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Atlantic City runs on labor

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ATLANTIC CITY — For many, Labor Day means the end of summer, a three-day weekend or the return to school — all true, but associations that obscure the real reason for the national holiday.

“It’s a day to be appreciative of all the trades — and there are many. Each trade performing his/her task efficiently,” said Ruth Anne Joyce, of Galloway Township.

Joyce has been a casino bartender since 1980 and has worked a few Labor Days throughout her career.

Labor Day is a federal holiday celebrated on the first Monday of September annually to acknowledge the physical, social, economical and other achievements done by American workers, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Ben Albert, the staff director for UNITE HERE Local 54, said the laborers have helped build America and the cities we live in, including this seaside resort. Local 54 represents housekeepers, bartenders, cocktail servers, cooks, bellmen, doormen, and other service jobs in the casinos and hospitality industry in Atlantic City.

“Our country has been built on the backs of workers,” Albert said. “Having one day set aside to acknowledge their importance seems like the bare minimum we can do.”

Labor activists advocated during the American Labor Movement for a day for workers and their contributions to be acknowledged, which is why we have Labor Day today, according to the Department of Labor.

Joyce, coming from a family of construction laborers, said joining the union is “all pros, no cons.” Her union job has paid her enough to raise her family, and she strongly believes in the Labor Movement that advocated for employees to be paid a good wage.

“Without a union, workers are subject to the whims of their employer. They have no real ability to affect their pay, healthcare or working conditions,” said Albert. “By joining together with their fellow workers, they have the power to demand and win better pay, benefits and working conditions as we just saw in the recent contract negotiations. The majority of workers in the casinos are in a union.”

Local 54 has represented hospitality workers in the industry for more than 100 years, according to its website. Locally, it represents some 10,000 workers in the city’s casinos, down from from 16,000 workers in 2004 but still a significant number.

Albert said technically the union doesn’t “fill” positions, the employers do, but employers have been having trouble since the start of the COVID pandemic.

“There are many open jobs across town. The recent contract victory by Local 54 that includes large wage increases should help address these openings,” said Albert.

Albert said he’s heard the conventional wisdom that the pandemic chased away the work force but said he doesn’t believe that account.

“I don’t think many workers ‘fled’ after COVID.” Albert said. “Many workers had left the industry during the casino closures and economic downturn.”

Joyce said COVID affected the building trades for the better but hurt the hospitality industry during 2020, but that narrative is changing.

“The customers are back now. Everyone is out and about and tired of being shut in,” said Joyce.

Albert said without the workers, the hospitality industry in Atlantic City or anywhere would not exist.

“I don’t know anyone who has gone through life without contacting a laborer to perform work in some point in their life — hence, laborers are always needed,” said Joyce.

Housekeepers, housemen, public area cleaners, dishwashers, cooks, cocktail servers, bartenders, bar porters, food servers, bell persons, food runners, hosts are all part of the city’s workforce.

Outside of the casinos, there are several different types of trade unions — craft unions, general unions, industrial unions, white collar unions, blue collar unions, federation and confederation unions.

In general, this seaside resort is a “labor-intensive” city, and the many workers who built Atlantic City were essential to its development, said Ralph Hunter, president and founder of the the African American Heritage Museum of Southern New Jersey.

“When they started to build Atlantic City, they needed a labor force,” said Hunter about the 19th century industrial development of Atlantic City.

Black laborers from southern states like Alabama and Louisiana were an integral part of building the city.

Cheap labor was needed to build private homes, the Boardwalk and, later, casinos, said Hunter, an Atlantic City historian.

Joyce said her job as a banquet bartender is a great atmosphere and that workers like her have helped strengthen the image of the resort.

“Customers love to be waited on. Atlantic City has the best food, best entertainment and provides the best service,” said Joyce. “Atlantic City is known for the casinos. The hospitality workers — the Local 54 workers — are the reason customers come to A.C.”

This fortified the city’s position as the popular East Coast destination it remains.

That sense of generations building upon the success of their parents continues even now, Hunter said.

“Our forefathers worked hard so that I can do what I’m doing. I’ll work hard so my grandkids can do what they’re doing,” said Hunter. “So the evolution moves on from generation to generation.”

Contact Selena Vazquez:


"Our country has been built on the backs of workers. Having one day set aside to acknowledge their importance seems like the bare minimum we can do." Ben Albert, staff director for UNITE HERE Local 54

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This translation was provided by Latino Spirit Media in association with the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University and is supported with funding from the NJ Civic Information Consortium. The story was originally written in English by The Press of Atlantic City and is being republished under a special content sharing agreement through the NJ News Commons Spanish Translation News Service.

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