Workers from main Atlantic City casino union picket Tropicana

ATLANTIC CITY — Thousands of workers from the main Atlantic City casino union picketed outside and around the Tropicana Casino and Resort on Thursday night, trying to fend off an attempt by the Carl Icahn-owned casino to end their pension plan.

The casino is terminating its employees’ pension plan in favor of direct cash payments to workers.

But Bob McDevitt, president of Local 54 of the Unite-HERE union, vowed never to let that happen. He referred to disputes with previous owners of the Tropicana, including Bill Yung, whose ownership was ended by state regulators after less than a year due to the casino’s poor management.

“We ran one billionaire out of town — there’s always room for another one on the last train out of town!” he told a cheering crowd on the Boardwalk outside the casino.

The dispute is rapidly shaping up as a test of wills between the casino and the powerful union, which brought the resort to its knees with a 2004 strike.

The union has used the tactic of persuading large groups to avoid a particular casino before. Last summer, during a contract dispute with Resorts Casino Hotel, it persuaded at least three convention groups to cancel and held many protests at Resorts.

McDevitt said the union has already gotten six groups to cancel or not make bookings at the casino, and he said he has received commitment letters from more than 100 organized labor groups around the country pledging not to do business with the Tropicana until the dispute is settled.

The dispute began earlier this year when the Tropicana declared an impasse in contract talks with the union. The main stumbling block is the casino’s insistence that it will end traditional employee pension plans in favor of making direct cash payments to the workers.

Tony Rodio, the Tropicana’s president, said that because Icahn purchased the casino at a bankruptcy sale, he does not have to assume future liabilities for the Tropicana’s portion of a pension fund Rodio says is underfunded by at least $1.3 billion.

“What we’re doing, frankly, is even better for the employees,” Rodio said.

He also decried the union’s protest tactics, describing them as a scorched-earth policy that will badly hurt both sides.

“At a time when everybody is working together and making a strong statement toward Atlantic City’s new slogan, ‘Do AC,’ Local 54 is sending out the message ‘Don’t do AC,'” Rodio said. “It hurts the entire city.”

Rodio said the casino’s position will not change.

But workers were trying to change that.

“They’re telling us they’re taking away out pension for our own good,” said Joann Lardizzone, a cocktail waitress at Tropicana for 28 years. “Tony, we’re not stupid!”

She said she does not know if she will be able to retire in a year or so without a regular pension.

Shari Schugar, a 30-year cocktail server, also is worried about retiring. The single mother of two children said she hasn’t been able to amass any real savings and was counting on reliable pension payments.

“I opened this place; I helped build this place, year after year,” she said. “I’m very upset that after all these years of working hard and playing by the rules, all of a sudden they’re changing the rules on us. It’s not fair.”

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