Atlantic City workers push for better wages / Respect at the core of casino confrontation

Behind a façade of flashing lights and slot machines, Atlantic City is plagued by a deep culture of poverty — at least for the tens of thousands of casino workers in the area.

Unite Here is a casino, hotel, airport and food service union that is fighting for the respect and wages of Atlantic City workers. (Lianna Lazur / Photo Editor)

On Saturday, March 23, members of Unite Here, a casino, hotel, airport and food service union, shared their experiences in a panel discussion titled, “Under the Boardwalk: The Continued Fight for Social Justice in Atlantic City.”

Ben Begleiter, research director of Unite Here, spoke about the 34-day strike in 2004 in which 10,000 casino workers in Atlantic City protested their lack of contract.

In response to the longest strike in the city’s history, most of the companies gave in to the workers’ demands, Begleiter said.

Revel and Tropicana are the only two casinos in Atlantic City that have not agreed upon a contract for their employees, said Rodney Mills, Jr., a 21-year employee of the Tropicana and member of Local 54, the Atlantic City casino workers’ union. Mills told of the subpar working conditions at Tropicana, particularly under the new ownership of business magnate, Carl Icahn.

“Basically, they want to take away a decent way of living, of life, or even more or less to give your kids a chance to go to college,” Mills said.

On June 15, 2012, Mills joined 20 Tropicana employees on a strike, which led to their arrest and one-month suspension from work. During their suspension, however, the employees organized themselves and visited the other thousand or so workers’ homes to gain support for their cause.

Dani Nobel, a member of Unite Here, worked in a casino in Cleveland, where she found herself infuriated by the treatment of her coworkers, many who were working full-time but still living in poverty. She and many others also fell victim to sexual harassment, from both customers and managers. In response, Nobel and the workers confronted the management, stating that they would no longer tolerate any inappropriate behavior.

“Fundamentally, it’s about respect,” Nobel said.

Katie Schechter, boycott organizer for Unite Here, takes an external approach to protesting. Her job involves persuading those planning to hold events in Atlantic City to boycott abusive companies. Because these events account for a tremendous portion of hotel revenue on weekdays, the boycott places an economic strain on these companies, she said.

Sophomore sociology major Joanna Peluso, was greatly moved by these stories.

“I think it’s really interesting, this perspective, and how close … it is to home, how relevant and important it is to see fairness and justice, especially in the workplace,” Peluso said.

Despite unsuccessful efforts to secure social justice throughout all of Atlantic City, improvements have undoubtedly been made. Mills, who comes from a long line of military personnel, ensures that he will continue the fight.

“It’s in my DNA,” he said.