POLITICS

A Thousand Workers At The Trump Taj Mahal Are Still On Strike

Bellhops, housekeepers and cocktail waitresses are in a showdown with the casino's billionaire owner.

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- Rajeshra Patel used to clean 14 rooms per day in her job here as a housekeeper at the Trump Taj Mahal. A couple of years ago, that quota rose to 16 rooms per day.

If two extra rooms doesn't sound like much to you, then you probably don't change beds for a living.

"My back and my shoulders [hurt]," said Patel, a 13-year veteran of the Taj and a native of India. "There are so many double beds. There's not much time to eat. ... It's too much."

Patel was walking a picket line with her Taj colleagues outside the casino's boardwalk doors Tuesday, where they urged gamblers and diners to find somewhere else to spend their money. Roughly a thousand housekeepers, doormen, busboys and other service workers have been on strike for more than four days -- including the entirety of the Fourth of July weekend -- after failing to ink a new contract with the casino. There were no signs of an imminent deal to end the strike as of Tuesday.

The workers lost many of their benefits during bankruptcy proceedings in 2014, including company-sponsored health coverage, pension contributions and paid lunch breaks, according to the workers' union, Unite Here Local 54. Many senior workers say their hourly wages have barely risen, if at all, during the Taj's turbulent last decade. And the housekeepers like Patel say their workload has increased despite having the same wages and fewer benefits as before.

The average pay for the workers is around $12 an hour, according to the union.

Pete Battaglini, a career bellman who's worked at the Taj since its doors opened, said he no longer feels a part of the middle class.

"It was a great job. You could earn a decent living and support a family," said Battaglini, 60, who has two daughters in college. "Everybody's hurting because of what's happened here."

Though it bears his name, the Trump Taj Mahal no longer has any ties to the presumptive Republican nominee for president. Opened in 1990 by Donald Trump, who hailed it as "the 8th wonder of the world," the property is now owned by billionaire investor Carl Icahn, who bought debt in the casino at a discount and later swapped it for equity. (Trump still owned a 10 percent stake in the Taj until recently, though he's not had a hand in running it for years.)

Icahn is a foe-turned-friend of Trump's and a public backer of the real estate magnate's campaign for the White House. Trump has deemed Icahn one of "the great businessmen of the world," while Icahn has called Trump "what this country needs at this time."

A court approved Icahn's plan to shed worker benefits that he said the casino couldn't afford at a time when Atlantic City is struggling. Four of the city's casinos closed in 2014, thanks in part to competition from new casinos in the region that gave gamblers more options closer to home. But Atlantic City's gambling industry has shown signs of a rebound since then. The eight remaining casinos together reported a profit of $106.5 million for the first quarter this year, up $25 million over the previous year, while the Taj itself reported a loss.

The union has recently tried to negotiate new contracts with five casinos in town. It succeeded in securing them at four, including the Tropicana, another property of Icahn's. The only remaining holdout is the Taj.

In a statement sent by a spokeswoman, the casino said that Icahn's firm, Icahn Enterprises, deserved credit for pumping $86 million into the Taj at a time "when no one else was willing to invest even $1." The casino "continues to struggle financially," management said, and concessions to the union "would further exacerbate the property's negative cash flow." The casino said the employees on the bargaining committee "seem hell-bent on trying to close this property and killing the jobs and livelihood of the other Taj employees including their own union members."

The biggest sticking point has been the loss of company-sponsored health care coverage. The union says it conducted a survey of its Taj members in March, finding that one-third of them had no coverage at all. Nearly half of workers were covered through government-funded plans, either under Medicare, Medicaid or the Affordable Care Act, the union said. The significant increase in health care costs means many workers' salaries don't go as far as they used to.

Chuck Baker, a member of the bargaining committee, said the health care plan the company proposed would not have covered his spouse. He did not think the plan was sufficient for his colleagues, so he voted to reject it. Baker argued that the employees had sacrificed much in recent years as the Taj foundered due to the economy and growing competition. He said it was time employees recouped some of what they had foregone.

"We gave up to help you -- we're asking for it back," said Baker, a 56-year-old cook who's spent 37 years working in the city's casinos. "[Icahn] has put millions into this building but nothing into the workers. That's the part that burns."

The Taj has kept its doors open throughout the strike. The company said it expects "minimal impact" from the work stoppage, though union members seemed intent on inflicting as much pain as possible. On Tuesday, dozens marched at a picket line at the casino's Pacific Avenue entrance, getting honks of support from passing cars.

Among the workers marching was Noelle DiSomma, a cocktail waitress who had her daughter in tow on the picket line. DiSomma has worked at the casino since 1990, grateful for what she calls "a wonderful job" that's provided a home and a good life for her and her family. She just wonders whether it will stay that way.

"Whereas these jobs were middle-class, now they're the working poor," she said.