ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — He's led Atlantic City casino workers through three strikes, been arrested at protests nearly 10 times, and won workers including housekeepers, cocktail servers and others the best contract they had ever had.
Now Bob McDevitt is stepping down as president of the main union for Atlantic City casino workers, Local 54 of Unite Here, after 26 years as one of the most powerful people in Atlantic City, able to bring the industry to its knees when he felt workers were being treated unfairly.
It is a power that he has used repeatedly; sometimes, the mere threat of a strike prompted casinos to sign a new contract.
“We represent people who traditionally have not been what you would consider high-wage workers — housekeepers, bartenders, cocktail servers, people who clean public areas,” he said. “It's one thing to work as a waiter over the summer while you're in college; it's quite another to try to support yourself and a family on that. That's where we come in."
The union represents about 10,000 workers in Atlantic City who have been able to live a middle-class existence doing jobs that typically pay less in other industries.
Pugnacious and gregarious, quick with a joke and even quicker with a profanity, McDevitt was a fixture in Atlantic City who exerted his influence over local and state elected officials on matters affecting Atlantic City and its casinos. During protests, he sat down in roadways and blocked traffic; during Boardwalk rallies, he yelled into bullhorns.
Two years ago, he nearly died from a systemic infection that developed from a cut on his foot, which led to its amputation. But he recovered in time to help negotiate a new contract last year providing significant raises, and maintaining health care and pension benefits, including a $22 hourly wage for housekeepers in the final year of the four-year deal.
The new contract was reached without the union going on strike. Previously, walkouts were staged in 1999, 2004 and 2016.
The 2004 walkout, mainly over casinos' use of non-union subcontractors, lasted 34 days. But the 2016 strike was the most rancorous and controversial: It led to the closure of the Trump Taj Mahal casino, which at the time was owned by billionaire investor Carl Icahn.
That strike centered on the union's demand that Icahn restore health insurance and pension benefits that a bankruptcy court judge had terminated. Icahn offered to restore health insurance to Taj Mahal workers, but at a level less than what workers at the city’s other casinos received, which the union rejected.
Icahn closed the casino on Oct. 10, 2016, saying he had lost $100 million while operating it; about 3,000 workers lost their jobs.
“It was very much a fight to the death,” McDevitt said. “If we had capitulated to them, that would have been pivotal. Every other casino would have wanted the same deal.”
He said workers realized either they or the casino would survive — but not both.
“Everybody has their Popeye moment: ‘That’s all I can stands; I can’t stands no more,’” he said on the day the casino closed. “The workers made a choice that they weren’t going to accept benefits and terms of employment worse than everyone else’s. I applaud them.”
McDevitt endured heavy criticism in some quarters for allowing — some say forcing — the casino to close. But he says the reopening of the casino as Hard Rock less than two years later vindicates the decision to let the Taj Mahal go under.
McDevitt called Hard Rock's Global Chair Jim Allen the best casino executive who he has ever worked with, citing the company's pay, bonuses and the overall way it treats its workers.
Joe Lupo, the former president of Hard Rock in Atlantic City — the former Taj Mahal building — said McDevitt was easy to get along with.
“I always enjoyed working with Bob, as he was very cooperative, direct, never minced words, but with a great sense of humor,” said Lupo, who now runs the former Mirage casino in Las Vegas for Hard Rock. “More importantly, he was very passionate and genuinely cares for each member, always prioritizing their future and welfare first.”
McDevitt said the worst casino executive he encountered was Bill Yung, who was head of Kentucky-based Columbia Sussex Corp. That company owned the Tropicana in 2007 and allowed conditions to deteriorate to such an extent that New Jersey gambling regulators stripped the company of its casino license, forcing its sale. Columbia Sussex did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
McDevitt will leave his post on May 1, replaced by Donna DeCaprio, Local 54's longtime secretary-treasurer.
Follow Wayne Parry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/WayneParryAC