent of participating workers suffered from symptoms of depression at least every other day.
Dr. Alan Glaseroff, Co-Director of Stanford Coordinated Care and Clinical Professor of Medicine at the Stanford School of Medicine, reviewed the results and commented: “Strictly from a financial perspective, depression as an ‘add-on’ condition combined with diabetes, heart disease and other chronic conditions more than doubles the cost of treating those illnesses, making the lack of coverage an even greater problem for patients and those paying for and providing their care.”
When the October cuts were announced, 24 people were arrested staging a sit-in and shutting down traffic in front of the Trump Taj Mahal. In June, 68 more were arrested for participating in a similar action. Workers authorized the union’s contract negotiating committee to a call a strike if necessary on July 16, a decision that was followed up by reports that the Trump Taj Mahal was preparing to take on several hundred replacement workers.
Casino-hotel employees in Atlantic City last went on strike in 2004 when 10,000 UNITE HERE Local 54 members walked out for over a month at seven different locations; Trump’s casino-hotels workers did not participate in this strike. The Trump Taj Mahal and the Tropicana Entertainment, Icahn’s other bankruptcy capture in Atlantic City, are currently the only casino-hotels in the city working with an expired contract. The possibility remains open for Local 54 members at Tropicana to go on strike as well.
Workers like Hannah Taleb, a casino-hotel employee in Pittsburgh, allege that Icahn’s hardball tactics are an effort to lower workers’ standards throughout the industry. “If the standards are lowered in Atlantic City, how can I expect to fight for high standards in my city? All casino workers are linked in that way,” Taleb told the Press of Atlantic City before being arrested in June’s intersection-shut-down.
Icahn has a history of eliminating worker benefits at various companies he’s acquired over his years, building a reputation of as a corporate raider. “Mr. Icahn is worth more than $20 billion, but two months before the contract for PSC’s union workers was scheduled to expire in late 2013, management told them that it was dropping their health insurance benefits and that they would have to buy their own insurance through the new exchanges set up under the Affordable Care Act,” the New York Times reported last December. Unsurprisingly, Icahn was the one of the inspirations for the Gordon Gecko character made famous by Michael Douglas in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street.
“Jobs that provided benefits, that were middle-class jobs where a worker could support a family on [are] part of the promise of casino gaming,” Begleiter says. “Casino gaming in Atlantic City is unlike any other industry in the state, because it’s an industry that came into existence by a vote of the people of New Jersey to change the constitution — specifically to rebuild Atlantic City. That means in part, making sure that it provided for workers,” Begleiter says.
As the protests expand and the so-called “strike pod” storage container is filled up with the essentials, the workers at Trump Taj Mahal say they are ready to defend their share of that promise.