“Donald Trump says Carl Icahn should be in charge of the entire American economy!” shouted the man into the bullhorn as we stood in front of Trump Tower. “Everything you hate about the American economy, Carl Icahn does.” America’s working class Trump supporters still have ample time to reconsider.
Under the bright noontime sun today, a couple hundred workers from the Trump Taj Mahal casino gathered on 5th Avenue and 59th Street. It may have looked to passersby as though these workers, wearing red t-shirts and waving signs, had gathered to protest the Apple store directly in front of them. In fact, they were there because just behind the Apple store sits the General Motors building, a skyscraper that houses the offices of their boss, Carl Icahn.
The Taj Mahal workers have been on strike for two weeks. Carl Icahn has been their boss for only five months, since he bought the casino out of bankruptcy, including Donald Trump’s remaining 10% stake in the failed venture. The union’s contract expired in 2014, and extensive negotiations have not yet produced a new one. The main thing that the workers are asking for is health care—any health care. The company does not care to give them any. A recent survey of union workers at the Taj Mahal found that a full third of the workers have no health care at all. The rest rely on Obamacare, Medicare, and a smattering of other options.
The Trump Taj Mahal opened with great fanfare 26 years ago. It took only one year for Donald Trump to run it into bankruptcy. After being relaunched, it went bankrupt again in 2004. At that time, the union agreed to concessions, sacrificing health care, raises, vacations and other perks. They have seen less than a dollar per hour raises in the past decade. The average worker wage is a little over $12 an hour. Carl Icahn’s net worth is about $17 billion, making him one of the 50 richest people in the world. A successful hedge fund manager and corporate raider, he is famous for taking control of companies, sucking them dry, and leaving them bloated with debt as he walks away with a fortune.
Donald Trump has said of his Atlantic City casinos, “The money I took out of there was incredible.” Trump has also earned the endorsement of Carl Icahn, and has in turn said that Icahn would be a good pick for Treasury Secretary.
Pete Battaglini, a middle-aged man with salt-and-pepper hair and a mustache, has spent 26 years as a bellman at the Trump Taj Mahal. A “Day One Worker,” as they say. He has not had a raise in ten years. He is on Obamacare. With two kids in college, he says, keeping the family going is not easy. He had come to Fifth Avenue to carry a sign because he would like health care coverage. He would like to one day be able to take a vacation again. He would like to one day be able to have a small amount of money left over to allow him to enjoy life a bit. “There’s nothing extra any more,” he says.
The workers of the Trump Taj Mahal marched one short block down Fifth Avenue and stood in front of Trump Tower, where a handful of cops stood lazily in front of the imposing black and gold entrance. A rotating cast of union leaders and union members and activists took turns making their case through the megaphone.
“We’re not gonna let them turn the working class into the working poor,” they say.
“When they downsize our wages so they can supersize their profits, it’s called greed,” they say.
“We want our share. I want the ability to raise my family,” they say.
We stood out there on a hot sidewalk with people who woke up early to take a bus for hours to travel to the city to stand in front of the billionaires’ palace to go on record as saying they deserve basic health care and a living wage. No decent human could argue with them. The modesty of their demands counterimposed with the Midtown monuments to wealth reinforced their point. At the same time, new polls showed Donald Trump closing the gap in several swing states. His candidacy holds a persistent allure for working class voters that has national unions worried. One wonders if the angry, jobless union voters in Ohio or Pennsylvania or Illinois were standing out here, if it would become easier to see which side of the divide they belong to. All of the workers stood on one side of the police barriers in front of Trump Tower, to keep the sidewalk clear. Every so often businessmen in pinstripe suits walked by during all the chanting. All of them kept their steps brisk and their eyes locked straight ahead. One of them let traces of a smile play across his lips, but he never turned his head until he had cleared the barricades.