In the early morning hours on the Atlantic City Boardwalk, nearly a thousand hotel workers went on strike July 1 against the Trump Taj Mahal after negotiations broke down over night. The strike entered its sixth day on Wednesday.
In front of the hotel were two strikers, Kaushik and Bina Vashi, both immigrants from India and housekeepers in the local union, UNITE HERE 54. For eight years, husband and wife Kaushik, 62, and Bina, 49, have kept the beds clean at the Trump Taj Mahal. For them, immigrant networks have bolstered the power of union organizing.
Like many unions today, UNITE HERE is increasingly reliant on immigrants like the Vashis for strength. In New Jersey, 10 percent of UNITE HERE 54 is Indian, and many more are Latino. Union president Bob McDevitt announced in 2013 that the union supported rights for undocumented immigrants, quite the change from the days when unions fought for racial immigration quotas.
At stake in the current strike is healthcare. In the fall of 2014, workers at the Trump Taj Mahal lost their healthcare, union spokesman Ben Begleiter said. The company is not owned by Donald Trump, but by billionaire Carl Icahn. Other union workers at the Caesars, Bally’s, Harrah’s, and Tropicana hotels reached an agreement on healthcare before the Fourth of July weekend. Workers are looking for pay raises above their current rate, which is just below $12 an hour, the union said.
I first met Kaushik and Bina at a 2014 march against Icahn, shortly before they lost their healthcare. The pair invited me to their home after the demonstration. The two work the same shift, the same floor, sometimes even the same rooms. Somehow they manage to not drive each other crazy.
Many on the Boardwalk are scared for their jobs and have been for some time, Kaushik said. He took a drag from his cigarette as he and his wife drove home from work. He joined for the benefits, and definitely not for the wages, he said.
The giants of the Boardwalk have been dying since competition from the 20 casinos or slot parlors in neighboring states chopped profits, with four casinos closing in recent years.
They used to get $200 a week in tips, during the good days, Kaushik said. Now, they’re lucky to get one third of that. As we talked, Bina received a text message about a friend and coworker whose response to the uncertainty was heading back to Bangladesh.
The Vashi’s car came to a halt near the Vaikunth Hindu Jain Temple of South Jersey. Every Monday and Sunday, Hindu workers from the casino come here, Bina told me. They come to pray and to eat, and talk about work and the union. At times, the immigrant hub becomes a space for impromptu organizing. “A lot of our coworkers cannot speak English,” Kaushik said. “Everyone knows me. They come to me.”
Unions today are staunch immigration supporters, even for undocumented rights. In a poll conducted in 2012, nearly two thirds of AFLCIO members favored a law offering a path to citizenship. In Atlantic City, the union hall has hosted health and safety programs in Hindi, Gujarati, Chinese, and Spanish.
It’s quite a change from in the past, when unions believed every immigrant was further competition for jobs. From the late 19th century through the 1980s, unions were consistent in their opposition to immigration. During this period, led early on by leaders such as Samuel Gompers, the labor movement in America backed such measures as banning Chinese immigrants and supporting racial quotas on immigrants from southern and eastern Europe.
Since then, unions have had less to lose. Unions in America have undergone a decline that can only be called a crisis. In the heydays of labor, almost 35 percent of workers belonged to a union. In 2015, only 11 percent did, labor’s lowest level since the Great Depression.
Even Local 54 has lost 35 percent of its members since 2004, Kaushik said, with many current union members near retirement age.
After work, Kaushik maintains a strict routine of watching Jeopardy and sleeping early. But when it comes to the union, he is outspoken, saying of his coworkers are immigrants living on the knife blade of poverty. “What kind of life do you want to live?” he said.
He turned on the TV news, and he and Bina watched a news report on continuing labor strife at the Trump Taj Mahal.
Photo: For immigrants like Kaushik and Bina Vashi, housekeepers on strike at the Trump Taj Mahal, the immigrant networks and union membership bolster each other in mutually beneficial ways. When it comes to the union, Kaushik is outspoken, knowing that many immigrants live on the knife blade of poverty. “What kind of life do you want to live?” he said. (Photo by J.p. Lawrence.)