ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — Most of the Atlantic City casino workers who clean hotel rooms, serve drinks and tidy up public areas are women.
For the first time in 107 years, the union that represents them is now being led by a woman.
Donna DeCaprio is one of the most influential people in Atlantic City as president of Local 54 of the Unite Here union, which has about 10,000 members and has repeatedly brought the casino industry to its knees during labor disputes.
But there will be labor peace in Atlantic City for at least three more years following the adoption of landmark contracts last summer, which gave workers the biggest raises they’ve ever had.
DeCaprio was the lead negotiator of those contracts, filling in for then-president Bob McDevitt who was still recovering from an illness that led to the amputation of one of his feet.
She was able to get the job done without a strike, which could have seriously damaged an Atlantic City casino industry that was already struggling with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and soaring inflation. And her decades-long working relationship with executives of the city’s nine casinos, as well as her understanding of what workers face each day, helped seal the deal.
“This is extremely hard work that they do,” said DeCaprio, who started her career in the casino industry making sure the bar was properly stocked and cleaned at the Trop World casino in 1987.
Sixty percent of Local 54’s members are women.
“I find that women generally take a more collaborative approach to issues,” DeCaprio said. “I would like to build more alliances with other unions and build some bridges.”
RuthAnne Joyce, a bartender at Harrah’s and Hard Rock, said she is “thrilled” to have DeCaprio leading the union.
“She works harder than anyone I’ve ever known,” Joyce said. “She is extremely knowledgeable and cares for the membership deeply.”
DeCaprio succeeds McDevitt, who left the Local 54 presidency in May to run the national union’s pension fund. He was one of the most powerful people in Atlantic City for nearly a quarter century, and was not known for shying away from a fight — whether it was sitting down in a roadway to block traffic outside a casino he felt was treating workers unfairly to leading the union on a full-blown strike, something that happened in 1999, 2004 and 2016.
DeCaprio acknowledged McDevitt could be confrontational when necessary.
“So can I,” said DeCaprio, who has been arrested 13 times during union demonstrations in support of workers’ rights. “Even more so, if need be.”
Having been secretary-treasurer of the union for the past 19 years — in effect the union’s No. 2 official — DeCaprio’s working relationships with casino executives helped both sides reach a deal without a walkout last summer.
“I have known Donna for over 20 years, and I am very happy for her as she settles into her new role,” said Resorts casino president Mark Giannantonio, who also heads the Casino Association of New Jersey, the industry’s trade group. “Donna is a capable and smart negotiator who always has the best interest of her members and the community in general in mind at all times.”
McDevitt said casino executives know and respect DeCaprio.
“You spend five minutes with her and you see how intelligent she is,” McDevitt said. “She has always been a leader. I expect great things from her.”
One big issue she’ll soon have to deal with is whether New Jersey should ban smoking in the casinos. Currently, it’s allowed on 25% of the casino floor, but a group of casino workers is pushing for a full ban.
More than half the state Legislature has signed on to a bill that would ban smoking, and Gov. Phil Murphy has said he will sign it. But the measure has yet to receive even a preliminary vote in Senate or Assembly committees, and no vote has been scheduled.
Like McDevitt, DeCaprio says a smoking ban as currently proposed “would be a suicide pact” given the proximity of casinos in Pennsylvania that allow smoking.
“We support and defend a worker’s right to work in a safe environment,” she said. But a total smoking ban “would eliminate thousands of lucrative jobs and probably lead to the closure of one casino” as customers forsake Atlantic City for other jurisdictions that allow smoking.
DeCaprio said she favors a compromise in which smoking would continue to be allowed on 25% of the casino floor, and casinos would be required to install the latest ventilation and air treatment technology. Casino workers, and some in the ventilation industry, say no technology can completely rid the air of harmful substances from cigarette and cigar smoke.
These casino workers also cite a study showing that non-smoking casinos are performing as well or better than those that allow smoking.
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