ATLANTIC CITY - About 1,000 bellhops, cooks, cocktail servers, and housekeepers went on strike early Friday at the Trump Taj Mahal, leaving the city's most financially fragile casino scrambling to keep up with the start of the big Fourth of July weekend.
The workers, members of Unite Here Local 54, set up picket lines at 6 a.m. on the Boardwalk beneath the huge Trump Taj Mahal sign, and on Pacific Avenue next to the marble elephants at the property's entrance.
"It's a big injustice," said hotel cleaner Sanjay Shah, walking an empty Taj hallway shortly before the walkout. He said he is paid $8.60 an hour with no benefits, not even a break.
Although the visuals shouted out Trump, and caused a stir on social media among fans and foes of presumed Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, the $1 billion property that Trump opened in 1990 is now wholly owned by billionaire Carl Icahn.
Trump sued to take his name off the now-closed Trump Plaza, but the Taj remains Trump-branded. Workers trained their anger on Icahn. "Shame! Shame! Shame on Icahn!" they chanted.
The company, meanwhile, pressed dealers, who are not on strike, into service as cocktail servers, and top hotel and security managers as bellmen, handling luggage for incoming guests. Restaurants, however, were closed, as were some restrooms. The grand reopening of the Sultan's Feast buffet was canceled.
Tony Rodio, CEO of the Icahn-owned Tropicana, who also oversees the Taj, accused the union of being "hell-bent on trying to close this property."
He said the company had bargained in good faith and made an offer to the union it had "been under the impression" would be accepted. The offer included restoring some health insurance and reducing the number of rooms per shift per cleaner from 16 to 14.
"They are hurting their own and everybody else during the busiest time of the year," Rodio said in a statement.
Union representatives said they considered the health-care offer inadequate.
"If the choice is to continue working in poverty and the place closes, they're comfortable with that," Union president Bob McDevitt said of workers.
Taj general manager Alan Rivin said in the statement the Taj was open and "fully functioning."
Guests continued to stream into the hotel, some there especially for the deep fryer being offered to regular gamblers, others for the Whitesnake concert, still others using up comps for the weekend. The hotel did not appear to be accepting new reservations.
Carol Bartlett of Maryland said she'd clean her room herself. "I can make my own bed," she said.
At check-in time Friday, guests waited two deep, although roped-line stations set up to deal with overflow crowds were empty.
Just outside, Unite Here protesters continued their loud banter, urging passing motorists and pedestrians to "stay somewhere else."
Some took the hint. "We checked out this morning," said Roxanne Peirson of Lehigh County, Pa., who had stayed at the hotel for a few days with her husband. "We've been coming here a long time, but we think what they are doing to these people is terrible."
Where were they going?
"Anywhere but here," said her husband, Richard.
The strike, though limited to one property, was another blow to a punch-drunk city that in recent years has weathered a devastating hurricane, four casino closures, 10,000 lost jobs, a drastic reduction in ratables, and a near-default on its loans. It is now fighting off both a state takeover and a proposal to add two casinos in North Jersey. The city government remains hundreds of millions of dollars in debt. The surviving casinos, however, have seen profits go up and an overall stabilization of the industry.
Around 6:45 a.m., Mayor Don Guardian rode by striking workers on his ritual morning bike ride. He did not stop and only gave a small wave. Across from the picket line, Anthony Catanoso, owner of the iconic Steel Pier, stared at the noisy picket line that circled in a long oval with drumming, chanting, and bullhorns. "We can't get a break," he said.
The union settled with four other casinos earlier this week, but rejected a last offer from the Taj near midnight Thursday and set a 6 a.m. strike.
The casino emerged from a bitter bankruptcy battle earlier this year, during which the unions were stripped of their health benefits.
The Taj is now run by the same managers that run the Icahn-owned Tropicana. The company had recently sunk about $15 million into renovating rooms and cleaning up the property, which had badly deteriorated. Icahn spent about $86 million keeping the Taj open while four other casinos closed during 2014.
McDevitt said he did not blame the current management for the impasse.
"It goes to New York, to Wall Street, to private equity, to the billionaires who've sucked the marrow out of the bones of this city," he said. "How do you have a worker in 2016 without a paid work break? The bodega on the corner, the guy working the register gets a half-hour."
Some guests, like doorman Robert Schwartz and his wife, Sylvia, of the Bronx, celebrating their third anniversary, said they were sympathetic, but would not change their plans.
Gary and Diane Cole of Monroe Township, Pa., said they were disappointed by the delayed check-in and lack of restaurants, but would stay.
"I did see men in suits taking luggage," Gary Cole said. "It's a simple formula. When they run out of services, we're going home."
Staff writers Emily Babay and Jacqueline L. Urgo contributed to this article.