|By Jacqueline L. Urgo, The Philadelphia Inquirer|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Oct. 16, 2004 - ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- It is the struggle of the $8-an-hour workers versus the multibillion-dollar casino industry that is being played out in the streets, meeting rooms and gaming floors of this gambling mecca.
It is a war of words, picketing civil disobedience, and a blitz of newspaper and radio ads. The casino strategy is to claim the strike has had no effect on its business and that it will hold out until the union agrees to a five-year pact. Local 54 of Unite Here counters that its members -- the 10,000 service industry workers who make beds, serve drinks, clean restrooms, and perform other jobs at seven of Atlantic City's 12 casinos -- will not return to work until they have a three-year contract that will bring them in line with unionized gaming workers in other states.
State and local officials, however, are worried that a prolonged strike will have a harmful economic effect on New Jersey's $2.3 billion gaming industry, which directly employs 45,000 workers and indirectly creates jobs for 30,000 other state residents.
Nationally, the number of prolonged strikes by large numbers of unionized workers has been on the decline since the 1970s, as the size of organized labor has shrunk.
"I think it's very clever on the part of the union to use this tactic of pitting itself against the huge, corporate gaming structures," said Peter Cappelli, a professor of management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. "It's really a new and noteworthy development in labor disputes. The big corporate giant against the little working person is a hot-button issue right now. And that's something that a lot of people, in any industry, union or nonunion, can relate to."
A negotiation session between the union and casino operators yesterday -- the first formal talks since the Oct. 1 walkout -- ended abruptly after less than 90 minutes. No new talks are set.
A third major rally is planned for today by the union that is expected to snarl traffic from one end of town to the other and attract up to 10,000 union members from all over the East Coast. The march down Pacific Avenue and on the Boardwalk will be led by hip-hop artist Wyclef Jean.
State Sen. William Gormley (R., Atlantic) is working behind the scenes to bring both sides to the table. State Sen. Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), chairman of the Senate Labor Relations Committee, said yesterday that he was considering legislative hearings to resolve the dispute.
"If this strike isn't settled soon and both parties agree to bargain in good faith -- which is key -- then we are going to have to call for hearings on the matter," Sweeney said.
Sweeney said that people affiliated with Atlantic City's gaming industry have told him that revenue at the casinos has declined since the strike began.
"It looks like the casino industry is willing to take short-term losses to gain the long-term advantage of having people work without health benefits and a decent wage," he said.
The casinos, in newspaper ads and at the bargaining table, appear willing to compromise on fully paid health care, wage increases and limits on sub-contract employees but not on the length of the contract.
"We've offered what we believe is a fair and equitable package, and we think it's time for the union to put the package we have offered to a vote among its members," said Robert Stewart, a spokesman for Caesars Entertainment.
By closing off blocks of hotel rooms, serving meals on disposable plates and limiting the number of open restaurants, gifts shops and restrooms, the casinos say, they are getting along just fine without a full complement of staff.
Despite the strike, which has nonunion secretaries subbing as servers and managers making beds, casino operators say they are coming off a record revenue win in September -- before the strike started -- that seems to be extending into October.
The casinos have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in advertising in the local newspaper, the Press of Atlantic City, with almost-daily full-page ads.
Some of the ads have been directed at patrons, announcing the casinos are open and ready to receive guests. Other ads contend the union is "using" its members to gain power by holding out on accepting a deal being proffered by the gaming companies. The latest ad claimed that as many as 1,000 -- a tenth of those on strike -- had returned to work.
The union maintains that less than 300 workers have crossed the picket lines and it will hold out for a three-year deal that would allow it the same contract expiration date as the 60,000-member Culinary 226 in Las Vegas.
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