Trump Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City hit by strike

Last Updated Jul 1, 2016 6:59 AM EDT

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- Still seething from the cancellation of its members' health insurance and pension benefits nearly two years ago, Atlantic City's main casino workers union went on strike Friday morning against the Trump Taj Mahal casino.

About 20 picketers were outside the casino, chanting, "All day and all night, Local 54 on strike!" and "We don't get no contract, you don't get no peace!" Supervisors from the casino were monitoring the picketing from a balcony.

Local 54 of the Unite-HERE union was unable to reach agreement on a new contract with the Taj Mahal, which is owned by billionaire investor Carl Icahn. The walkout involves about 1,000 union members.

"Nearly a thousand cooks, housekeepers, bellmen and servers from the Trump Taj Mahal will walk off the job this morning ahead of the industry's biggest holiday weekend to fight for decent wages, basic benefits and the future of their middle class livelihoods," the union said in a statement issued early Friday.

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The Trump Taj Mahal casino resort is seen in Atlantic City, New Jersey, on May 8, 2016. (Getty Images)

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

The labor disruption comes on the critical July 4 weekend, among the busiest of the year for Atlantic City casinos. It was not immediately clear whether the Taj Mahal planned to press management into service, hire temporary replacement workers, or some combination of both.

The Taj Mahal was the only one of the five casinos targeted by the union that was unable to reach a new deal.

It enraged workers during its most recent spin through bankruptcy court in October 2014 when it got a judge to allow it to cancel health and pension benefits, deeming them unaffordable for the struggling casino.

The Taj Mahal was opened and once run by Donald Trump, now the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, but the bankruptcy filing and the benefit terminations happened five years after he had relinquished control of the casino and its parent company, Trump Entertainment Resorts, that both bore his name.

Aside from a 10 percent stake in the company in return for the use of his name, Trump has had nothing to do with Trump Entertainment since 2009, and even that stake was wiped out in its most recent bankruptcy when Icahn took control, in March.

On Thursday, the union struck deals with three casinos owned by Caesars Entertainment (Bally's, Caesars, and Harrah's) as well as the Tropicana, which, like the Taj Mahal, is owned by Icahn.

Icahn kept the Taj Mahal afloat during its bankruptcy, then took it over. He repeatedly threatened to withdraw financial support for the casino and force it to close if he was forced to restore health and pension benefits.

The clash between Icahn and Local 54 leadership, particularly its president, Bob McDevitt, has grown acrimonious and intensely personal. Icahn has likened McDevitt and the union to extortionists, while the union president has called Icahn "a cancer" that needs to be cut out of Atlantic City.

Icahn did not immediately respond to a request for comment early Friday.

The company gave union members a cash stipend to buy health care on the private market or through the government-run Affordable Care Act, but many say it does not come close to the actual cost of obtaining insurance.

Borgata, Golden Nugget and Resorts were not targeted by the union, and are not affected by the strike.

The union says it recouped a good portion of givebacks it handed the casinos in past negotiations when their financial condition was worse. In the aftermath of four of the 12 casinos shutting down in 2014, there is less competition for the surviving eight casinos, which are seeing their bottom lines begin to stabilize.

The last time Local 54 waged a strike, in 2004, the walkout lasted 34 days.