Atlantic City casino union pickets Taj Mahal over health insurance, pension elimination

With billionaire investor Carl Icahn poised to take over their casino, hundreds of union members picketed outside the Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort on Friday, protesting the elimination of health insurance.

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Icahn insists the cuts are vital to keeping the struggling gambling hall open.

The demonstration by Local 54 of the Unite-HERE union was the fifth public protest against the Taj Mahal since October, when a bankruptcy court judge allowed Trump Entertainment Resorts to cancel its union contract and impose its own, less costly work terms. The protests included picketing outside Icahn's New York office and a sit-down demonstration in which union members blocked traffic on the Atlantic City Expressway.

A judge in Delaware on Thursday gave Icahn permission to take over the company once it emerges from bankruptcy.

Union president Bob McDevitt said the protest proves workers will never accept the elimination of their benefits.

"Carl Icahn has decided to run the Taj Mahal into the ground while he's waiting to take it over," McDevitt said. "Today we are saying we're not going to take this anymore."

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Trump Entertainment officials declined to comment, and Icahn did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Icahn saved the casino from closing in December by promising to fund it through bankruptcy. He has pledged up to $82.5 million to help the company exit bankruptcy.

But a crucial court ruling could still doom the casino. Local 54 is appealing the termination of workers' benefits, and Icahn has vowed to close the casino rather than accept the restoration of the previous union contract, which he considers unaffordable.

"I want people to know that the situation we're in is unfair," said Myra Gonzalez, a cook at the Taj Mahal for 25 years. "We're going to keep fighting this, and we're showing Mr. Icahn that we want our benefits, and we're not going to give up."

Icahn and Trump Entertainment have already backed off their demand last fall that the company receive $150 million in state and local tax breaks to keep the Taj Mahal open. Just before Christmas, Icahn pledged $20 million to keep it open and save the casino's 3,000 jobs.

A proposal to let all eight of Atlantic City's casinos make payments in lieu of property taxes remains stalled in the state legislature, which scrapped a vote on it after Icahn and the union were unable to reach a contract agreement in December.

Icahn proposes switching workers from the union health plan to government-sponsored coverage under the Affordable Care Act, providing stipends to help them pay for it. He also indicated a willingness to accept a different pension plan that both sides can agree upon.

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Wayne Parry can be reached at http://twitter.com/WayneParryAC