Casino workers march in Atlantic City

Atlantic City – Thousands of casino workers in yellow shirts with the United Auto Workers insignia marched with their union brethren from several states on one of the city’s busiest streets yesterday to make a point.

The rally and march, which swelled to about 5,000 strong by midafternoon – on the official first day of summer and on one of Atlantic City’s busiest gambling days of the week – showcased growing frustration over the lack of a contract for the resort’s 8,000 table-game dealers after 15 months of efforts to join the UAW.

Since March 2007, casino dealers, slot technicians, Keno and simulcast workers have organized and won six union-representation elections at four of the 11 Atlantic City casinos: Caesars, Trump Plaza, Bally’s and Tropicana.

But they are nowhere near signing a contract with the four casinos – something not sitting well with Raj Patel, a part-time dealer at Bally’s.

Patel says he makes $ 4 an hour and relies on tips for the rest of his income. He receives no medical or health-care benefits as a part-timer. UAW officials say the casinos have preferred to hire such workers over full-timers as a way to save labor costs.

„All 130 Indian dealers at Bally’s want a contract,“ said Patel, 48, of Galloway Township. „If we don’t get one in three weeks, we will strike.“

Patel marched with several dealers of Indian descent. Asian dealers, who held up signs in Chinese and other languages, also walked close together, reflecting the march’s multiethnic support – which many say was key to the UAW‘s gaining a foothold here last year.

The UAW now represents more than 8,800 casino workers in Connecticut, Indiana, Michigan, New Jersey and Rhode Island.

It joined forces with casino workers and health organizations to aggressively lobby and win political support for Atlantic City’s first-ever comprehensive casino smoking ban that became law on April 30.

Several earlier attempts to unionize Atlantic City’s dealers fell short. Other major casino employees except dealers are unionized.

But the East Coast gaming landscape has altered significantly. Slots competition from Pennsylvania, New York and other states has forced Atlantic City casino operators to find ways to streamline costs. The casinos here have introduced electronic table games that don’t require dealers – leaving many dealers in town nervous.

„It’s terrible. It’s very bad,“ said Mercella Jacob, who arrived by chartered bus with her group of about 50 from the AFSCME, AFL-CIO District Council 37 in New York City. She is a shop steward with that union.

„These folks need health care, a retirement plan, a contract and housing,“ said Jacob, 55, a single mother from Brooklyn who has six grown children, as she marched yesterday.

Hers was among several buses, including about 15 from Pennsylvania, many leaving directly from Philadelphia, that brought workers to show their support.

Yesterday’s noon rally also attracted numerous local, state and federal politicians, including Gov. Corzine and U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, both Democrats whose political base is heavily dependent on labor. Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama delivered a message to the casino workers that was read aloud and drew robust cheers.

The march began around 1 p.m., near the corner of Pacific and States Avenues, by the Showboat casino, and made its way down Pacific, past all eight casinos located along the Boardwalk, and ended around 3 p.m.

The chanting grew louder as the workers approached the four gambling halls where UAW officials say their efforts to negotiate a contract with management have been stonewalled, despite last year’s successful union elections.

„Gary Loveman, shame on you! Gary Loveman, shame on you!“ taunted the marchers as they stopped in front of Bally’s, and then Caesars. Loveman is chief executive officer of Harrah’s Entertainment Inc., which owns Bally’s, Caesars, Showboat and Harrah’s Resort in Atlantic City.

„Harrah’s Entertainment remains committed to doing what’s best for our team of 16,000 employees and their families,“ said a company statement yesterday in response to the rally and union criticism. „Caesars intends to continue its good-faith bargaining with the United Auto Workers, as it has through 27 sessions over the past year. We remain equally committed at Bally’s.“

The chanting grew to a crescendo, with the loudest boos, in front of the Tropicana Casino & Resort, where more than 1,000 casino employees were laid off last year. The casino has been run by a state-appointed overseer since its former owner was stripped of its license in December.

Several dealers said the mass layoffs at the Tropicana were both a catalyst and a wake-up call for them to unionize.

„It’s scary,“ said Eric Knuttel, 49, a dealer for 26 years at the Tropicana, as he marched with his sister and her children. „I’m happy with my job.

„I just want to feel safe and know that I’m not going to be replaced by a machine.“