- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 8, 2014

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. (AP) - Casino workers blocked traffic on a highway Wednesday night to protest demands for contract givebacks being made to keep the Trump Taj Mahal casino open.

Members of Local 54 of the Unite-HERE union swarmed an intersection at the foot of the Atlantic City Expressway and blocked traffic heading into the seaside gambling resort for about 15 minutes shortly before 6 p.m. Police said 24 protesters who sat down in the intersection and refused to move when ordered by officers were arrested and charged with obstructing a highway and failure to move.

They chanted a new variation on a popular civil rights theme, vowing, “No health care, no peace!”

They were given tickets to appear at a future court date and released.

“We’re sitting down to stand up for our health care coverage,” said Charles Baker, a cook at the Taj Mahal since it opened in 1990. “We fought too long and too hard for this coverage to give it up. Most of our members are 45 or older and this is the time in our lives when we need health care coverage the most.”

Trump Entertainment Resorts is threatening to close the Taj Mahal on Nov. 13 unless the union agrees to give up its pension plan and health insurance, the city drastically reduces its tax assessment, and state government contributes $25 million in aid. The company asked billionaire investor Carl Icahn to take it over by converting its debt into ownership, and investing $100 million to keep the Taj Mahal running.

The casino wants the employees to find coverage on their own through the Affordable Care Act, and offered subsidies to help them do it.

Union president Bob McDevitt said Trump Entertainment is acting as a proxy for Icahn, who also owns the Tropicana, and won’t agree to extend the current union contract through March.

“Today is about the workers standing up for themselves,” he said. “We’re not going to ignore the incestuous relationship between these two operators. While the other casinos agreed to extend the contract for six months to give everyone time to deal with the absolutely horrible problems of this summer, Tropicana has chosen to strip-mine the union contract and destroy the quality of life in Atlantic City.”

Four of Atlantic City’s 12 casinos have closed this year, although Revel’s new owners plan to reopen it; the Taj Mahal would be the fifth.

Icahn rejected the union’s criticism, adding that it was he who rescued the Tropicana from bankruptcy four years ago and saved union jobs there.

“I saved the Tropicana,” he told The Associated Press. “They won’t tell you that. I risked $100 million when no one else would do it and that’s why they have jobs today.”

Tropicana president Tony Rodio said his casino has gained market share and added 250 jobs under Icahn’s ownership.

Icahn said he had nothing to do with the Taj Mahal aside from owning the company’s debt. He said he’d reluctantly invest another $100 million in return for union concessions and government aid, noting that the casino is losing $7 million a month without even paying interest on its debt, or any of its property taxes.

He said the union needs to make some concessions to help save Atlantic City’s casino industry.

“The patient is on its death bed and rather than helping it, they’re whacking it in the head,” Icahn said.

Paul Smith, a Taj Mahal cook for 21 years and a single father of two children, says his health insurance kept him afloat after suffering a heart attack, which generated nearly $1 million in medical costs.

“We need to fight for these benefits,” he said. “Without health insurance, I wouldn’t be here today. This needs to be done, and I’m willing to do whatever needs to be done to keep it.”

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Wayne Parry can be reached at https://twitter.com/WayneParryAC

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