A strike against Atlantic City’s most vulnerable casino on the biggest moneymaking weekend of the year raised fresh questions about the future of the Trump Taj Mahal.
Local 54 of the Unite-HERE union went on strike Friday against the casino, which was opened in 1990 by presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump but now belongs to a different billionaire, Carl Icahn.
Icahn’s management team said the union seems “hell-bent on trying to close this property” and pointed out that he has spent $86 million keeping the Taj Mahal alive through bankruptcy and $150 million more improving the Tropicana, which he also owns.
The Taj Mahal, which remains open and was to host a concert by the hair metal band Whitesnake on Friday night, ranks next to last in Atlantic City in terms of the amount of money it wins from gamblers each month. It narrowly escaped closing during its most recent turn through bankruptcy court.
The union called the strike after being unable to agree on a contract that restored health care and pension benefits that a bankruptcy judge terminated in October 2014. It reached new contracts June 30 with four of the five casinos it had targeted: Bally’s, Caesars, Harrah’s and the Tropicana.
“All we want is a fair contract,” said Pete Battaglini, a bellman at the Taj Mahal. “We just want what everybody else in the city has. We’re not asking for the moon, just the same.”
Battaglini said paying for health insurance on his own through the Affordable Care Act has left him in dire financial straits.
“I have two daughters in college that I’m paying for, and having to pay for my own health insurance, it’s draining,” he said. “You have to make choices: Do I pay the bills this month, the health insurance premium or the tuition? It has totally changed my life.”
He was one of about 1,000 members who began walking off the job at 6 a.m., joining fellow union members in protest on the Boardwalk. The striking workers include those who serve drinks, cook food, carry luggage and clean hotel rooms. Dealers and security personnel are not included in the walkout.
Contract talks broke off early Friday, and union president Bob McDevitt said no further talks are scheduled.
“Workers in Atlantic City understand that there was a social compact in 1976 when gaming was first approved for Atlantic City: We will give you a license to make money, but the jobs have to be good, middle-class jobs,” he said. “At the Taj Mahal, they’re poverty level.”
He noted that the Tropicana settled its contract June 30.
“It’s telling that workers at the Trop are elated, and their co-workers at the Taj Mahal are on strike today,” he said. “I don’t understand why they do this.”
Tony Rodio, the Tropicana’s president who also runs the Taj Mahal, said casino ownership “presented good-faith, concrete progressive proposals” in an effort to restore some employee benefits, but union negotiators rejected them.
“They are hurting their own and everybody else during the busiest time of the year,” Rodio said.
The casino pressed management into service, performing work that striking union members had done, including handling luggage at the hotel desk. Alan Rivin, the casino’s general manager, said the Taj Mahal “is open for business and fully functional,” ready to serve guests through the busy July Fourth weekend.
The bankruptcy filing and the benefit terminations at the Taj Mahal happened five years after Trump relinquished control of the casino and its parent company, Trump Entertainment Resorts.
Aside from a 10 percent stake in the company for the use of his name that was wiped out in bankruptcy, Trump has had no involvement with the company since 2009.
The last time Local 54 waged a strike, in 2004, the walkout lasted 34 days.
Atlantic City is planning a series of events to attract gay tourists, who are becoming an increasingly important part of the resort’s growth strategy.
Mayor Don Guardian and tourism officials said this week the goal is to reinvigorate a once-thriving gay community in Atlantic City.
“Atlantic City had its heyday with the gay population on New York Avenue,” he said. “This is where you came when you wanted to have a good time. Straight people came to these places, too, because they wanted to party and dance in the hottest clubs.”
But when casino gambling began in 1978, soaring land prices pushed out many small gay-owned and gay-friendly businesses.
Now, with the resort struggling to find a new identity and new sources of revenue, the city is once again wooing gay tourists with vigor.
Growing up gay, Guardian said the sight of a rainbow flag was a welcome sign that one’s business was welcome and that it was a safe place to go if the person felt threatened by a situation.
Guardian said he hopes the thousands of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender visitors who come to Atlantic City will come away impressed this summer, and consider the resort as a place to buy a second home.
Events aimed at the gay community include Sand Blast, a 3-day beach party weekend in July targeted to the gay community; the StandOUT Expo, a networking event in September for the LGBT community, and the Miss’d America Pageant, a drag spoof of the famous pageant, also in September. Sand Blast will include a female beach volleyball tournament called “Lez Volley,” an underwear party, and a “Drag Race” and purse-tossing competition.
The mayor also dedicated a gay-friendly beach in Atlantic City at Park Place near Bally’s, but says the entire city is gay-friendly.
The resort is trying to broaden its appeal beyond a gambling mecca by emphasizing restaurants, shops, nightclubs, spas and other attractions.
The Atlantic City Alliance, which markets the resort, recently commissioned a study of the gay travel market in New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland.
It found that the primary reason gays visit Atlantic City is because it is easy to get to and has entertainment options. Only 21 percent named gambling as a primary reason to visit.
About 15 percent said they planned to spend $500 or more on gambling, with two thirds placing a $200 limit on their bets.
The survey also found that Atlantic City is not viewed as being especially gay-friendly, with only a quarter of respondents finding the destination somewhat or very LGBT-friendly. Among the eight Mid-Atlantic tourism destinations tested, Atlantic City scored lowest for a perception of being LGBT-friendly.
Brad Hurtado, executive producer of Sand Blast, said events like his are needed to make gays feel more at home in Atlantic City.
“Gay tourism and gay events transform communities, and they bring repeat visitors each year,” he said.
What do you call a gay Republican who obsesses about street sweepers, frets that the city’s business isn’t conducted in enough languages and toys with the idea of giving free land to the poor to get it back on the tax rolls?
As of this week in Atlantic City, it’s Mr. Mayor.
Don Guardian was sworn in as the resort city’s 49th mayor amid a brutal slowdown that has seen it lose its place as the nation’s second-largest gambling market, with casino revenues falling more than 40 percent and thousands of jobs being lost in the past six years. The 60-year-old Guardian warns of challenging times ahead as his administration tries to turn things around.
“The first couple years are going to be tough,” he said. “We’re going to be trimming the budget and looking for additional funding from the state and federal governments to help us.”
Guardian is a most unlikely mayor. His triumph in November over incumbent Democrat Lorenzo Langford shocked the city, where Democrats enjoy a 9-to-1 advantage in registration; he will be Atlantic City’s first Republican mayor in 23 years.
“Everybody brings their own life experiences,” he said. “I’m an openly gay, white Republican Roman Catholic. I’m a good man, and I make good decisions. I bring that to the job.”
Guardian is the longtime head of Atlantic City’s Special Improvement District, tasked with planting flowers, installing benches, cleaning streets and generally sprucing up key areas of the resort. Indeed, in a resort defined for many by its casinos, Guardian is as excited about street sweepers as he is about straight flushes. He promises that by the end of the month, every street in the city will be cleaned five days a week, and one of the first things he did after being elected was meet with public works employees who clean the streets in his neighborhood to get to know them and encourage them.
His priorities include addressing the city’s crime problem, streamlining the process for developers to build and putting vacant land back on the tax rolls. He also says one of his goals is to work better with Gov. Chris Christie on matters of concern to Atlantic City — a goal the Republican governor has said he shares. Christie and Langford were antagonists who sparred over management of the city and its efforts to evacuate residents before Hurricanes Irene and Sandy, among other topics.
Guardian also said he will unveil initiatives to attract new commercial and residential development to Atlantic City.
A particular challenge will be ending a string of tax appeals by casinos that are costing the city millions in lost revenue. He has already met with casino executives and pledged a more cooperative effort, but he couldn’t say specifically how the goal of ending tax appeals might be accomplished, particularly with the value of the casinos falling as the Atlantic City gambling market contracts.
“For gaming, the days of monopoly are gone; that’s something we understand,” Guardian said. “Our plan is to help them by running an efficient government and providing services that are second to none. There is no reason for casinos to be filing tax appeals and taking us to court. We can all sit down at the same table. We have to find a fair and equitable way for the casinos to pay taxes.”
Resorts Casino Hotel recently opened Prohibition, the first gay nightclub in an Atlantic City casino. Investors are betting on the marketing claim that gays have more disposable income than straights. Prohibition is located on the 13th floor of the casino and decorated in a Roaring ’20s theme. “People think gays don’t gamble. That’s not true. They gamble. They drink. They like to travel. And they have that extra income,” said former gay bar owner John Schultz, who lobbied for the nightclub at Resorts.