In Atlantic City right now workers at the Trump Taj Mahal casino hotel, members of UNITE HERE Local 54, are waging a struggle that should make it one of those crystallizing flashpoints that garner national attention and mobilize support from the entire labor movement, progressives, and working people at large.
Such flashpoints arise only occasionally in workers’ struggles for justice. In living memory, for example, Eastern Airlines, PATCO, Pittston, the Decatur wars, UPS, and most recently Verizon are among those that have attained that status. Those flashpoints of national concern and mobilization occur when what particular groups of workers are fighting for and against connects with broader tendencies and concerns in workplaces and the society in general. Downsizing, speedup, outsourcing, privatization, capital flight, unsafe working conditions, profitable employers’ demands for concessions that imperil workers’ standard of living are all among conditions that have triggered those moments. The striking Trump Taj Mahal workers are involved in precisely such a fundamental struggle now, one that should resonate far and wide among American workers and their unions.
Nearly 1,000 cooks, bartenders, housekeepers, cocktail servers and other workers there went on strike on July 1 – the culmination of a twenty-month struggle to restore pay and benefit cuts that Donald Trump’s crony and notorious billionaire corporate raider Carl Icahn imposed on workers after obtaining permission to do so from a bankruptcy judge. Last year, it should be noted, Trump indicated that if elected he “would love to bring my friend Carl Icahn” to his administration as Treasury Secretary.
Following the bankruptcy ruling, Trump Taj Mahal workers lost health insurance, pensions, even severance pay. Workers have seen their average total compensation cut by more than a third. One striker with a chronic medical condition recently died alone at home without access to medical are, and there is no reason to believe that his case is unique. There are many other horror stories, including workers faced with losing their homes and apartments in addition to suffering other material and emotional hardships.
The Trump Taj Mahal strike is an important moment for us all because these workers are on the frontline against forces that threaten us all and that lay bare what a Donald Trump presidency would have in store for millions of American workers. Both Trump, who built the Taj Mahal, and Icahn, who is the current owner, have taken millions from the property, driven it into bankruptcy, and left the workers holding the bag. Icahn, as Trump Taj Mahal’s sole debtholder between 2010 and 2014, took $350 million out of the business. Icahn has a long history—going back nearly thirty years to his takeover of TWA airlines—of bleeding companies of assets, gutting pensions and benefits, and then tossing aside the firms’ hollowed out carcasses. Manipulation of employer-friendly bankruptcy laws has also been a Trump specialty, one that he has used on several occasions to stiff contractors, going back to when he was the original “too big to fail” scamster at the beginning of the 1990s. Combined, Trump and Icahn have used the bankruptcy tool at the Taj Mahal multiple times.
Another reason we need to see the Trump Taj Mahal strike as all our fight—in addition to the outrageous injustice and hardship Icahn has perpetrated on these workers—is that this struggle in Atlantic City sheds light on some important mystifications that need to be clarified if we hope to turn the tide against the intensifying predatory assaults on American workers’ standard of living.
For instance, the Trump Taj Mahal struggle makes clear how important union representation is to workers’ ability to provide secure, decent lives with dignity and opportunity for themselves and their loved ones. Politicians and the commentariat babble about the “middle class” and commonly treat the notion more as a moral (or cultural or racial) category than an economic one. And, by lumping together people with $50,000 annual income and those with $250,000, the notion obscures the reality that a large chunk of the so-called middle class are workers who work in unionized shops and industries and whose jobs have not been degraded. Twenty-two months ago, Icahn went about consciously and willfully trying to degrade the quality of those workers’ jobs, to attack and undermine the hard-won material bases for sustaining a livelihood with dignity on the job and standing in the community. That’s the complaint most commonly and passionately expressed by those striking workers, and that’s why they are absolutely unwavering. Ninety-eight percent of the bargaining unit went out, and even Icahn’s threat two weeks ago that he will close the property after Labor Day had no effect on participation in the strike. The workers are still picketing around the clock.
The Taj Mahal fight is a frontline battle in the systematic attacks on working people’s living standards in this country perpetrated by the likes of Donald Trump and Carl Icahn and their ideological affiliates Mike Pence, Scott Walker, Bruce Rauner, Pat McCrory, Paul Ryan and the Congressional Republicans, the education “reform” billionaires, the Koch brothers and ALEC, the many tentacles of the carceral state, all of whom are intent on destroying public goods and services, and good public jobs, if not the very idea of a public. To keep the focus on Icahn and Trump, however, what better poster boys could there be for the predatory “billionaire class” Bernie Sanders railed against during his presidential campaign?And we should be clear that, even though the Trump Taj Mahal is a private firm, Icahn’s pursuit of plunder has broader ramifications for the Atlantic City community.
Voters and public officials, as well as opinion-leading institutions, in Atlantic City have been clear all along that gaming would be welcome in the city as a major industry only if it operated in ways that are compatible with and enhance the common well-being of the city and its residents. References to this presumed compact suffused the campaign for authorizing legislation in 1976. The union has played a crucial role in defining and defending the concrete terms of the relationship between industry and community, including through a month-long 2004 strike against seven casinos that established general standards for wages, benefits, and working conditions in the city’s casino industry. Similarly, when the industry has contracted in recent years, Local 54 has worked hard and successfully to find comparable jobs for workers displaced by contraction. Icahn and his minions deny the existence of any such compact, but the outstanding fact is that every other casino operator in the city honors it at least in principle.
The casino industry came to Atlantic City in the mid-1970s, at the same time that what soon would be called deindustrialization was already ravaging the so called “rust belt” of the Northeast and Midwest. Cities dominated by single industries, from Akron to Gary to Detroit, have suffered catastrophically as a result of unrestrained downsizing, outsourcing, and capital flight. Local 54 and its members, with resolute support from the UNITE HERE international are committed to preventing predatory billionaires like Trump and Icahn from setting in motion a similar cycle of devastation in Atlantic City. That fact shed light on another important mystification that needs to be overcome – that there was something intrinsic to manufacturing jobs in the mystical Golden Age of the postwar years that meant that they provided decent, stable wages and benefits. Often enough, that mystification depends on a view of what kinds of people—disproportionately whites and men—held manufacturing jobs. A reciprocal was that “service sector” jobs often were disparaged as by definition as low-wage and degraded, which also seemed compatible with the social position of the people who held them. UNITE HERE’s success in creating and sustaining a pattern of stable, decent employment in the hospitality sector can help to debunk that mystification by giving us a basis for remembering that manufacturing employment in fact was low-wage, hazardous, and brutalizing until the emergence of industrial unionism in the 1930s and its proliferation and alliance within New Deal liberalism in the 1930s and 1940s.
If the Trump Taj Mahal is permitted to operate on the terms Icahn has imposed, workers, the union, and the broader community understand that the result would be a local race to the bottom, as other casino operators would argue that they have to compete with Icahn’s sweatshop model to remain viable. As by far the dominant industry in the city, the hospitality and gaming sector is directly linked to the economic health and well-being not only of casino workers but of the community at large. It is decent hospitality sector jobs that enable workers to buy houses and provide the backbone for the entire local economy. If Icahn drags casino industry employment down to casualized and sweated conditions, it will pull the rest of Atlantic City down with it – schools and public services, super markets, restaurants, specialty shops, and the city’s entire commercial apparatus off the boardwalk.
And Atlantic City is not alone. Icahn’s attack on Taj Mahal workers is of a piece with broader right-wing attempts to drive down workers’ living standards everywhere. This is what is behind the systematic attacks on teachers’ unions and other public sector unions and efforts to destroy the national postal service. Partly it stems from a desire to eliminate any organized expressions of workers’ power, to clear the way to realizing the other objective: creation of a world in which we would have no alternative other than to accept work on whatever terms employers choose to offer it. That, of course, would be employers’ utopia and workers’ hell.
And there are other reasons this fight has lessons for all of us. Over the past year, as the Sanders campaign’s focus on exposing the sources of economic inequality and agitation for strategies to combat it gained visibility and resonated with millions of voters, a counter discourse represented that focus on economic inequality as “reductionist” and insensitive to the need to challenge racism and sexism. The extraordinary ethnic diversity of the Trump Taj Mahal workers makes clear in the most pragmatic and powerful way that combating economic injustice and racial injustice are not necessarily alternatives. The striking workers are roughly forty percent Latino/a, from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Peru, Honduras, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. White Americans are roughly twenty to twenty-five percent of the workforce, and black Americans are another ten to fifteen percent. Another ten percent are South Asian, mainly from the Gujarat state in India and Bangladesh. Five percent are East Asian, either Chinese or Vietnamese, and yet another five percent are either Jamaican, Haitian, white European, Egyptian or West African. (I quipped that only a whaling ship in the 1850s would be a comparably diverse workplace.)
These workers live and display, automatically and unquestioningly, the deep truth of the union motto that an injury to one is an injury to all. It is genuinely moving and inspiring to see how effortlessly these workers navigate the great range of linguistic and cultural diversity among their ranks. And what undergirds that mutual respect and regard is the foundation of solidarity as workers, the most important, because most effective, solvent of tensions and bigotry. And that solidarity will be indispensable to efforts to realize the promise opened by the primary campaign by working through November and especially beyond to build a broad and deep political movement that strives to put working people’s needs and concerns at the center of policymaking at every level.
Finally, there is a very important immediate reason the AFL-CIO and its affiliates, as well as other progressive institutions with constituencies, should throw the full weight of their political capacity into supporting this fight. The presidential race makes the Trump-Icahn connection in this reprehensible attempt to gut these workers’ living standards especially salient. Thinking toward November, that connection should be blasted across the country to expose the faux populism Trump espouses and which goes generally unchallenged within the corporate media. Unions for the most part do a pretty decent job in inoculating their members against this sort of bogus scapegoating line, but many other workers, particularly white workers, are vulnerable to that siren’s song with its rhythm section of racism, nativism, sexism and Islamophobia—the familiar melody of fascist politics—not least because they don’t have access to other, more compelling explanations of the sources of their suffering and concerns. The issues at stake in the Trump Taj Mahal strike reflect the concerns shared broadly by workers in this country. The struggle presents a clear window onto the danger within the false promises Trump seems to offer some, and the strikers and their union provide a clear, practical model of the sort of movement we will need to change this country’s political direction to center on the needs of working people. Making this fight a national issue on the order of those earlier key labor flashpoints certainly seems like a no-brainer.
Adolph Reed Jr. is professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania. For the March 2014 issue of Harper’s magazine, he wrote, “Nothing Left: The Long, Slow Surrender of American Liberals.” And more recently, along with Mark Dudzic, he wrote the essay, “The Crisis of Labour and the Left in the United States,” which appeared in the Socialist Register (2015/Vol. 51).