Taj Mahal casino seen surviving, but workers plan to picket

ATLANTIC CITY — The Trump Taj Mahal may survive after all, but it’s likely to do so with angry employees.

A federal bankruptcy judge in Delaware on Friday voided the struggling casino’s contract with its union workers, giving owner Trump Entertainment Resorts a big part of its plan to keep the casino open and save its 3,000 jobs.

But those workers were seething after Judge Kevin Gross granted the company’s request to terminate its contract with Local 54 of the UNITE-HERE union. Trump Entertainment said if the ruling went against it, it would close the Taj Mahal on Nov. 13. The company and billionaire investor Carl Icahn had said the casino can’t survive without shedding costly pension and health care obligations.

“The decision today will certainly enrage the workers who have relied on and fought for their health care for three decades,” said Bob McDevitt, president of Local 54, which lost guarantees on wages, pensions and health care. “We intend to continue to fight this both in the courts and in the streets.”

Union members immediately announced plans to picket the Taj Mahal next Friday for three hours. Valerie McMorris, a 45-year-old waitress at the casino with a 15-year-old son on her benefits, said she was disgusted by the decision.

“With the stroke of a pen, we’ve gone from middle-class jobs in this city, to working poor,” she said. “My co-workers and I are absolutely appalled.”

Another big hurdle still remains in the company’s plan to keep the casino open: getting a study commission appointed by Gov. Chris Christie to agree to massive state aid for the Taj Mahal and other struggling casinos — something that is far from assured.

“We are proud of our efforts to keep the Taj Mahal open, to deliver our loyal customers a continued first-class gaming experience and to have the ability to save 3,000 jobs in a very difficult Atlantic City economy,” said Robert Griffin, CEO of Trump Entertainment.

Referring to Icahn, McDevitt said: “Tropicana’s major owner wants you to believe that the demand to take away workers’ health insurance is necessary because of the financial situation at the Taj Mahal and in Atlantic City. We believe it has nothing to do with either.”

Icahn has rejected the union criticism and said he saved the Tropicana four years ago by acquiring it in a similar fashion to how he would acquire the Taj Mahal.

Icahn, who owns the Taj Mahal’s $286 million in debt, would swap that debt for ownership of the casino and invest $100 million into it. But that investment is contingent on massive government aid from Atlantic City and the state.

The company says it needs big union concessions and massive tax breaks from Atlantic City and New Jersey — both of which already have rejected the demand. It originally sought to have Atlantic City lower its property tax assessments by nearly 80 percent, to have the state contribute $25 million in tax credits, and for union workers to give up their pension and health insurance. It would provide $2,000 stipends for workers to find their own coverage under the Affordable Care Act.

After getting a negative reaction from Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian and state Senate President Steve Sweeney, the company revised its financial request from the state. It is now seeking $175 million in relief through a so-called PILOT program — payments in lieu of taxes — and the receipt of two types of state economic grants not usually available to casinos. State legislators would have to vote on letting the casinos into the program.

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