ATLANTIC CITY - For months, some Atlantic City casinos sat silently while the United Auto Workers battered them with print, billboard and radio ads claiming the gambling houses are refusing to negotiate contracts with dealers and other workers.
Now, the four casinos owned by Harrah's Entertainment Inc. are fighting back with a campaign of their own, using the woes of the automakers to hit the union where it hurts. Their message: "Don't let the UAW turn Atlantic City into the next Detroit!"
Four casinos owned by Harrah's Entertainment - Harrah's Resort Atlantic City, Caesars Atlantic City, Bally's Atlantic City and the Showboat Casino Hotel - are taking out full-page newspaper advertisements listing setbacks the UAW has had in the auto industry, including the bankruptcies of Chrysler and GM, government takeovers and thousands of lost jobs.
"We were taking a quiet approach, turning the other cheek," said Dan Nita, Harrah's mid-Atlantic regional president. "But some of our employees and customers felt we were doing them a disservice by not showing that this is a good place to work."
The dueling ad campaigns come amid a protracted standoff between the UAW and four Atlantic City casinos. Employees at the four casinos - Bally's, Caesars, Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino, and the Tropicana Casino and Resort - voted to form unions, but none has yet reached agreement on a contract. Tropicana workers have authorized a strike but have not made good on the threat.
The ad shows a photo of the back of a man labeled "United Auto Workers" with his fingers crossed behind his back. It turns the union's slogan "When workers at Bally's and Caesars are treated unfairly, everyone loses" back against the union.
The casinos' ad says "the UAW track record is nothing but bad news: Bankrupt American auto industry ... Millions of dollars in taxpayer bailout of pensions ... Lost wages, thousands of lost jobs, lost opportunities ... Government takeovers."
It ends with the slogan, "Everyone loses if Atlantic City can't compete."
While saying they intend to honor labor laws, the casinos also say any deal they reach must make economic sense in the midst of the worst operating environment in the 31-year history of legalized gambling in Atlantic City. Beset by competition from slots parlors in Pennsylvania and New York, and a continuing recession, the 11 casinos here are in the third straight year of revenue declines. So far this year, revenue is down nearly 16 percent.
Union officials declined to comment on the casinos' ad campaign, referring to a press release they issued last month in which they decried the two years that has elapsed without a contract being reached.
"Workers voted yes to form a union two years ago, and they have a right to bargain a reasonable contract to improve their standard of living," Joe Ashton, a regional UAW director, said in the release.
The Harrah's newspaper ad says management at Caesars has held more than 50 bargaining sessions with the union. It does not mention that management at Bally's has refused thus far to bargain with the union, feeling the election that approved a union was tainted. The company is challenging that result before the National Labor Relations Board.
Nita said Harrah's is bargaining in good faith with Caesars workers.
"First-time contracts tend to take a long time since everything that happens in the eight hours an employee is on-site has to be put down in writing," Nita said, referring to the terms of employment and working conditions that are part of a labor agreement.
He also said the company has a good working relationship with other employee unions including housekeeping and professional trades workers.
Harrah's also operates Caesars Windsor, a Canadian casino that markets heavily to Detroiters.
Its New Jersey ads first began running about 2 1/2 weeks ago in The Press of Atlantic City. Harrah's also is running broadcast and billboard ads in the local Atlantic City market. The union has expanded beyond the gambling resort, running its ads in the greater Philadelphia market as well.
It held an informational picket Tuesday afternoon outside Bally's, where workers handed out leaflets explaining the union's position and calling on management to approve a contract.