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Rod Smith

Striking Atlantic City Workers Taking Fight Overseas

1 November 2004

A delegation of striking casino workers from Atlantic City will meet with major service unions in London next week to warn them that major American gaming companies are hostile to worker benefits and unions, union officials said Friday.

The trip is also a sign that union workers striking seven Atlantic City casinos are raising the ante in their fight to link future casino worker contract negotiations in Las Vegas and Atlantic City, a proposal the affected companies say they will never accept.

Bruce Raynor, president of UNITE HERE, the national umbrella union for Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local 54 in Atlantic City and Culinary Local 226 in Las Vegas, said Friday that the unions will use every weapon they have to "fight the big casinos that are trying to cut workers' health benefits, contract out their jobs and break their union."

David Hames, an associate professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas who specializes in labor and dispute resolution, said the newest escalation in the confrontation between the unions and the gaming companies is an effort to mobilize support and increase union influence over any settlement.

"What the hope has to be -- assuming there is some desire to settle -- is by mobilizing allies, somebody will blink, say 'We have to end this' and back off their demands. It's becoming a game of chicken. Somebody has to back down or you're going to crack," he said.

In another move to increase pressure for settlement, the New York City Central Labor Council joined the fray Friday by running a full-page advertisement in The New York Times urging union members and retirees in the New York City area to honor picket lines at the seven Atlantic City casinos hit by the Oct. 1 worker walkout.

UNITE HERE has also been running a heavy schedule of radio commercials on the major New York City radio stations with national personalties urging residents to boycott the casinos affected by the strike, or, at least, not to cross picket lines.

Atlantic City operators, including Harrah's Entertainment, Caesars Entertainment, Aztar Corp. and Colony Capital, the companies hit by the strike, bus large numbers of senior citizens from New York City and offer them complimentaries in their casinos to entice day visitors.

In Las Vegas, Aztar owns and operates the Tropicana; Caesars Entertainment owns and operates Caesars Palace, the Flamingo, Bally's and Paris Las Vegas; Harrah's owns and operates the Rio and Harrah's Las Vegas; and Colony Capital owns and operates the Las Vegas Hilton.

Harrah's spokesman David Strow and Caesars Entertainment spokesman Robert Stewart declined to comment on the most recent union moves. Spokesmen for Aztar and Colony Capital could not be reached.

More than 10,000 union bartenders, cocktail servers, housekeepers, porters, food servers and counter servers belonging to Local 54 walked off their jobs at seven Atlantic City casinos more than a month ago.

UNITE HERE and its two local affiliates are demanding three-year contracts that would expire at the same time as Culinary contracts in Las Vegas.

The have said the three-year term and linking the agreements between the two gaming cities is essential so the union can negotiate effectively with Harrah's once it completes its pending $9.4 billion acquisition of Caesars Entertainment.

The union claims the other issues cited by Raynor, plus wage rates, are unresolved. But the companies claim issues involving wages, health benefits and subcontracting to nonunion shops have been settled.

Culinary spokeswoman Maya Holmes said the delegation of four striking workers, which she will join, was invited to the United Kingdom by GMB and TNG, the country's two largest service unions.

She said the goal of the mission is not to derail legislation pending in Parliament to liberalize gambling, but to explain what the unions should expect if legislators there permit major casinos, now barred in the United Kingdom, and American gaming giants to enter the market.

Both Harrah's and Caesars Entertainment have deals pending to develop megaresort casinos in England if the bill is adopted as expected.

Joann Orr, a cocktail server at Caesars Atlantic City and one of the striking workers who will go to London on Tuesday, said workers and the unions in the United Kingdom need to know what they're in for if the companies are allowed to enter that market.

"We need to give them a clear warning. This is a very, very sad situation. When I started with Caesars World in 1980, it was a good company," she said.

"But now, Harrah's makes the former Park Place (now Caesars Entertainment) look like Cub Scouts. We saw what they did when they bought the Showboat in Atlantic City, cutting jobs, eliminating the cost of living (adjustment) and hiring nonunion," Orr said.

"Ultimately, their goal is to have part-time workers with no benefits. It's all about cost, not people. They'd like to see the union go away. They'd like to run the company without any (full-time) workers and they'd just do away with the customers too, if they could," she said.