Trump Taj Mahal workers on strike: How the labor movement has evolved

Casino workers at Trump Taj Mahal are striking for fair pay and health care. Billionaire owner Carl Icahn has threatened to shutter the casino before he will restore health benefits or pensions.

Brian Ianieri/The Press of Atlantic City via AP
Striking union members walk a picket line outside the Trump Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City, N.J., Friday July 1,. Local 54 of the Unite Here union went on strike against the casino, which is owned by billionaire investor Carl Icahn.

Workers at the Trump Taj Mahal casino and hotel in Atlantic City went on strike early Friday morning after the casino workers' union, Unite Here, failed to negotiate a new contract with the casino.

Despite its name, the Trump Taj Mahal is no longer a Trump property, and is instead owned by billionaire Carl Icahn. Workers say that Mr. Icahn has steadily deprived them of fair compensation, cutting wages and benefits by 35 percent over the past several years.

The Taj Mahal strike is just one example of changing national attitudes towards unions, says Unite Here spokesperson Diana Hussein in a phone interview with The Christian Science Monitor.

The recent Verizon strike sparked a national discussion,” says Ms. Hussein, “on fair health care, livable wages, and grass-roots movements.”

That conversation will likely grow, she says, since so many issues that the modern labor movement cares about – including sexual harassment and immigration – are taking center stage in this year’s election.

While union membership is still on the decline, notes Harry Holzer, a professor of public policy at Georgetown, increasing income inequality have raised the profile of unions and the labor movement.

The $15 minimum wage, for example, dismissed by some experts as an impossible dream, has become a reality in some areas of the US and a subject for national discussion during the current election cycle. 

"Because there’s been so much talk about raising the minimum wage, for example," says University of Michigan public policy professor Kristin Seefelt in a phone interview with the Monitor, "union spokespeople and representatives have been able to get their voice heard in a way that wasn’t true even ten years ago."

'We've sacrificed long enough'

At a local level, Hussein says, the Atlantic City protests are indicative of how blue collar workers are feeling nationwide.

Trump Taj Mahal no longer offers health insurance, leaving half of its workers on subsidized health insurance, and a third with no health insurance at all, according to the union. On average, workers at the Taj Mahal are paid less than $12 per hour, with long-time employees earning wage increases of less than a dollar over a period of several years, says United Here. 

Hussein tells the Monitor that workers had accepted low wages for years, while Atlantic City worked to recover from devastating financial straits. Yet although the city's casino industry had its best year in a decade in 2015, according to Hussein, workers' wages still had not rebounded by late spring.

"We've sacrificed long enough to make the Trump Taj Mahal a success," longtime Taj Mahal pastry chef Mayra Gonzalez said in a Unite Here press release.

Workers at five casinos – the Taj Mahal, Bally's, Caesars, Harrah's, and fellow Icahn property Tropicana – set a Thursday night deadline for labor negotiations.

"The workers believe that the casino industry's rebound has a lot to do with their amenability and the concessions that they made," says Ms. Hussein. "Now that casinos are seeing profits, workers are saying, 'Now what about us?' "

The other four casinos settled late Thursday night, but when the management of the Taj Mahal was unable to work out a deal with its employees, workers decided to take to the streets.

At 6 a.m. Friday morning, 1,000 Taj Mahal servers, housekeepers, and other staff gathered outside to protest management's refusal to compromise.

Mr. Icahn, who took over the casino after it went through bankruptcy proceedings in 2014, has threatened to shutter the casino if he is forced to restore health benefits and pensions.

One Unite Here official told the Monitor that without higher wages, workers cannot hope to revitalize the city. In other words, they can’t inject cash into the city’s struggling economy if they don’t have wages that can support daily living, much less car- or home-buying.

“We have said from the beginning that it is impossible to revitalize Atlantic City unless the casino industry offers good jobs that let workers support their families,” said Bob McDevitt, the president of Unite Here’s Atlantic City chapter, Local 54, in a press release. “Four other casinos have recognized that simple fact, and it’s a shame that the Trump Taj Mahal can’t get with the program.”

Not your father's union

The Atlantic City protests are just one piece of a nascent resurgence of union activity, says Hussein. Unions like Unite Here, she says, are very different than what many think about when they picture unions, and often they speak to broader societal issues rather than just wages and working conditions.

“Unions have to change out of necessity, because the people who they are representing do not really resemble the white male breadwinner of the 1960s," says Professor Seefelt. "It's a move they have to make,” she says.

Professor Holzer told the Monitor that while he is uncertain if unions are making a resurgence on the whole, the changing demographics of the blue collar workforce have forced unions to reexamine the issues they address. 

“I don’t know if people have figured out what the new role of unions is, except that it will be to provide a broader range of support to workers," says Holzer, adding, "They've been emboldened by the presidential campaign this year.”

Meanwhile, the strike has continued into a second day, and strikers say they are determined to fight on. 

“This is about restoring Atlantic City’s economy, just like it is about restoring Detroit’s economy or Pittsburgh’s economy. People hear their story from all around the country in the story of Atlantic City and its workers,” Hussein says.

“It is symbolic of people pushing back against companies and billionaires that have taken advantage of them.”

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