ATLANTIC CITY - As city police hauled away about two dozen of his casino union brethren in handcuffs at a mass protest last week, longtime Trump Taj Mahal bartender Al Messina couldn't help but wonder aloud:
Is this what 24 years comes down to? What happened to the bond between the casino industry and its workers?
Messina and about 6,000 employees were part of Atlantic City history on April 2, 1990, when the Taj, then dubbed the "eighth wonder of the world" by founder and former owner Donald Trump, opened.
"There was so much excitement," said Messina, of Ventnor Heights, then a 19-year-old bartender's assistant who later became a bartender. "Everyone just felt handpicked and special.
"It's almost an embarrassment now."
The Taj Mahal, which opened with much promise, is on the brink of financial collapse. Its ownership, led by billionaire Carl Icahn, who shut down Trump Plaza on Sept. 16, has threatened to close the casino by Nov. 13 if Unite Here Local 54, which represents most city casino workers, rejects major concessions to its contract, including paring members' health-care benefits and replacing their pensions with 401(k)s.
Icahn is also seeking interest payment savings, nearly $30 million in city property tax breaks, and $25 million in state aid to keep the Taj open.
"This is a pivotal moment for both casinos and unions, and the negotiators may be at the Rubicon," said Peter S. Reinhart, director of the Kislak Real Estate Institute at Monmouth University. "Casinos cannot operate without unions, while the union workers will lose many jobs if the casino closes. Both sides will likely blink and reach a compromise.
"If not, it will be another blow to an already struggling Atlantic City economy," Reinhart said. Four casinos here have already shut this year, eliminating nearly 8,000 jobs.
Icahn and his attorneys declined to comment on the bankruptcy negotiations.
Last week, Robert Griffith, chief executive officer of Trump Entertainment, said in a statement: "We are currently focused on trying to save the Trump Taj Mahal and the approximately 3,000 jobs and numerous business relationships associated with that property.
"We have sought assistance from all of our key stakeholders as we have previously indicated. Because we are losing substantial sums and our cash resources are dwindling, we have little time to accomplish this important goal. We ask all those in public office that have an interest in saving these jobs to join us in our efforts."
On Friday, New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney held a news conference with Mayor Don Guardian and said the state would not contribute any money toward Icahn's bid to keep the Taj open.
Icahn claimed Sweeney was talking from both sides of his mouth by supporting opening casinos in North Jersey and then blaming him for seeking state aid to keep the Taj open and its workers employed.
Robert McDevitt, president of the 12,500-member Local 54, said the typical Taj casino worker made $11.70 an hour, about $23,000 a year, supplemented by "generous" health benefits that cover their families, and a pension plan.
"It lets you in the middle class," he said. "Otherwise, you're making $11.70 an hour and that's it."
He said Icahn's proposal would strip all benefits from a Taj job and create "a poverty workforce."
Under Icahn's plan, McDevitt said, each worker would be given a few thousand dollars, which after taxes comes out to about $1,500 - not enough to buy even the lowest-level family health plan with a $5,000 deductible.
"No family can afford that," "McDevitt said.
The two sides will be back in bankruptcy court in Wilmington on Wednesday and Friday.
It was April 2, 1990, and "we just opened the Taj and got great architectural reviews," Trump said in a phone interview. "It ultimately became the No. 1 hotel in Atlantic City. There was a lot of excitement.
"It's very sad what's happened to Atlantic City," he said. "I was there when it had no competition. Now you have competition up and down the East Coast and from all over."
Messina remembers Trump giving a motivational speech in the Taj's Mark G. Etess Arena to wish the employees luck. He said all the Taj employees spent a week at the former Trump World's Fair Casino Hotel for customer-service training.
"You felt mostly hope for your career," Messina said of those heady days. "You were confident you could work any outlet [in the Taj] and make money, and the energy was great."
But over "the last five or six years, everything started falling apart," Messina said. "A lot of things were taken away from customers, like gift baskets and little giveaways in rooms."
By 2007 and 2008, "the [new] management team came in, and it went from bad to worse," he said. "They just came in to cut costs, including entertainment and customer service. It all just became about the slot machine - and what it could bring in."
He said three years ago, the Casbah Nightclub and the Star Bar, which both drew a younger crowd, were shut down.
He said cleanliness began to slide throughout the casino and extensive mold from Hurricane Sandy was never removed.
"The bathrooms are embarrassing," he said. "There's no new carpeting, and where there used to be TVs, there is nothing there.
A visit last week to the casino confirmed Messina's claims of deteriorating conditions. "There is no energy or feel to the place anymore," said Messina, who started bartending at the Golden Nugget in July "just in case" the Taj closes next month. "Some think we're already closed."
Dee Dee Williams, 49, protested last week alongside childhood friend Tamara Jones, 48, a cocktail waitress at the Taj since it opened. Williams started at the Taj in 1991. She said workers had given enough back over the decades.
"We have had no raises for seven years, only a quarter raise most recently," Williams said. "They took out sick time, personal time, overtime, and vacation days went from three weeks to a week and a half with the last contract three years ago."
Williams, a single mother, raised all four children on her Taj pay and her health plan.
For 23 years, she has commuted from Sicklerville, where she drops off her car at the Avondale parking lot and boards a bus to Atlantic City to her job as an environmental services worker in charge of ordering cleaning and chemical supplies.
"I am angry," Williams said. "I don't think it's fair we have to give up our health care and pension after all these years.
"If we are the first ones to give these up, it will be like a domino effect for the other casinos."
Williams' sister, Patricia Brooks, 50, of Pleasantville, lost her Trump Plaza environmental services job last month. She now attends nursing school. Williams, like Messina, said she felt nothing but optimism when she started at the Taj.
"This is it - our health care and pension," she said of her predicament. "Without either, most union workers are saying, 'Just shut it down.' "