- Associated Press - Thursday, July 21, 2016

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. (AP) - With a strike against the Trump Taj Mahal casino about to enter its fourth week and no end in sight, Atlantic City’s main casino workers union turned up the heat Thursday, surrounding the massive gambling hall with hundreds of picketers, some traveling hundreds of miles to support the walkout.

Local 54 of the Unite-HERE union held a rally and march around the casino with a crowd it predicted would reach 1,000 people. Picketers from unions in Baltimore, Washington, New Haven, Connecticut, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and New York were among the protesters.

The union walked off the job on July 1, and the Taj remains open. Three other casinos were given a negotiation extension by the union and were not threatened with a strike.

The main issue in the strike is the union’s demand that health care and pension benefits be restored. The casino on Monday withdrew its offer of a level of health insurance that the union had rejected.

“We’re going into the fourth week of this strike, and it’s time for the labor community to come together and show its strength,” Bob McDevitt, Local 54’s president, said. “This property is crippled. The longer this company refuses to meet the standards of a decent contract, the more damage is done to the customer base, which will find new homes, as they are doing already. The longer this goes on, the more it hurts the company.”

The Taj Mahal was opened by Donald Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, in 1990. But it is now owned by his friend and fellow billionaire, Carl Icahn, who acquired it from bankruptcy court in March. Trump cut most ties in 2009 with the casino and its former ownership company that bore his name, having lost control of it in a previous bankruptcy.

Taj Mahal management declined comment Thursday.

Local 54 represents cooks, luggage handlers, beverage servers and room cleaners at Atlantic City’s eight casinos, about 1,000 of which are on strike against the Taj Mahal.

In October 2014, the casino’s former owners, Trump Entertainment Resorts, got a judge to terminate union members’ health care and pension benefits, saying they are unaffordable in Atlantic City’s current slimmed-down casino market. Icahn, who invested millions to keep the casino afloat during bankruptcy, also said the benefits are unaffordable and threatened to cut off financial aid and close the casino if the union succeeded in restoring them.

The union targeted five of the city’s eight casinos for a possible strike, but reached settlements with four of them just before a July 1 strike deadline. Only the Taj Mahal did not sign a new deal.

The casino offered to reinstate health care, but at a lower level than other casinos, at least temporarily. The union rejected the offer and went on strike.

“All we want is the same contract every other casino has,” said Pete Battaglini, who has worked as a bellman at the Taj Mahal since the day it opened 26 years ago. “I’m ready to get back to work. I want to work; we all do. But we won’t do it without a fair contract.”

New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney, himself a union official, came to the rally to lend support to the strikers.

“The Taj is the only place behaving the way they are,” he said. “Their workers lost their health care and pensions, and that’s not acceptable. You can’t treat your workers the way they do and expect to be successful.”

Follow Wayne Parry at https://twitter.com/WayneParryAC

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