AC dealers seeking casino contracts

January 29, 2008 12:12:51 PM PST
Barbara Basile, a single mother struggling to support herself and two teenage sons on a part-time salary as a dealer at Bally's Atlantic City, personifies what the unionization drive being fought casino-by-casino here is all about. "This is my only job, and I'm in despair about that fact that I have no health insurance for my children," she said. "All I want is to be able to support my kids; I'm not asking for the moon."

Basile was one of dozens of dealers from casinos across the city who rallied outside the Sheraton hotel Tuesday morning as contract talks began between the United Auto Workers and the Tropicana Casino and Resort. The talks with Caesars Atlantic City are in their ninth month without a resolution.

The union has yet to reach an agreement with any of the four Atlantic City casinos at which they won representation elections last year, including Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino, and Bally's. The union plans to try to organize workers at all 11 casinos here.

It lost elections at Trump Marina Hotel Casino, the Atlantic City Hilton Casino Resort, and at Caesars, where cashiers voted against joining the UAW.

"This is about the quality of life," said Paula Cifelli, a dealer at Caesars. "Everyone's running around working two jobs because they can't afford to live in this area without having two jobs.

"We're not here to slam the casinos," she said. "We all want a happy, fair contract. You have happy employees, you get happy customers."

Among the chief issues the union is seeking to negotiate are salary increases, job security, more full-time jobs, and better health care coverage for part-time workers.

The talks come as Atlantic City's casinos are still smarting from their first-ever down year in 2007, when revenue declined by 5.7 percent over the previous year, due largely to out-of-state slots parlors siphoning away Atlantic City's gaming customers.

Further complicating matters is the uncertain status of the Tropicana, whose former owners, Columbia Sussex Corp., were stripped of their casino license last month, forcing the property to be sold. A new buyer probably won't be found until the end of April, making it difficult for interim management to conduct meaningful negotiations.

Representatives of the Tropicana and Caesars wouldn't comment Tuesday on the negotiations.

Basile, the Bally's dealer, said the contract talks have given her hope for the first time that things might get better.

"I had no Christmas last year. Zero," she said. "I didn't even decorate. Why put up a tree if you can't decorate it? I had to explain to the kids that I had to pay the utilities and there was nothing left over for decorations or lights, and that there would be no presents to put underneath it."

She said her schedule is sometimes as sparse as two shifts per week. Going out to eat, or even renting videos are unaffordable luxuries.

"My apartment lease is up and I'm going to have to move because I can't afford to renew it," she said. "I'd love to be able to let the kids remember what steak tastes like instead of hot dogs and macaroni and cheese every night."

Joe DePalo said he is hanging on only by living at his ailing mother's apartment in Toms River, making the 60-mile commute four times a week to his job at Bally's.

"I'm 51 years old, living with my mother, and I have no health insurance," he said. "I'm an excellent employee. I show up and do my job to the best of my ability, but I'm not recognized for it. We need to have a voice for people like me."