Members of the largest union of Atlantic City workers — Unite Here 54 — last week voted to authorize a strike if an agreement with a number of casinos can’t be reached just ahead of the economically critical weekend for the industry of July 4.
On Wednesday, the city council unanimously passed a resolution backing the casino workers, electing to “urge casino employers to raise wages and staffing and negotiate in good faith to avert a strike.”
But there is even more at stake than just the busy tourist visitation for the holiday weekend. As it happens, this year the NAACP national convention is scheduled in Atlantic City for July 14-20.
The century-old civil rights organization typically holds its annual event in larger cities, such as San Diego in 2018 and Detroit in 2019. For Atlantic City, this is a chance to put its best foot forward for an estimated 8,000 convention visitors.
Echoes of 1964?
If much of the city is shut down, that would bring back — for a seasoned few — memories of the 1964 Democratic National Convention.
The late-August event featured President Lyndon Johnson and thousands of delegates. And while there were no casinos yet and there were no strikes, Boardwalk Empire author Nelson Johnson noted to the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2014 that to the visitors, Atlantic City was a place “where the tourism industry was clearly on the decline, with old hotels that didn’t have central air conditioning, not every room had a phone, hardly any rooms had a television. It was a pretty beat place.”
Presidential historian Theodore White wrote at the time: “Of Atlantic City, it may be written: Better it shouldn’t have happened. … Time has overtaken it, and it has become one of those sad, gray places of entertainment … where the poor and the middle class grasp so hungrily for the first taste of pleasure that the affluent society begins to offer them — and find shoddy instead … It is rundown and glamourless.”
According to one reporter on the scene, Atlantic City was “the original Bay of Pigs.”
The result stood in sharp contrast to rosy expectations for Atlantic City prior to the event set forth by The New York Times: “This community, the largest seashore resort north of Florida, is preparing for a record influx of visitors between now and Labor Day. Its optimism in this direction appears fully justified.
“Nearly 15,000 hotel and motel rooms in Atlantic City already have been reserved by the national committee for the week of the convention. This is about 45 percent of all the available first-class rooms in the city.
“So confident are local officials, merchants, and concessionaires that the conclave will prove an economic success that together, they arranged for the bond issue that financed the air conditioning of Convention Hall. They also agreed to pay the Democratic National Committee more than $500,000 to bring the session here.”
The convention’s aftermath
The convention proved to be such a public-relations debacle that statewide elected officials scrambled for years to try to figure out how to possibly revive the once-treasured South Jersey tourist destination.
After a referendum in 1974 to make New Jersey the second state to legalize casinos failed, a 1976 version was introduced that would limit the casinos to Atlantic City. That measure passed easily, and Resorts opened its doors in 1978.
Today, there are nine casinos in the city — and more national attention is pending in a few weeks.
That raises the pressure both on the casinos and the labor unions to ensure that there is no repeat of the 1964 misfire by the city.