It's been a rough two years for Atlantic City.
This seaside gambling resort has seen a third of its casinos vanish; come close to bankruptcy; and lost tens of millions in tax court to casinos that appealed their assessments. The state wants to take over its finances and decision-making power, and voters are set to decide whether to authorize new casinos near New York City, hurting business in Atlantic City.
Now comes a threatened strike against five of the remaining eight casinos, just as the busiest weekend of the year approaches.
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"This is my life," Mayor Don Guardian said. "Every day I wake up, there's some new crisis. It's actually a good day when there's only one."
Local 54 of the Unite-HERE union says it will go on strike Friday if it can't reach new contracts with three casinos owned by Caesars Entertainment (Bally's, Caesars and Harrah's) and two casinos owned by billionaire investor Carl Icahn (the Tropicana and the Trump Taj Mahal). About 6,500 of the union's nearly 10,000 workers are at the five hotels. They cook and serve food and drinks to casino guests, carry the luggage and clean the hotel rooms, and provide the very infrastructure of Atlantic City's hospitality industry.
The union is out to recoup concessions it gave the casinos in past negotiations when the gambling halls were in worse financial shape; four of the 12 casinos shut down in 2014. The surviving ones, with less competition, are beginning to see their finances stabilize, and union president Bob McDevitt says it's time to make the workers whole again.
"Nobody wants a strike," he said. "But nobody wants to work 10 years without a raise. We will do whatever we need to do to make sure these jobs provide a good middle-class existence."
The casinos say they want a fair contract for both sides.
Bally's, Caesars, Harrah's and Tropicana were negotiating Wednesday, and the Taj Mahal has talks set for Thursday morning.
Three other casinos — Borgata, Golden Nugget and Resorts — are not being targeted by the union and would be unaffected by a strike.
Dealers are not part of Local 54 and would remain on the job during a strike.
The union is busily preparing for a strike. On Tuesday, it began signing workers up for electronic cards through which they will receive strike pay during a walkout. (The union won't say how much each worker will receive.) On Wednesday, it began training strike captains in how to maintain orderly picket lines without blocking traffic or running afoul of any laws.
"We want you to maintain law and order and defuse any situation that may arise," union organizer Patty Burke told about 100 potential strike leaders at the union hall.
The union distributed a list of do's (peacefully try to persuade people to honor picket lines; explain the reasons for the strike; call people who cross the lines "scabs" but not any other names) and don'ts (block entrances or exits; cause any damage; get in a heated confrontation; threaten anyone.)
Most people here hope it doesn't come to that.
"That would be a horrendous outcome for Atlantic City," City Councilman Kaleem Shabazz said. "If there's anything we don't need right now, it's headlines about a strike on July Fourth. We want the casinos to be open and our workers to be compensated fairly. Nobody wins if there's a strike."
David Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said the timing of the threatened walkout is particularly bad.
"It certainly won't help," he said. "The city's casinos seem to be stabilizing now, and a labor disruption could set them back considerably."