ATLANTIC CITY — City resident Tania Morillo works in environmental services for Caesars Atlantic City, cleaning public spaces in the casino hotel, and after 24 years on the union job barely makes more than teenagers in their first Boardwalk job.
“I make $15.42 an hour,” Morillo, 53, said at a Thursday news conference at City Hall, led by City Council Vice President Kaleem Shabazz, to draw attention to the need for casino workers to get a better deal in their new contract being negotiated by Unite Here Local 54.
Morillo said she gets no tips. The mother of two adult children has been struggling to deal with rising prices from inflation.
Shabazz — flanked by Republican Atlantic County Commissioner Andrew Parker and Democratic City Councilman Aaron “Sporty” Randolph — called for a fair deal and to avert a strike.
Local 54 members have authorized leaders to call a strike if no contract is agreed to by early July, potentially affecting the July 4 holiday and the national NAACP convention from July 14 to 21.
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“We are working diligently to continue our positive relationship with Unite Here and our team members and feel confident we will be able to reach an agreement,” Casino Association of New Jersey President Joe Lupo said Thursday in a text response to questions.
Atlantic City casino workers are voicing strong support for a potential strike against the gambling houses as union members vote on whether to authorize a walkout if new contracts are not reached soon. Members of Local 54 of the Unite Here union were voting Wednesday on whether to empower their leadership to call a strike. Voting ended at 7 p.m. and union officials said they expected it to take about an hour to count the ballots. A “yes” vote will not result in an immediate strike. It simply gives the union’s negotiating committee, comprised of workers from all nine casinos, the power to call a strike if and when they see fit.
Local 54 President Bob McDevitt said Thursday he is optimistic but prepared for whatever may happen.
“We’re at different places with each property,” McDevitt said of the three Caesars properties, Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City and Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa. “I would say everyone is motivated to get a settlement.”
Negotiations were daily Monday through Wednesday this week, McDevitt said, and will start again after the weekend.
By the first half of next week, the union should know whether they are on a path to a “successful contract,” McDevitt said.
Randolph is a retired casino cook and longtime Local 54 member, he said.
“I never forgot the salary I had to make as a cook to support my family,” Randolph said. “At this economical time, everybody needs a raise, and we need a substantial raise. That’s all they are asking for, a fair job, fair pay for the hours they put in.”
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At its Wednesday night meeting, City Council unanimously passed a resolution in support of a fair wage for casino workers, and to “urge casino employers to raise wages and staffing and negotiate in good faith to avert a strike.”
“I’m here today in support of Local 54,” said Parker, who teaches in the Atlantic City school district and lives in Egg Harbor Township. “We are projecting for our economy to do well this summer. We are all hoping this is a major, major summer for Atlantic City, for Atlantic County, for our area. Whether Republican or Democrat … we are all interested in seeing our shore, our area thrive economically.”
“There is no doubt that all elected officials in Atlantic City and county elected officials are united, regardless of partisan identities,” Shabazz said. “This is not a Republican or Democratic issue. This is an issue of right and wrong.”
A fair wage for her job would be more than $20 per hour, Morillo estimated, especially after so much time on the job. But she said she is leaving the negotiating to the union.
“We as workers have to be together,” Morillo said. “We deserve what we are asking for. I don’t want a strike.”
“It is our fervent hope there is no strike,” Shabazz said, adding it would send the wrong message about the resort throughout the nation and world.
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The NAACP does not cross picket lines, Shabazz said, calling the nation’s oldest civil rights organization “union friendly.”
The city expects about 8,000 delegates to come to town for the NAACP convention, Shabazz said.
“I am getting phone calls every day from people asking if they should book (their rooms),” Shabazz said. “I tell them yes. I am in daily contact with Local 54. I see their sincerity.”
As president of the hosting chapter of the NAACP, Shabazz has a lot riding on the success of the national convention.
Members of Local 54 authorized their negotiating committee to call a July 1 strike against Borgata and the three casinos owned by Caesars Entertainment — Caesars Atlantic City, Harrah’s Resort Atlantic City and Tropicana Atlantic City — and a July 3 strike against Hard Rock if new contracts are not in place by then.
The union says it is seeking significant wage increases in the new contract as its members have suffered setbacks due to the coronavirus pandemic and rapidly rising prices for consumer goods.
The economic benefits of hosting the NAACP convention are expected to be substantial, according to Larry Sieg, executive director of Meet AC, the agency that works to bring conventions to town.
“Not only is it going to garner national and international media attention, we are looking at over 8,000 attendees — 7,700-plus room nights for hotel properties, $9.3 million in economic impact,” Sieg has said.
The convention will be held at the Atlantic City Convention Center, and there will be events around the city and at the Atlantic City Country Club in Northfield, according to organizers. Attendees will be staying in properties throughout the city.
REPORTER: Michelle Brunetti Post