Union workers from five Atlantic City casinos have voted overwhelmingly to authorize a July 1 strike, citing the need for better wages amid costs of inflation following the pandemic.
Members of Unite Here Local 54 on June 15 authorized their negotiating committee to strike against the Borgata and three casinos owned by Caesars Entertainment – Caesars, Harrah’s, and Tropicana – and a July 3 strike against Hard Rock if new contracts were not in place by then.
The vote comes as the summer travel season is ramping up for Atlantic City which sees an estimated 27 million people visiting annually.
Union president tells Atlantic City casinos ‘take this seriously’
Union President Bob McDevitt said 96% of the “several thousand” union members who cast ballots did so in favor of a strike.
“I caution the industry not to take this lightly. They need to take this seriously,” McDevitt said via Livestream at a press conference at the Atlantic City Convention Center where the vote took place. “This is a no [expletive] thing.”
Just weeks earlier, the same site at the Convention Center had been used for a job fair by the same casinos that could be affected by a strike.
A strike would affect roughly 10,000 workers, which make up a large part of the city’s hospitality workforce, McDevitt said.
The press conference and vote rallied a few thousand union members who gathered to chant, cheer and hold signs that read “Casino workers need a raise” and “We deserve a raise It’s a no-brainer. I voted Yes.”
How Atlantic City casinos, union got here
After contracts expired on May 31, workers picketed on the Boardwalk to demand the raises, McDevitt said.
The vote puts the decision of whether and when to strike in the hands of the worker negotiating committee. It is made up of hundreds of workers from all nine casinos, according to a Unite Here Local 54 statement.
Nikki Schwendeman, a Borgata Food Server who’s been in the industry for 38 years, said “We can’t wait and hope that the companies will do the right thing,” said Nikki Schwendeman.
“They need to know that we’re serious about winning the raises we deserve. That’s why I joined thousands of other members and voted yes to authorize a strike today.”
Casino workers say a strike is something they don’t want but something they may have to do.
“Historically speaking, we’ve always fought for our health care and not economics. This go around, we’re fighting for the economics,” said Ruthann Joyce, a bartender at Harrah’s after the vote.
This time, workers want better wages — about $18 an hour.
“We have put up so much the past couple of years to make sure companies make the money, but now, they are making the money they forgot about us,” Iris Sanchez, a housekeeper at Caesar’s, said following the vote at the convention center.
Where things stand with Atlantic City casinos
So from an Atlantic City casino perspective, nothing much is being said.
Borgata, Hard Rock, and the Caesars Entertainment did not respond to emails requesting comments.
Union organizers said wages have fallen behind in recent years. Some of the reasons are:
- The 2008 economic downturn
- Damages from Hurricane Sandy
- The recent pandemic followed by inflation
And here are some numbers based on a union survey of 1,934 casino workers:
- 61% reported they struggled to pay their rent or mortgage on time in the past year
- 32% reported they lacked money for food
- 37% lacked money for utilities.
McDevitt said Bally’s and Ocean Casino Resort have what he called “me-too” agreements. That means Bally’s and the Ocean will honor the terms of contracts reached with the city’s larger properties.
McDevitt said the agreements guarantee those two casinos will not be struck.
The labor dispute comes amid a volatile time for the New Jersey casino industry.
Casinos and their online partners collectively make more money now than before COVID19 shuttered their doors in 2020.
But the casinos say those statistics are misleading.
They say they get to keep only about 30% of online casino and sports betting revenue, with the rest going to their third-party partners.
Also, in-person revenue won from gamblers is a crucial metric. Not all casinos have surpassed their pre-pandemic levels, gaming officials say.
AC casinos are no stranger to striking union workers
Local 54 went on strike in 2004 which lasted for 34 days and walked out against the former Trump Taj Mahal casino in July 2016. The Trump Taj Mahal strike ended with the casino shutting down in October of the same year. It reopened in 2018 with as Hard Rock.
The labor challenges come against a complicated economic backdrop. The hospitality industry came back to life last year after a pandemic-inflicted slump in 2020. However, the industry now faces uncertainty as economists warn of a recession.
The US gambling industry set a revenue record in 2021.
In early, 2022 most commercial gambling states were tracking well ahead of the early months of 2021, according to the American Gaming Association.
AGA reports that New Jersey’s gambling industry has generated an estimated $1.6 billion in the first four months of 2022, representing a 19% increase over 2021.