Collective Voice in Turbulent Times - Just One More Hand: Life in the Casino Economy (2015)

Just One More Hand: Life in the Casino Economy (2015)

Chapter 6

Collective Voice in Turbulent Times

Keith, a former member of a union contract committee for servers, bartenders, and other hotel service employees at a casino hotel, has sat at the bargaining table across from management in awe of the labor leaders fighting on his behalf: “I am just so impressed at their ability to negotiate and to see, to out-maneuver, you know, when they are being attacked,” he exclaimed. And, as the previous chapters have shown, Atlantic City’s casino workers perceive their job security, their living standards, and their well-being at work as under attack. In this context, labor unions provide the resources, expertise, and solidarity that elevate workers from relatively powerless individuals to a collective body speaking with a single voice. Fortunately for some of the workers we met, unions have a long history in Atlantic City’s hospitality sector. New Jersey is a U.S. state with one of the highest percentages of union members (called “union density”)—teachers, police officers, firefighters, communications and office personnel, transit workers, truckers, and people in the building and construction trades. So Atlantic City’s hotel and restaurant workers were unionized long before the casinos came to town. In contrast, the gaming jobs on the casino floor were unorganized—at least until recently.

As the local properties have been merged into companies with casino, hotel, and restaurant holdings around the country and even around the world, the new owners have imported previously successful restaurant brands. Many of these operate in less densely unionized locales. These celebrity chefs and name-brand eateries are not always accustomed to formal contracts, grievance procedures, and work rules. The right to keep their union and the right to keep their jobs have been of paramount importance.

Two key issues for casino restaurant employees have been: Who gets hired when an outside company or celebrity chef opens a restaurant in a union casino? And who gets hired, or hired back, when a casino shuts down a restaurant and reopens it under a new name? Or if the casino itself is sold to a new owner? One vivid memory for Keith is the protection of union jobs when a restaurant reopens. Suppose a traditional Chinese restaurant shuts down and is replaced by one with a modern Asian fusion theme? Those restaurants—what are termed “outlets”—must recall former union workers and preserve their seniority. Indeed, the right to retain his job as casinos swapped one type of cuisine or décor for another was an important element of decent work for Keith and his fellow workers who are members of Local 54.

For Keith, this was a major victory: “The last one, last meeting that they [ownership] were selling, technically selling the building. They are going to have to sell [casino name], so therefore they would have to make it most appealing to the prospective buyer in terms of contract legacy. So they are trying to really pare down everything. I mean it was absurd what they offered. They always offer something pretty unbelievable but this is particularly like yeah, no, there’s another word for this. But so, what the union negotiated was the right of return, which is pretty amazing. So two years’ right of return … so the right of return says you have, whatever happens with that space, that physical space, whether it’s maintained, whatever, you have all your seniority. You have all your rights that you have gathered. Two years!!! I just went ‘Yes!’ That was pretty huge.”

As noted by a reporter for the Press of Atlantic City, “down on the gaming floor there is a hole in the labor movement. While blackjack players are served cold beers and hot coffees by cocktail waitresses sporting union pins, they are being dealt cards by at-will employees.”[1] Until 2007, dealers and other employees associated with the casino games were not unionized. Enter the United Auto Workers (UAW), one of the largest unions in the United States. After steadfast organizing, a wave of union representation elections occurred in the spring and summer of 2007. Dealers in the gaming pits at four of Atlantic City’s casinos voted in favor of representation by the UAW.[2] Slot technicians followed with majorities in two gaming houses. Some of the organizing campaigns also included related frontline occupations working in areas such as keno (a lottery-type drawing), horse racing simulcasts (the only sports betting currently permitted in Atlantic City), and slot machine repairs. Cashiers, who sell and redeem chips, were also in some of the units.

Numerous past efforts to unionize Atlantic City’s gaming employees had failed. What changed? The casino’s twin promises of urban economic development and good jobs had faltered. Informed by our interviews, we found that deteriorating working conditions have contributed to a shift in employees’ attitudes toward their jobs, their employers, and consequently unions. The swell of mergers and acquisitions distanced management from employees. Cost-driven policies to speed up work, reductions in the availability of full-time work, technological changes in the industry, and an increasingly punitive work environment created a backlash among the workforce. One advantage that the UAW had was direct experience representing dealers at three casinos in the Detroit area—the first successful drive to unionize dealers in the United States. Unions—even the Detroit-based UAW—became industry “insiders,” in part because casino management are increasingly viewed as “outsiders.”

Around the same time, successful efforts to win union representation for dealers occurred 2,500 miles west in Las Vegas, Nevada. In 2007, dealers at Caesars Palace and Wynn Las Vegas voted in favor of joining the Transport Workers Union (TWU), AFL-CIO. These election victories brought gaming into the union stable in the form of TWU Local 721, joining their much larger union locals in air, rail, and transit. During the same year, workers at Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut signed cards requesting representation by the UAW; one year later the Mashantucket Pequot Gaming Enterprise and the UAW agreed to negotiate under tribal law. Clearly, the historical moment for starting to unionize casino dealers had arrived.

The timing should not be surprising. Labor unions emerged out of social movements of people seeking control over their lives amid the ups and downs of business cycles and economic restructuring. Job protection and job security are fundamental nonpecuniary benefits secured by being a member of a labor union. Such nonpecuniary compensation must also be accounted for when evaluating the economic impact of gaming, according to economists familiar with the industry.[3] Both the long-established hotel and restaurant union, Local 54 of UNITE HERE, and the newer contracts covering casino dealers in United Auto Workers Region 9 have secured measurable gains and held back further erosions of job quality for workers in the New Jersey gaming industry.

Labor unions have been significant in the building and growth of our nation, beginning with the alliance of skilled tradesmen in major cities along the Atlantic seaboard such as New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Baltimore. As skilled tradesmen became wage workers, these alliances evolved into labor unions during a period of labor union militancy that accompanied nineteenth-century industrialization. These early craft unions, along with the industrial unions in steel, automobile, and rubber manufacturing that were formed in the 1930s and the service and public sector unions that expanded in the 1960s and 1970s, had major influences on wages and working conditions. Many large employers, especially in oligopolistic industries where profit margins were less tight than for smaller firms, accommodated themselves to collective bargaining. Formalized seniority rules, grievance policies, and temporary layoff procedures actually brought stability to labor-management relations. However, after decades of membership growth, unions in the late twentieth century faced challenges. Roughly one out of three workers belonged to a labor union in 1953, at labor’s peak. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics annual news release on union members, the percentage of wage and salary workers who are members of a union fell below 20 percent for the first time in 1983 (18.8 percent) and dwindled to 11.3 percent in 2013.

When the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Association (PATCO) went out on strike in 1981, few would have anticipated that it would be a landmark event. The conservative and independent-minded union of white-collar professionals had supported the candidacy of Republican Ronald Reagan in the 1980 presidential election. These well-paid workers asked the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), their employer, for a pay increase; but they also had serious concerns about their long hours of work staring at airport monitor screens. The FAA required a forty-hour work week plus overtime, while Canadian and European air traffic controllers worked much shorter hours. PATCO argued that the long hours without enough breaks for the human eyes were a health hazard for the workers and a safety hazard for the airline passengers. President Reagan’s Secretary of Transportation fired all 11,300 federal air traffic controllers who refused to cross the picket line and return to work. Relying upon a little-noticed Supreme Court decision from 1938, the FAA was allowed to “permanently replace” the striking workers. While the workers were technically eligible for new positions that opened once the strike ended, because of downsizing the layoffs were, in effect, permanent.[4]

The PATCO battle became the model and symbol for a new era in U.S. labor relations—an era of renewed management hostility to unions. Private-sector employers began to use the PATCO precedent to permanently replace striking workers. Soon the threat of replacement poured cold water on union militancy. Globalization of the world economy also meant that the United States was no longer as dominant in manufacturing. Companies began to shift operations overseas to countries without strong laws protecting workers’ rights to organize. Union avoidance became standard practice in industries as diverse as health care and construction.

Unions became strained, as resources diminished with membership. Strategic divisions emerged between those who emphasized the need to organize new workers in private-sector service industries and those who concentrated energy on protecting the eroding position of manufacturing workers. A new generation of labor leaders has worked to invigorate organizing strategies to both acquire new union members and to forge bonds with community-based organizations and other initiatives to rebuild union strength, strength not measured by the percentage of union members alone. The U.S. labor movement is now led by twin federations, the AFL-CIO and Change-to-Win.[5] These two labor federations work alongside each other to improve the conditions for working families in the United States.

The pros and cons of labor unions have long been debated. One of the strongest defenses of the economic role of unions in the United States is the classic 1984 study by Richard Freeman and James Medoff, What Do Unions Do? Written as the backlash against unions was taking root, Freeman and Medoff contrasted two faces of unions. The monopoly view of unions depicts them as obstructions to the efficient functioning of market forces. Union work rules,[6] according to this argument, depress productivity, dampen employment, and redistribute wages from unorganized to organized workers. In textbook market theory, any party who is unhappy with the terms of a proposed transaction has one way to express themselves: exiting the market. We don’t buy products we don’t like. We close unsuccessful businesses. Freeman and Medoff note: “By leaving less desirable for more desirable jobs, or by refusing bad jobs, individuals penalize the bad employer and reward the good, leading to an overall improvement in the efficiency of the economic system.”[7]

Union proponents, instead, emphasize the unequal bargaining power that exists when individual employees interact with large corporate employers. They argue—and Freeman and Medoff document—that higher union wages have positive spillover effects for nonunion workers, by forcing employers to compete for the best workers or raise wages to discourage unionization. These spillover effects reduce income inequality. Higher wages in unionized sectors can actually increase productivity by inducing management in mature industries to innovate. Most importantly, however, Freeman and Medoff introduced the idea that union representation and collective bargaining offer workers the opportunity for “voice.” Collective voice is a meaningful alternative to exit. Voice enables employers to respond to the festering problems that reduce productivity, including favoritism, perceptions of arbitrary treatment, excess inequality, and other conditions that depress employee morale. Using this framework for their empirical study, Freeman and Medoff concluded that “On balance, unionization appears to improve rather than to harm the social and economic system.”[8]

Thirty years later, in his book What Unions No Longer Do, sociologist Jake Rosenfeld argues that the decline in union membership and thus labor clout has meant setbacks in what unions once did for the macro economy. Median wages have stagnated. Income inequality has grown. Labor-supported legislation—from making union elections easier through simple “card-check” to immigration reform to minimum wage increases to work-family balance—has had difficulty moving through the U.S. Congress and being signed by a U.S. president.[9] The influence labor once held in local, state, and national political races has also faded. Unions have fought hard to hold onto gains within strong union states and industrial-business clusters while attempting to newly organize workers in others, occupations like janitors; fast food workers and servers at Starbucks; retail workers at Walmart, Target, Ikea, H&M, and Rite-Aid; and gaming employees such as dealers.

The campaign to unionize Atlantic City’s dealers on the gaming floor is part of the new wave of organizing. And we will get to that. But the largest union in town represents approximately 40 percent of the workers in Atlantic City’s casinos, about 13,000 of them. These cocktail servers, bartenders, restaurant servers, buffet servers, hotel bellmen, janitors, hotel maids, and kitchen staff are represented by Local 54 of UNITE HERE. UNITE HERE resulted from a merger of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union in 2004. HERE dates to 1899. UNITE is itself a combination of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU), founded in 1900, and the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (ACTWU), founded in 1914. UNITE HERE is the largest union of gaming workers in the world, representing about 100,000 casino employees in the United States and Canada (out of 270,000 members overall).[10]

Atlantic City’s Local 54 of UNITE HERE is led by union president Robert (Bob) McDevitt, a middle-aged white redhead with a fiery personality—one who will not shy away from a battle. When he was nineteen years old, he started in the industry as “barboy” from 1981 to 1983 at the Playboy casino. After relocating to Philadelphia for four years, he returned to Atlantic City as a part-time banquet server at Showboat in 1987. A year later, he was successful at landing a full-time job as a banquet server at the Claridge. By that time, at the age of twenty-six, he recalls wanting a full-time, unionized position because he was no longer a young kid and had to think about benefits: “I work hard. I got a kid to feed, ya know. I’ll do whatever I have to do.”

And work hard he did. McDevitt continued his part-time job at the Showboat while working full-time at the Claridge, “probably the best environment I ever worked in” because he had a great boss. She practiced a “culture of cooperation” at the workplace, unlike a lot of catering managers and directors who “can be real assholes.” Casinos have what McDevitt refers to as different kinds of hierarchy, and job classifications help set people apart from one another. But the banquet workplace at the Claridge under a supportive manager was different: “We would go into the back room and we all ate together—the cooks, the waiters, the bartenders, the dishwashers.” He added: “I mean, we never had a grievance… . If I could take that environment and bring that to the rest of the industry … it’s really dependent upon the management.” What made that banquet bartender job a “great job” was the good money he earned, respect, and good management. He only took on a job at Taj Mahal as a banquet bartender because the hours and pay were better, continuing to work part-time at Showboat, now as a room service waiter. He cut his teeth on union activity by serving on the negotiations/contract committee in 1994. In 1996, motivated to run for office after what he felt was a very bad contract, McDevitt was elected as Local 54 union president. He has been at the helm of Local 54 since he was thirty-four years of age, and has served multiple successive terms as union president. He led Local 54 through two difficult strikes against the casino houses in 1999 and 2004.

Local 54 has elevated the wages and working conditions of Atlantic City’s hotel and restaurant workers so that they could join the middle class. Boardwalk of Dreams author Bryant Simon reflects on the role of Local 54 in the age of gaming, specifically, at the end of the twentieth century: “Like the new Las Vegas, the new Atlantic City economy is a bit like the old Detroit. Backed by the strong arms of Local 54 of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union (HEREIU), casino workers make a decent living. With two people on the job, families can buy a new 2,000-square-foot house and a piece of the American Dream.”[11] McDevitt is proud that the union has created “living wage” jobs for members, jobs that make more money than he does as union president. Good bartenders and cocktail servers with the right shifts earn $60,000-$70,000 per year. A gourmet food server can make $100,000 per year. Senior guest room attendants are paid $15-$16 per hour, with full benefits. As a comparison, the New Jersey hourly minimum wage was $6.15 in 2006, $7.15 in 2007, and $7.25 in 2009. In a state-wide ballot question, New Jersey voters approved a constitutional amendment in the November 2013 election to increase the minimum wage to $8.25 in January 2014, and thereafter index it to inflation. But the minimum wage for tipped employees remains $2.13 per hour. (If their tips do not bring them up to the minimum, employers must pay the difference.)

Local 54 engages with Atlantic City political leaders and regulatory authorities on issues that could affect their members. Politics is another site where unions can express voice in order to effect change. The union has weighed in with the Casino Control Commission on applications for new casino owner licenses. The union has commented on the city’s transportation planning and redevelopment. It has supported other unions in their drives for initial organization, contract renegotiations, and strikes.

For instance, in October and November of 2007, Local 54 stood firmly in opposition to the Tropicana Casino getting its gaming license renewed. Local 54 and other local unions were concerned that cutbacks in 15 percent of its workforce to cut costs were endangering public safety. McDevitt told the Press of Atlantic City that management had left too few workers to keep the bathrooms clean or maintain security. Aparna, a housekeeper at Tropicana at the time, confided that the layoffs during that time period contributed to the public spaces in the casino looking “messy.” She and her coworkers took pictures of garbage collecting in stairwells.

These were not the “first-class operations” intended when New Jersey voters passed the gambling referendum. The International Union of Operating Engineers Local 68 agreed that unprecedented staffing cuts had become a safety risk. Unions were joined in their efforts by the National Environmental Health Association. After holding a convention at the Tropicana in June of 2007, the environmental health specialists group wrote a fifteen-page letter to the Casino Control Commission specifying the unhealthy conditions, asserting the place “looked like a dump.” At the New Jersey Casino Control relicensing hearings in November of 2008, customers of the Tropicana complained of bedbugs, roaches, dust, overflowing toilets, and smelly rooms. The New Jersey Casino Control Commission agreed. Then-Tropicana owner, Columbia Sussex Corporation (headquartered in Kentucky), was denied a new license. The casino was placed into stewardship and emerged from bankruptcy reorganization two years later. The level of service returned to normal once the casino changed hands again.

Walter, a food server, is a former shop steward with Local 54. Manuela and Aparna, guest room attendants, are also shop stewards in casino hotels. They are proud to fight for their coworkers and solve problems. Walter comes from a union family and got involved with the union soon after being hired. He claims,

My proudest accomplishment at work had nothing to do with serving food. It all had to do with the union stuff and being a shop steward. It all has to do with getting other workers to fight the boss and in a situation with the casino we’re fighting a boss, we’re almost powerless. Even the presence of a big union, even in the presence of a union on a big strike, individual workers and small groups of workers are really powerless against their rather arbitrary and rather mean and poorly trained supervisors and restaurant managers. And in hundreds of small examples in small ways I’ve been able to get workers to fight back and win things and stand their ground and maybe even stand their ground, lose, but still grow from it. And that’s by far the only reason I still do it. Because after ten years [serving food], sometimes when I go home at night, I have to go in the bathtub and lie in the bathtub. It’s no longer easy.

Originally Aparna hoped to move from housekeeping to dealing, but dealers had not yet won union recognition rights: “You know what, I don’t want to change my job, because, one thing, housekeeping’s a secure job because it’s a union business.” She was recruited to become a shop steward because they didn’t have a steward of Indian descent. Reflecting on her role, she observed, “So, [being a steward] kinda make me feel good. I didn’t know so many people got so many problems through management.” Two years later, Aparna was offered a supervisory position. Her position in union leadership was a factor: “Because they knew we were doing good job, me and my co-shop steward. We were like top of the head, we were doing good job. So he said, ‘Leave your key here, we’re going to transfer [you to a] supervisor.’” She told him she had to think about the offer and pondered it for a few days. In her words, she was “thinking, thinking, thinking. Then end of the day, I called my coworker [and told her] ‘It’s your life. I cannot say, but think it over what your heart says.’ … And then I went home and I said, you know what? If I become supervisor, within three months, winter is coming and I’m the first one to get lay-off.” Her story continued, “So, I went, you know, to office and I say, ‘You know what? I love what I am, I love my job. I love helping my coworkers, so I decided I’m not going to be transferred to supervisor.’” The fact that the bump in pay was marginal at best affected her decision as well.

Manuela was recruited for the contract committee after becoming active during the Local 54 strike of 2004. The way that the union leadership identified her as a potential activist was by asking other employees. Manuela said her coworkers were asked, “When you have a problem, who do you go to? Who is the person that goes with you to the office?” Manuela’s name kept coming up because “every time somebody come to me, … I say ‘Let’s go. Let’s go talk to somebody.’ That is the way that I get started.” One of her chief responsibilities is explaining the union contract provisions to the many employees who do not speak English as a first language.

Every time that I sit down with somebody from the back of the house that doesn’t speak English that is how I explain to them in my language. Because there are a lot of immigrants, like people, Hispanic people, came here [and] we are so hungry for money. We don’t have time to learn the language because we have to deal with the payment of our rent, our family, and if we are working in those places and we don’t know any of our rights, we don’t know how we get paid things. I feel very happy because I have helped a lot of them to understand.

Inez also serves on her local union contract committee. She says she would not have a pension without her union. It’s not much, but it is something more than millions of workers have. Inez’s union work is fun, though she must do it on her break time, not during her shift. “You know it’s fun in two ways,” she explains. “People don’t know anything and people want help. But they don’t know how to get it. And they don’t know how hard we work for that… . And people don’t know, and people don’t know where they can go if they need something, so it directs people to go the way they need to go. And some people don’t know they have a pension; some people don’t know the insurance is paid for. So when I give this information to the people, I see that they feel good and I feel good too.”

Another employee, who recently took a leave of absence from her job to work with the local, says that organizing is now a continuous activity, not just something done the first time a union is voted in. Effective tactics go beyond the traditional grievance procedures that monitor contract compliance: “My job is to try to organize [the employees in one casino owned by Caesars] to stand up and take on management … instead of the old system of file a grievance. That’s not going to solve the problem… . It doesn’t work. Corporations don’t honor those. They just—it’s a senseless paper. You get a lot more results with people standing up for their rights and barging into an office and saying, ‘No, you are not going to do this.’”

Like their counterparts in Atlantic City, union activists also take pride in their work in Las Vegas and Reno casino hotels, as found in interviews conducted by social workers Susan Chandler and Jill Jones.[12] Not only did their committed women activists highlight their efforts to achieve better wages and benefits, but they also improved job security and input into a work environment that fostered family and community well-being. The union difference is clear, the authors of the qualitative study argue: “Margaret, a Reno cocktail waitress, said it this way, ‘When you go from … a nonunion house to a union house, the difference is night and day.’ Union, according to the women, means higher wages, better benefits, job security; dignity on the job, a reduction in discriminatory practices, the creation of a leadership cadre within the casino, and better service for the customers.”[13]

During the 2008 financial crisis and the ensuing economic downturn, Manuela, Inez, and other Local 54 contract committee members have worked to preserve their gains through new contracts. Members won smaller pay raises, but maintained their pension and most health benefits. Some planned increases were deferred in an amended contract, for example at Borgata, to match newer contracts at other casinos in town. Neither casinos nor labor was immune to the aftermath of the Great Recession. Local 54’s membership declined alongside casino employment, and the union tightened its own belt with expenses such as officer salaries. When Revel opened in the summer of 2012, Local 54 set its aim to organize the new megaresort’s hotel and restaurant workers. The struggle took two years, as summarized in the next chapter.

In the early days of gaming in Atlantic City at Resorts casino, there was a quasi-formal organization that served as an informal grievance procedure for dealers. It was called a dealers’ council. If a dealer was having a problem and was called up by management, the dealers’ council would be informed first, and would set out to investigate the problem. Say that Resorts wanted to fire you. A member of the dealers’ council would call you up and then look into the problem before swift, unilateral action was taken. One dealer we interviewed, Caroline, thought this process worked so well and so fairly that she is trying to bring it back at another nonunion casino where she works: “I’m trying to get it back. I’m talking to [named manager] now and telling him how good this was.” Caroline provided an example about a dealer threatened with being fired when her daughter was sick. Caroline recalled that “She [manager] would say, ‘Bring us documentation.’ … And we would check her record from the time she was hired. There was a time for six months when [she] was calling out. Well, then, we’d go to management and we’d fight for her and say ‘Listen, her daughter’s better now. She had this time. We want to give her a shot.’” To Caroline it was the “greatest thing in the world.”

The dealers’ council at Resorts provided a mechanism for voice, especially over day-to-day disputes. It is not, however, a substitute for collective bargaining. The dealers’ council does not give employees a say over wages, benefits, and working conditions. Empirical research has found that union representation also leads to greater job satisfaction and lower employee turnover.

The opportunity for real union representation emerged just before the onset of the Great Recession, infusing new life into a pivotal social movement. In the winter of 2007, the UAW began with card signing at Caesars and Trump Plaza. By February, enough pledge cards were signed to comfortably petition the National Labor Relations Board for a union election. The March 17 vote at Caesars was overwhelmingly in favor of unionization, 572-128 (over 80 percent in favor). This vote was followed by eight more elections (including two more for different groups of Caesars employees). Five more groups of employees voted in favor of union representation and three elections were losses.[14] The UAW election outcomes, both victories and losses, are arrayed by employee group, election date, and vote tally in table 6.1. After the initial wave of organizing campaigns, the process stalled. Five casinos—Harrah’s, Resorts, Showboat, Borgata, and the Trump Taj Mahal—have still not held elections. One worker we spoke with who was employed at what was then Trump Marina, where the union election was lost, felt that the UAW had made a mistake by trying to organize too many gaming houses at once. A solid contract in one house first, according to this observer, would have provided the impetus for further unionization drives.

UAW Election Outcomes in Atlantic City Casinos, 2007

Casino Name

Employee Group(s)

Election Date

Votes (For-Against)



Dealers, cashiers, keno and simulcast employees

March 17, 2007


Trump Plaza


March 31, 2007




June 2, 2007



Slot technicians

August 23, 2007




August 25, 2007


Slot technicians

October 22, 2007



Trump Marina

Dealers, dual-rate dealers, race book writers

May 11, 2007


Atlantic City Hilton


May 26, 2007



Cashiers, pit clerks and part-time slot technicians

September 1, 2007


Source: Figart and Mutari (2008)

Casino management fought strongly against the organizing drives. Management’s tactics are carefully orchestrated, and typically overseen or run by professional consulting firms expressly hired for their expertise in labor relations. An important academic study finds that over three-quarters of employers hire consultants when confronted by union organizing campaigns.[15] Organized labor has learned much about these anti-unionization campaigns from former, self-described “union buster” Martin Jay Levitt. Levitt shared his secrets from more than 250 campaigns in the United States in Confessions of a Union Buster.[16] The techniques he employed over a twenty-year career and wrote about in 1993 have been refined over time. Key methods used by management in fighting a union drive include hiring outside consultants to manage the campaign, to help insulate management from the direct line of fire and thus retain any bonds forged between middle managers and their workers; “captive audience meetings,” where workers are ordered to attend meetings to hear presentations by consultants and managers with information or misinformation designed to frighten workers about unions; and litigation or any other tactic to delay a union election, such as challenging a category of workers who may be eligible to vote in the election or insisting that a category of low-level managers be included in the class of voters.

The targeted Atlantic City casinos employed a variety of tools from this anti-unionization campaign toolkit. They held captive audience meetings. They fought for dual rate dealers to be included in the unit. They challenged election results.

The Trump Marina employee was called to required meetings run by a hired consultant. Even years later, she was nervous speaking about these meetings, which is why we are not giving her pseudonym: “Well, we had meeting after meeting with people, anti-union people, to come into the casino and tell us what unions were like and what the unions could do.” Consultants have a typical script, for example: Do you know how much you will be paying in union dues? Why do you want to pay union dues? Why do you want some outside organization to come between you and your supervisor? Isiah, a dealer with experience in several casinos, was working at Bally’s during that organizing campaign. Isiah acknowledged, “Yeah, they wanted to talk to us about the union, like try to discourage us from following the union. And one of the management [guys] came and asked me, I mean, one of the big bosses came and asked me what I thought about the guy [consultant] because he wanted information, my opinion. But luckily, I didn’t give him any.” He continued: “I heard stories that some of the people were trying, like people could be deported—the people for the union—or you could lose your green card.” Laurel added that in another casino, “the union got wind that they went around to all the Asian people and the foreigners and told them, ‘If you vote for the union you’re gonna get your green card taken away.’” Even Asian pit bosses were used to put pressure on Asian dealers to vote against the union. Threats like this can be a scary, effective ploy in a labor market that draws new immigrants.

As it turned out, the fading job quality faced by workers resulted in more favorable votes for the UAW, with six election victories, compared to three losses. Shifting managerial strategies. Multinational corporate ownership. Replacing full-time dealers with part-time dealers, and other methods of cost cutting. Overall deteriorating working conditions. Such changes ignited tensions between labor leaders who adhere to a high-road model of casino operation and some of the new corporate managers who are viewed as importing a low-road strategy from other jurisdictions. Since New Jersey is a strongly pro-union state with a relatively progressive political culture, these changes generated a backlash among employees, contributing to the success of the unionization drive.

It is not surprising, then, that one of the successful campaigns was at Tropicana, the company that laid off 900 workers, approximately one-fourth of their workforce. Several local managers with experience in Atlantic City objected to the cuts and were fired, indicating a clash between the local corporate culture and the new management. The Tropicana battle, being waged at the same time as the UAW’s unionization drive, indicated a fissure between “outside” management and “local” workers. The successful ouster of Columbia Sussex demonstrated clout, as local political leaders and regulators felt political pressure to side with labor’s cause.

Two of the other houses where the drives were successful, Bally’s and Caesars, were both owned by Harrah’s Entertainment (now renamed Caesars Entertainment), a target of many employee complaints for its cost-cutting practices and work restructuring. The union drive occurred at this largest player in the market, shortly after the leveraged buyout by private equity firms. Burdened by debt after the acquisition, the new operators were determined to wring more profits out of the properties.

The UAW already represented gaming workers in Detroit, which helped them overcome their outsider status. In contrast, corporate decision makers were the new outsiders. Several workers expressed nostalgia for hands-on managers in the early days of the casinos. Caesars dealer Laurel indicated that she had seen a change in the corporate culture created by an increasingly distant management. Management, she contended, realized its errors once the UAW instituted card-signing: “Our other presidents that we had … walked around saying ‘Hi’ to the dealers … made you feel like you were … you know what I mean? That you were something… . Now, [name of current president] … we’ve seen him walk around the casino one time, never said hello to anybody, and then tried to be our best friend at the [captive audience] meeting: ‘I’m really sorry I screwed up with the benefits. I’m really going to try to change it.’” She was emphatic that middle management in her casino had continued to treat employees with respect despite the unionization drive, but noted that this was not the case at other casinos.

Ken, who has worked in the casino pits since 1979 and viewed many of his coworkers as family, articulated: “That’s why the union has come in to Atlantic City, because it came from, we came from, basically, working at … a mom-and-pop operation to a large-scale corporation, and [a] corporation is just so faceless that they just, when it becomes large business, they just cut the corners to the point like, ‘What can we do, and who will sacrifice?’”

Another key issue that tilted in favor of the union drives, confirmed by our interviews, is the casino smoking ban. In 2006, New Jersey passed a state-wide smoking ban in public spaces that exempted the casino floors. Workers resented the differential treatment won by casino lobbyists. Local 54 President McDevitt observed to the local newspaper, “I think for a long time benefits have been an issue for the dealers—that’s not exactly a secret in Atlantic City—but I think that their fight against smoking on the casino floor was really the tipping point in the realization that they could organize themselves … and they resented the casino’s position regarding smoking on the floor.”[17]

While the Atlantic City case should not be read as a road map for how to unionize dealers and other service workers, it can be read for insights about some specific conditions under which service sector organizing may be successful. It certainly helped that dealers organized in a location where other unions were already well institutionalized, in a city with a longstanding commitment to the industry. The maturation and consolidation of casino gaming contributed to a shift in managerial strategies that generated resentment among the dealers. Deteriorating working conditions and the feeling that they were no longer treated with dignity as valued assets for the organization sparked resentment. For those employees who appreciated many aspects of their casino jobs—from the pay to the interactions with well-behaved customers—the answer to deteriorating working conditions is voice rather than exit.

Once a union has secured an election victory, other anti-union schemes can be deployed such as challenging the outcome of a union election or fairness in the election process, stalling at the bargaining table, or trying to get a new union decertified by getting petition signatures for a new election (as in union election, take two). These are three tactics used by casino management to delay the deal for a first union contract. It took nine months before contract negotiations began at Caesars in late 2007 and about four months before they started at Tropicana in January of 2008. The big issues were wages, job security, medical benefits, and pensions.

Trump Plaza and Bally’s took their oppositional stance to unions one step further; they refused to sit down and bargain with the UAW. The elections at these two properties were aggressively contested by management. Trump Plaza appealed the NLRB decision to certify the union. So did Bally’s. An appeal process takes months, effectively slowing down the collective bargaining process. In May of 2008, the NLRB did uphold the Trump election victory. Once management will not negotiate with a certified labor union, the union has the right to file an “unfair labor practice” (ULP) complaint. A ULP complaint eats up plenty of time. The UAW took this step against Bally’s. Meanwhile, Trump Plaza exhausted their last appeal to the federal courts.

The years 2008 and half of 2009—eighteen months—yielded no progress at the bargaining table. Scheduling and attending bargaining sessions neither means nor guarantees genuine progress. A series of unproductive meetings where management merely “shows up” so as not to be accused of “bargaining in bad faith” is termed surface bargaining. UAW Region 9 leader and bargaining team member Joe Ashton shared his views about sitting at the bargaining table: “At Caesar’s Atlantic City, the company liked to brag that it has had more than 50 meetings with the UAW bargaining team. That’s true, but very little has been accomplished because the company won’t budge from its initial proposals.”[18] His short guest editorial in the Press of Atlantic City continued, “Why is Harrah’s [parent company of Caesars] willing to reach a deal with housekeeping and hotel staff, but not casino dealers?”[19]

Timing for negotiations could not have been worse for the UAW or better for management. The U.S. economy was in the midst of a financial crisis and the Great Recession, the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. Economic downturns put bargaining power in the hands of management. In general, bargaining power means the ability to induce the other side to make concessions that it would not otherwise make. For example, in economic downturns, it is easier to replace workers, so management holds the line on wages and benefits. On the other hand, strong growth periods favor workers since they can vote with their feet and seek better compensation elsewhere and labor unions can point to other negotiated contracts with more generous compensation packages.

The UAW lost their patience with management; the battle for a first contract got nasty and it got public during the peak of the 2009 summer tourist season: “Clashing billboards by the United Auto Workers union and Harrah’s Entertainment line major thoroughfares leading into the resort. The two sides also have turned to television, radio and newspaper advertisements to slam one another over unsuccessful contract negotiations for dealers at two Harrah’s-owned casinos [Caesars and Bally’s].”[20] As Atlantic County residents and researchers, we watched keenly for weeks the dueling billboards promoting dueling websites, dueling newspaper and television ads, and dueling letters to the editor. The UAW organized summer rallies downtown on the Boardwalk and Pacific Avenue, picketing outside of Caesars and Bally’s, shouting slogans such as “The Dealers Make, the House Takes,” “We Want a Contract,” “No Contract, No Peace,” and “Hey, Hey, Ho, Ho [Harrah’s CEO] Gary Loveman’s got to go.” Members from other New Jersey unions, as well as unions in neighboring New York and Pennsylvania, joined in the rallies that continued through the summer. In mid-July 2009, at the height of the protests and media blitz, dealers at Caesars and Bally’s took a vote and authorized a strike, if necessary, as a step to try to force negotiations. Interviewed by a reporter, Debby, a Caesars dealer for twelve years, said striking is “a weapon,” but members would prefer to work out a fair contract. “They (Harrah’s) need to know what they’re doing is wrong.”[21]

UAW Advertisement, 2007

Source: UAW Region 9

Dealers had been worried about job security before the recession; the recession only boosted their fears. Concerned about cuts and moves to replace senior full-time dealers with part-timers, Walter M., a dealer at Trump Plaza for seventeen years, indicated that having a contract would mean job security for people like him: “The more seniority you have in the casinos, the closer you are to the door. They have to pay benefits for you and a better salary. They’re using the economy as an excuse.”[22] Harrah’s Eastern Division President J. Carlos Tolosa fired off his own letter to the editor in defense: “For two years, we have negotiated with the UAW in good faith. We have attempted to educate the UAW about the differences between our hospitality business and automotive manufacturing. We have asked for a reasonable proposal that allows us to remain economically competitive. And, due to the recession and downturn in the gaming industry, we have taken difficult steps, such as changes to benefits, to reduce layoffs and keep as many of our employees working as we can. How has the UAW responded? With attempts to disrupt our business.”[23]

After the adrenaline spikes during the summertime rallies, discouraged dealers displayed even more discontent. By the fall of 2009, at least 30 percent of Trump Plaza dealers signed a petition to drop the UAW as their bargaining agent, that is, decertify the union.[24] Overtly or covertly encouraging a petition of signatures to hold a decertification election to kick the union out is another ploy shared in Confessions of a Union Buster.[25] A petition sent to the NLRB for review causes yet further delays, as the board must then rule whether to hold a decertification election. UAW officials claimed that the signatories were merely the same dealers who voted against the union in the first place (the vote was 324-149, with 31.5 percent voting against). The NLRB dismissed the decertification petition, pending the outcome of the final appeal of the original March 31, 2007, election in federal court.

Negotiations with Tropicana’s dealers and slot technicians, who also voted in favor of the UAW in 2007, were also stalled. The UAW appealed to Tropicana’s new ownership and new management in August 2009 to jump-start the bargaining process. Talks formally began between the UAW and management in January 2008 and about sixty meetings were held between then and August of 2009. According to the Press of Atlantic City, Jeff Binz, an international representative for the UAW, grew tired of repeated meetings in which attorneys for Tropicana would not even agree to contractual language that was already company policy. He said, “They were just putting up this wall. It was a stall tactic.”[26] Nearly three years to the date of the election, after productive negotiations, a deal—called a tentative agreement—was struck and a new contract was soon ratified in a membership vote. Tropicana’s full-time dealers at the top of the wage scale at $8.75 per hour would be eligible for as much as an 18 percent raise over the term of the five-year agreement. One labor scholar put it this way:

To reach any sort of agreement now would be a “huge step forward” for the UAW, said Philip Harvey, a Rutgers University professor of economics and law who studies unions.

“If there’s any union in the country that understands what can happen when an industry identified with a particular city goes into decline, it’s the UAW,” Harvey said, referring to Detroit’s shrinking auto industry. “I would expect them to be very responsible and proactive in developing a relationship with (the gaming) industry.” With the city’s 11 casinos losing revenue to out-of-state competition, Harvey added, the union and Tropicana must have a shared mindset: survival. That may include the union having to make concessions with a first contract.[27]

Finally, UAW Local 8888 in Atlantic City, New Jersey, had attained symbolic and tangible legitimacy. The new contract at the Tropicana was important in turning the tide toward reaching inaugural agreements at nearby gambling houses. Three months later, in mid-November of 2010, the second agreement for gaming floor workers was reached at Caesars. Within a week, Bally’s, another Caesars property, came to terms with the UAW and dealers were set to ratify a new contract, the third in the city. Five-year contracts in these three casinos means that over 2,000 dealers were covered by the first-ever collective bargaining agreements for dealers in Atlantic City’s gaming pits.

After two years of operating within the context of the collective bargaining contracts that expire in 2015, it appeared that the UAW and the unionized casino houses worked collaboratively and the bitterness of the campaigns were put in the past. UAW’s local regional director spoke of a “partnership” with management at Bally’s, Caesars, and Tropicana while Tropicana’s CEO and President, Tony Rodio, once a UAW critic, added “They have been wonderful … a good business partner.”[28] The UAW still hopes to win elections and negotiate contracts with all of the remaining gaming properties. When the Trump Marina was sold and rebranded as the Golden Nugget, the UAW began anew with its campaign. The saga at Trump Plaza continued for several more years. The federal appeals court ruled in favor of management in May 2012, overturning the NLRB certification of the 2007 election. The UAW was still boxed out by the time Trump Plaza’s owners announced their decision to close the property in the fall of 2014. The UAW, in addition to Local 54, began a quiet campaign at Revel, but made no headway before the 2014 closing date.[29]

In good economic times, unions representing gaming, hotel, and restaurant workers in the casino industry have been able to secure higher wages and benefits as well as input into better working conditions. Their earnings are far more than in the nonunion food service industry, where workers are struggling to feed a family and fighting for increases in the minimum wage. As McDevitt said, “It’s not Walmart… . You know, twenty miles out of here, you can’t get a job for more than $8 an hour.”

In Las Vegas, the story has been similar. University of Nevada-Las Vegas economist Jeffrey Waddoups conducted a novel, side-by-side city-pair study of unionized frontline casino hotel workers in Las Vegas and nonunionized workers in Reno, Nevada. Union membership resulted in a substantial wage premium, according to Waddoups: “[T]he typical worker in Las Vegas working as, for example, a baggage porter, kitchen helper, or guest room attendant (maid) among other highly unionized occupations, earns an average of 40 percent more in hourly wages than his or her counterparts in the identical occupations in Reno.”[30] Further, by lifting the wages of less skilled workers at the bottom, the increased bargaining power of Las Vegas unions has reduced overall wage inequality.[31]

Unions matter even more, perhaps, in difficult economic times when hard-fought gains can be consolidated and union contracts may help prevent an erosion of benefits. That doesn’t mean there are not concessions at the bargaining table, or that those concessions are necessarily welcomed by union members. For instance, food server and longtime union activist Walter is critical of some of the concessions that the union has made, starting with the 1994 contract. That contract, from his perspective, “was devastating to the industry and to the workers of Local 54.” New hires took a longer time to get to the top wage rate than older hires; this introduced, in his opinion, a two-tiered wage structure. There was a wave of efforts to reform the leadership of Local 54 following this unfortunate contract and in the wake of investigations into financial irregularities, according to Walter. Soon after, McDevitt ran for union president as a reformer. But while a later 2005 strike under the new leadership resulted in some victories, especially over health care benefits, the constant pressure for concessions makes bargaining gains, like those Keith described in the opening of the chapter, even more notable.

So maybe wage increases are delayed, or at percent levels lower than the rate of inflation. Or it takes more time to move from the entry-level or new hire rate to the top rate. The title of a 2013 annual research volume of the interdisciplinary Labor and Employment Relations Association is fitting for describing the difficulties negotiating during the financial crisis and Great Recession and its aftermath: Collective Bargaining Under Duress. The book’s chapter on hotels and casinos by Jeffrey Waddoups and Vincent Eade finds that between 2005 and 2011, union workers continued to earn more than nonunion workers, with generous benefits packages for casino workers in larger jurisdictions such as Las Vegas and Atlantic City, like health care insurance and pension plans.[32] The protections and security that come with union membership are sustained in good times and bad.

The first edition of Why Unions Matter by Michael Yates was published in 1998. In the preface to the 2009 second edition, the author recalls: “I showed with clear and decisive data that union members enjoyed significant advantages over nonunion workers: higher wages, more and better benefits, better access to many kinds of leaves of absence, a democratic voice in their workplaces, and a better understanding of their political and legal rights.”[33] Yates argues that this is still true. And employee voice matters even more today because workers are vulnerable in an increasingly global, high-technology, cost-cutting, corporate-friendly, and union-unfriendly slow-growth economy.


J. Staas Haught, “Question Vexes Unions: Dealers, or No Dealers? Press of Atlantic City, December 10, 2006.


The full name of the UAW is the International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America.


See Benjamin F. Blair, R. Keith Schwer, and C. Jeffrey Waddoups, “Gambling as an Economic Development Strategy: The Neglected Issue of Job Satisfaction and Nonpecuniary Income,” Review of Regional Studies 28, no. 1 (1998): 47-62.


The PATCO strike and its aftermath is described in Steve Babson, The Unfinished Struggle (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999).


The AFL-CIO is a federation of international and national unions that resulted from the merger of the American Federation of Labor, a federation of craft unions, and the Congress of Industrial Organizations, a federation of industrial unions, in 1955.


You may have heard the stories that the unionized Broadway musicians insist on a minimum size orchestra for a musical performance or show; the stagehands’ union requires a minimum stage crew; or that sheet metal workers may not lay bricks and that bricklayers may not perform simple carpentry tasks. These are union work rules: influencing the structure of the work process or the production process to save union jobs or protect health and safety, for example.


Richard B. Freeman and James L. Medoff, What Do Unions Do? (New York: Basic, 1984), 7-8.


Freeman and Medoff, What Do Unions Do?, 19.


See Jake Rosenfeld, What Unions No Longer Do (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014). “Card-check” is a proposal that would allow a union to be certified without a secret ballot election provided that a majority of workers at a site sign an authorization card indicating they wish to be represented by the union organizing the bargaining unit.


A split within UNITE HERE occurred in 2009 when UNITE’s Bruce Raynor resigned and broke off most of formerly UNITE workers into a new union called Workers United, affiliating instead with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). UNITE HERE retained food service workers in many industries while SEIU would organize them in health care, prisons, and government buildings. The split is covered in C. Jeffrey Waddoups and Vincent H. Eade, “Hotels and Casinos: Collective Bargaining During a Decade of Instability,” in Collective Bargaining Under Duress: Case Studies of Major North American Industries, ed. Howard R. Stanger, Paul F. Clark, and Ann C. Frost (Champaign, IL: Labor and Employment Relations Association annual research volume, 2013). An excellent history of UNITE HERE is in Julius G. Getman’s Restoring the Power of Unions: It Takes a Movement (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010).


Bryant Simon, Boardwalk of Dreams: Atlantic City and the Fate of Urban America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 215.


Susan Chandler and Jill Jones, “Because a Better World Is Possible: Women Casino Workers, Union Activism and the Creation of a Just Workplace,” Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare 30, no. 4 (2003), 57-78; and Susan Chandler and Jill B. Jones, Casino Women: Courage in Unexpected Places (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2011).


“Margaret” is a pseudonym, quoted in Chandler and Jones, “Because a Better World Is Possible,” 65.


Security and fire command officers at Bally’s also voted for union representation in June 2007.


John Logan, “The Union Avoidance Industry in the United States,” British Journal of Industrial Relations 44, no. 4 (2006), 651-75.


Martin Jay Levitt with Terry Conrow, Confessions of a Union Buster (New York: Crown, 1993).


Quoted in Maya Rao, “Timing Benefited Union’s A.C. Push,” Press of Atlantic City, April 8, 2007.


Joe Ashton, “UAW Leader: Blame Harrah’s, Not Union,” Press of Atlantic City, October 10, 2009.


Ashton, “UAW Leader.” In Las Vegas, Caesars Entertainment also played hardball, and negotiations were as protracted as they were in Atlantic City. The first dealer contract in Las Vegas was inked in 2010 at Wynn Las Vegas, followed by Caesars Palace in 2012. As of 2014, three more Caesars Entertainment properties in Vegas have union representation and new contracts: Paris Las Vegas, Bally’s, and Harrah’s.


Erik Ortiz, “Union, Casinos Waging War in Multimedia/UAW Runs Ad Blitz, Threatens Strike, Harrah’s Prepares to Replace Workers,” Press of Atlantic City, July 21, 2009.


Quoted in Ortiz, “Unions, Casinos Waging War.”


Walter M. (his real name) was quoted in Erik Ortiz, “600 Rally in Atlantic City for UAW Contracts at Bally’s, Caesars,” Press of Atlantic City, August 30, 2009.


J. Carlos Tolosa, “Voice of the People/Harrah’s: We Don’t Want a Public Battle, but UAW Does,” Press of Atlantic City, July 28, 2009.


Erik Ortiz, “Dealers Frustrated with Trump and UAW,” Press of Atlantic City, September 18, 2009.


Levitt with Conrow, Confessions of a Union Buster.


Quoted in Erik Ortiz, “Dealers Clinch First Contract/UAW Waited Out Tropicana,” Press of Atlantic City, August 29, 2010.


Quoted in Erik Ortiz and Donald Wittkowski, “UAW Has Tentative Deal with Trop/Dealers Voting on Contract that Would Be First of Its Kind in Resort,” Press of Atlantic City, August 19, 2010.


Donald Wittkowski, “Union Forges Friendlier Relationship with Casinos,” Press of Atlantic City, July 30, 2012.


Wittkowski, “Union Forges Friendlier Relationship with Casinos.”


C. Jeffrey Waddoups, “Wages in Las Vegas and Reno: How Much Difference Do Unions Make in the Hotel, Gaming, and Recreation Industry?” UNLV Gaming Research & Review Journal 6, no. 1 (2001), 16.


C. Jeffrey Waddoups, “Wage Inequality and Collective Bargaining: Hotels and Casinos in Nevada,” Journal of Economic Issues 36, no. 3 (2002): 617-34.


Waddoups and Eade, “Hotels and Casinos,” 81-117.


Michael D. Yates, Why Unions Matter, 2nd ed. (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2009), 11.

Peter’s Story

Peter had his heart broken twice while working in the casino industry. First he lost his daughter to a sudden, rare illness. Second, after working his way up from server to team captain and then to assistant manager at a casino restaurant, he was fired for taking time after attending what would have been his daughter’s eighth grade school graduation; he wanted to share the experience with his daughter’s best friends. Fired. No warning letter. No discipline. Just fired after more than a decade of service. Now he uses his organizational and people skills as a high-end waiter in a celebrity chef restaurant at the Borgata and on behalf of his labor union, Local 54.

The gregarious Peter, with dark curly hair, dark eyes, and a big, easy smile, has worked in restaurants since he was a teenager. He has been a dishwasher, a busboy, a cook, a cocktail server, a waiter, a maître d’, and an assistant manager—thirty years’ experience across a number of Atlantic City casinos. To gain experience, he put in his time assembling fruit platters, running the omelet station, and serving cocktails in a lounge and show room. It was working the omelet station where his personality started to shine: “Then, every once in a while, since I was like the funny guy, and I was talking to everybody, they actually brought me out to their omelet station. So, now here I am out on the floor as a cook at the omelet station, having a blast, talking to people, having a great time. So, it was fun and I got that feeling back, you know. It’s a feeling that you get and you just know it when you’re there. It’s sort of like when you see a puppy and you’re, like, I’m gonna get that puppy!”

When an opening arose to become a food server in a nice steakhouse, he went for an interview with the boss. After handling all the basic questions about the business and passing an on-the-spot quiz, Peter’s answer to a final question tells much about his personality and ambition. When asked “Where do you see yourself in five years?” Peter says his reply was: “Well, there’s no rush, but I do see myself standing behind your podium, and I’ll be the boss. I’ll be one of the best bosses in Atlantic City. And, again, no rush for you to leave because you’ve got five years to look for another job.” Peter got that server job. At this high-end restaurant, the staff worked in teams: a captain, two servers, and a busboy would all be assigned to a station. He asked to be put on the weaker team, to the surprise of his boss, and help to lift them up. Which he did. Two years later, he would be promoted to server team captain and be voted in as union shop steward. He was popular, with many requests for his tables, as a server and as a captain. His base salary was low, but his tips were high. He and his wife earned enough to support four children.

Both management and the staff wanted him to be promoted to assistant maître d’. By then, he had been there for five years. Everyone had confidence in his leadership skills. Peter knew the promotion would take him out of the bargaining unit. It was risky. “I’m in management’s hands at this point. And it’s kind of a volatile situation. Because you don’t know after being in the union for so many years, if they didn’t like you, you’re out the door,” he divulged. The staff encouraged him. They thought he would be a good boss. And so he was—one of the best bosses in Atlantic City.

The protection of a union grievance procedure was one thing Peter gave up to become a manager. The other thing was tips. He took a pay cut to move up. But he had to if he wanted to be another rung higher, closer to the restaurant manager job title. And it made sense to him because he could now really take care of everyone on the floor. It worked out. When the maître d’ resigned, Peter was immediately thought of for that post. The boss gave it to him, but kept him at the same assistant’s salary for a six-month probationary period. Peter was thriving: “I took care of my guests and they took care of me… . I oversaw the room… . I would touch every single table.” He would tell a joke, engage customers in stories, and ensure people were having a wonderful time. He studied his reservation sheets. He prepared tables for his regulars; he had their wine on the table when they walked through the door. Peter took great care of his patrons at that same steakhouse for over a decade. It was all good, until it wasn’t.

Anne, Peter’s daughter, became ill one Thanksgiving. She passed away three months later. “A rough time for me,” Peter laments. He poured his grief into fund-raising to support research into Anne’s form of cancer—and into work for another year, until the following spring when the date approached for what would have been his daughter’s graduation from eighth grade. All of her friends begged him to attend graduation, to see their gowns, to watch them strut across the stage, to celebrate their absent friend. It was emotionally difficult, to say the least, but Peter did attend that eighth grade graduation. He called out of work for a week in order to recover. Then came a slap on the other cheek, he said, “[T]he following week I get a letter saying thank you for your voluntary resignation. You have a good day. From [employer].” Peter adds, “It was pretty hard to take after you give literally half your life to an organization.”

Peter went in for a meeting with management. They apologized and offered him his job back. His grief had turned to anger. He was having none of that: “And I said you know what you can do with the job? I said if you would do that to me—my daughter passes away and you give me a cookie basket that’s like, maybe, $10, for the passing of my daughter. And then you go and fire me the week of her graduation?! I said, so, when you change the regime that you have in here, maybe, I’ll think about coming back.” He walked out. A restaurant worker with Peter’s skills, ambition, and personality would not be out of work for long. His wife checked for openings online. Sure enough, he was soon called in for an interview.

The Borgata was expanding and Peter interviewed for a server position in one of the newly opened celebrity chef restaurants. They knew him. They knew his reputation. They had employees who used to work for Peter, and listed Peter as a reference. An old boss walked by as he was finishing up the interview and came over to chat. Later that day, Peter received the job offer over the phone. They even offered him a position in management, right then, on the spot. Yeah, he thought, been there, done that, and how did that end up? The restaurant kept insisting that Peter was overqualified, but Peter kept insisting that “I just need to be a server.” He now had other priorities. He wanted to work his hours and go home to his family. He wanted to be more involved in fund-raising, and in his community.

Peter now works the dinner service at one of the best casino restaurants in the city. But it is different from the old days. The service is less formal than he is used to. Captains, he says, are a thing of the past. Now the team is just “one server, one busser.” This showman talks about the spiel which is as natural to him as drawing a breath, describing the food that is way beyond steak on a plate: “It’s a prime piece of meat cooked over a mesquite wood grill, sliced, cut into strips over Armagnac peppercorn sauce, served with roasted potatoes.” Peter provides an example of how one evening could be profitable for him, when a guy comes in and orders a bottle of Quintessa for $400. That’s a pricey red wine from Napa Valley, California. He adds, “Boom, there’s an $80 tip.” High-end servers, according to the norms of his workplace, share part of their tips with busboys, bartenders, food runners, the coffee person, and, if services are used, the sommelier.

With Peter’s seniority and membership once again in Local 54, he seems quite happy. It’s steady work, and as much job security as you can have in the casino economy. At the restaurant, Peter is required to work weekends. But that’s okay with him because the tips are greater. And he works the night shift, hours that garner the highest earnings as a waiter. Like many servers in restaurants, his regular paycheck is zero, meaning $0.00. As Peter explains his paychecks, “A lot of them are zeroed out.” The hourly wage is below federal minimum wage, offset by the mandatory deductions for Social Security, Medicare, unemployment, disability, and in New Jersey—one of the few states to have such a benefit—paid family and medical leave. He lives on his tips, which can amount to $750 or so per week.

Peter is thriving because he has managed to find balance among a job that he likes and is good at, family, and community. The fund-raising work he does in the wake of his daughter’s death has been rewarding, and it takes up more and more of his free time. He relishes the time he spends with his other children and grandchildren. And, ever the man who can’t sit still (he shares that he sleeps only four hours a night), he is contemplating getting involved in local politics. He sees his future as serving in the casino and serving the public. While we were interviewing him, his cell phone kept ringing, with calls from friends, fellow union members, and supporters encouraging him to toss his hat into the ring for public office. This charmer is a talker, and a listener. He just gets people. He practices forgiveness and doesn’t hold grudges. Difficult customers? He has a system for that. “It rolls off [me] because I look at it almost like a Rubik’s cube or Sudoku [puzzle], where you’re gonna find the solution.” By the time they are done with their meal, it is like “Wow, what a great time. We had a blast, thank you.” As he says, “I shoot for the stars, Why you gonna shoot for a cloud that’s right in your face?”