Since coming to this country from the Dominican Republic, Marcos Vidal has scratched and clawed his way up to a lower-middle class existence, a status to which he is tenuously clinging.
He has not had a raise in seven years at his housekeeping job at Resorts Casino Hotel. And in December, when the casino changed hands, the new owners cut his pay from $14.55 an hour to $9.83.
"Now I can barely keep up with my bills and buy food," Vidal said. "I've gotten rid of cable TV, the Internet, long-distance phone calls. I can no longer send money to my mother back home. I'm a grown man and I can't even go to a movie with someone. Do I deserve a decent life like everyone else in the United States?"
It's a life that many casino workers in Atlantic City fear could become theirs, too, if steep cuts in pay and benefits that the casinos are pushing in contract talks are adopted. The casinos have struggled for five years with plunging revenues amid ever-growing — and ever-closer — competition.
Saying the survival of the nation's second-largest gambling market is at stake, the casinos want hourly cuts of $3 from a work force that averages $12 an hour. They also want workers to contribute for the first time to their health insurance and retirement benefit costs.
The union, Local 54 of Unite-HERE, has offered givebacks from areas other than base salary and benefits that total 50 cents an hour, but both sides remain far apart. Bob McDevitt, the union president, said his workers understand the dire straits Atlantic City's casinos are in.
But he said the workers are in an equally perilous position, with nothing less than the American Dream at stake:
"This is more than a contract; it was a societal compact the state of New Jersey made with these workers when casino gambling was approved, that these would be good, middle-class jobs with decent benefits that you could make a living from. Now, is that promise going to be broken?"
Contracts between Local 54 and 10 of the 11 casinos expired last month. Both sides are abiding by the terms of the expired deals while negotiating new ones. The Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa's contract runs through next year.
Don Marrandino, eastern division president for Caesars Entertainment, which owns four of Atlantic City's casinos, said both sides recognize the problems the market faces right now.
"These are tough times for Atlantic City," he said. "That's no secret. But I remain optimistic that we'll get a deal done. We haven't had any jobs fairs to line up replacement workers or outsourced anything. We continue to have our eye on the ball to get this resolved."
Workers at Resorts have taken the biggest hits so far. When Dennis Gomes and Morris Bailey bought the struggling gambling hall last year, it was within days of closing, awash in red ink and all but forsaken by gamblers. The new owners said reducing expenses was the only way they could keep the casino open and preserve about 2,000 jobs.
Since then, other casinos have followed Resorts' lead, saying they, too, need big reductions in their expenses to survive.
It's not idle talk: Over the last 4½ years, Atlantic City has lost a billion and a half dollars in casino revenue, along with thousands of jobs. The 10 casinos in neighboring Pennsylvania are poised to overtake Atlantic City's 11 casinos and become the nation's second-largest gambling market sometime next year. And New York City is adding a casino at the Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens, and talking openly of allowing one or more in Manhattan.
The union picketed Resorts every weekend in September and persuaded at least three conventions to take their business elsewhere. Union organizer Rita Lewis recently dressed in a flapper outfit designed to look like the Roaring '20s costumes that Resorts makes its female beverage servers wear, right down to the black fishnet stockings and the garter belt. She uses the attention the outfit gets to try to persuade customers not to patronize Resorts.
And at least sometimes, it works. Joe Brisby and Kevin Fonteneau, both of Philadelphia, were with a group of friends headed for Resorts last week when Lewis handed them a flier outlining the pay cuts many Resorts workers have had to take. A short conversation persuaded them to take their business elsewhere.
"We used to come here every two weeks, but I'm not interested in coming here anymore," Brisby said. "It's just wrong."
"We can't support a casino that won't support its workers," added Fonteneau. "We're going to Caesars."
Frances Stevenson has worked as a housekeeper at the Tropicana Casino and Resort for 17 years, and says she has never seen a labor climate like the current one in Atlantic City.
"They want us to give up everything we've earned," she said while waving a union sign during a recent boardwalk picket. "They're coming after our health care and our retirement. I understand the economy is in a bad way, but at least let us keep what we've already earned.
"I have two grandchildren that I'm helping support, and one of them is getting ready to go to college," said Stevenson, who makes $14 an hour. "If (the casinos) get what they want, it would be hard to live on that. I could barely pay my own bills. It would be almost like going back on welfare again, and who wants to do that?"
Several casino workers applied for food stamps over the summer, and still others stopped using their air conditioners.
Steve Bond has worked for 22 years as a cook at Bally's Atlantic City. He, too, is worried about falling out of the middle class.
"It's not going to do the casino industry any good to take so much away from the workers," he said. "We need to stop picking on workers in America, as if we're the problem. It's a shame what's happening these days."
Shirish Patel, a housekeeper at Resorts for 19 years, says he is draining his retirement savings even as he gets closer to retiring.
Iris Cotto, a Resorts housekeeper for 18½ years, saw her pay cut from more than $14 an hour to $9.51. Her take-home pay is now $1,200 a month; her monthly mortgage alone is $1,300, and she has burned through her retirement savings just to keep her home.
Vidal, the resorts housekeeper, said he can no longer afford even a used car.
"The price of everything keeps going up," he said. "If they cut our pay, how are we going to survive? How is Atlantic City going to survive? I would love someone to answer those questions for me."