AC casino union members arrested during protest
ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. (AP) - June 16, 2012 (WPVI) -- Dozens of casino union members sat down in the street, blocked traffic from entering the Tropicana Casino and Resort and were arrested Friday evening, saying they were breaking the law just as management of the casino is breaking it by refusing to bargain in good faith.
Local 54 of the Unite-HERE union termed the actions a campaign of civil disobedience aimed at getting the casino to resume payments to a pension plan it unilaterally terminated earlier this year after declaring an impasse in contract talks.
"We're sitting down to stand up to Tony Rodio!" said Donna DeCaprio, secretary of the union, referring to the Tropicana's president.
At 6 p.m., several hundred demonstrators marched off the Boardwalk, around the side of the casino and streamed onto Pacific Avenue, the main drag along which the Boardwalk casinos have their main entrances. They wandered out into an intersection, bringing traffic to a halt, then sat down in the roadway, led by Paul Smith, a cook at the Taj Mahal Casino Resort who was wearing black and white-striped jail garb for his anticipated arrest.
"I think it's disgusting what they're doing to these poor people," he said shortly before his arrest. "We have a billionaire coming in trying to ruin workers' lives and take away their pension and break the law by trying to force an unfair contract down their throats."
Carl Icahn bought the Tropicana out of bankruptcy court in 2010. As a new owner, the Tropicana says, he was not obligated to assume the pension liabilities of previous owners to a fund that is underfunded, by some estimates, by as much as $1.5 billion. The casino instead said it would give employees cash payments equal to what their pension allotments would have been, or deposit that money into their 401(k) accounts.
The union fought that decision and got the National Labor Relations Board to issue unfair labor practice complaints against the Tropicana.
Union president Bob McDevitt said 50 of his union members were arrested and quickly released on summonses charging them with disobeying a police order and blocking a roadway. Police later said there were 49 arrests.
McDevitt had conferred with police before the protest and agreed to have the union members leaving peacefully under their own power once police officers placed them under arrest.
After the demonstrators had sat in the street for about 10 minutes, police began tapping each one on the shoulder, prompting them to stand up, be handcuffed with plastic cuffs, and walked to a sheriff's office bus for transportation to an off-site processing area. A huge cheer went up when the first busload of protesters pulled away from the casino.
One of those who was arrested was Rodney Mills, a waiter at the Tropicana's buffet for 19 years.
"You've gotta stand for something," he said. "You can't just let the company take over and just sit back and take it. I'm not a fan of a contract they imposed that nobody agreed to."
Tropicana president Tony Rodio said the demonstration, which lasted about 30 minutes, barely affected the casino.
"Inside the building, you can't even tell this is going on," he said as he watched the arrests from the curb. "Frankly, I'm embarrassed for them. This is just silly."
Rodio said the casino is more determined than ever that its contributions to the old pension plan are over.
"There is absolutely zero - and please emphasize the word 'zero' - chance that we are going to stay in that pension plan," he said.
Rodio burst out laughing when asked if he was concerned the union may eventually call a strike against the Tropicana.
"If they strike, in the first day, such a large percentage of them will cross the picket line it won't even be funny," he said.
The dispute is rapidly shaping up as a test of wills between the casino and the powerful union, which brought the resort to its knees with a 2004 strike.
The Tropicana and Revel, which opened in April, are the only two of Atlantic City's 12 casinos that do not have current contracts with Local 54.
Until now, both sides had been working hard to achieve labor peace, saying that a strike would cause far greater damage now than it did seven years ago, when Atlantic City's revenues were near their height. During the past five years, Atlantic City's casino revenues have fallen from $5.2 billion to $3.3 billion last year. Thousands of jobs have disappeared, as well.
McDevitt says the demonstration is just the first step in what he promises will be an escalating campaign of pressure against the Tropicana if the contract impasse continues.
"This is the first; it will not be the last," he said. "We're going to keep ratcheting things up until they agree to a fair contract and save the pensions our employees worked so hard for."
new jersey, atlantic city, labor unions, protest, casinos, local/state
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