New Atlantic City Union Leader Sets Casino Smoking Stance

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Atlantic City’s casino workers’ union Unite Here Local 54 has made history with the appointment of its first female leader, Donna DeCaprio. Taking over from Bob McDevitt, DeCaprio now presides over a powerful organization representing approximately 10,000 members, the majority of whom are women.

DeCaprio’s appointment comes after her successful role as the lead negotiator during last summer’s landmark contract negotiations between casinos and unions.

Despite the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic and inflation, DeCaprio negotiated a complex deal without resorting to strikes, a feat that was instrumental in her appointment to the role.

“Donna is a capable and smart negotiator who always has the best interest of her members and the community in general in mind at all times,” said Resorts Casino and Casino Association of New Jersey president Mark Giannantonio, speaking to Associated Press.

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A New Era for Local 54

DeCaprio’s journey in the casino industry began with a job tending bar at the Trop World casino in 1987. Over the years, she has built strong working relationships with casino executives, fostering an environment conducive to negotiations.

Her 19-year tenure as secretary-treasurer of the union solidified these relationships, helping her take the lead during McDevitt’s absence because of ill health.

Bob McDevitt was a legendary Atlantic City figure who led the Union chapter for 26 years. McDevitt left the post in May to take up a position at Unite Here’s Retirement Fund board. In 2021, he was struck down with a serious illness that put him in a medical coma and had to have his foot amputated.  

McDevitt was known for his confrontational style during his tenure, something that DeCaprio isn’t going to shy away from either.

The Associated Press asked her about her predecessor’s legendary tenacity in the face of billionaire casino owners and corporate interests.

“So can I be,” said DeCaprio. “Even more so, if need be.”

The new union president, like McDevitt, says she isn’t afraid of getting into the action on the picket lines. DeCaprio has been arrested some 13 times over her years working with the unions in Atlantic City.

Smoking Ban Controversy

One of the pressing issues DeCaprio will be tackling in her new role is an almost endlessly controversial one – the question of smoking in casinos.

Currently, smoking is allowed on 25% of each Atlantic City casino’s floor. But many casino workers are advocating for a complete ban.

However, DeCaprio, like her predecessor McDevitt, believes a complete smoking ban would be detrimental to the city’s gambling industry.

She argues that the proximity of casinos in Pennsylvania that allow smoking could lead to a loss of jobs in Atlantic City. Instead, she supports a compromise, allowing smoking on 25% of the casino floor while requiring the installation of advanced ventilation and air treatment technology.

DeCaprio also likened a full smoking ban to a “suicide pact” for the city’s gambling industry.

“We support and defend a worker’s right to work in a safe environment,” she said.

“However, a total smoking ban would eliminate thousands of lucrative jobs and probably lead to the closure of one casino.”

Competitive stance or no, the new union head’s stance is not likely to go down too well with anti-casino smoking campaigners.

But, DeCaprio isn’t looking to let any challenge put her off from her new duties.

“It has been such an honor and privilege to represent the hard-working members of Local 54 over the last 25 years. Our members are the backbone of the hospitality industry, and they deserve every penny they earn and more,” she said in a Union press release.

“I love what I do, and I look forward to continuing to fight for justice, fair wages, and outstanding benefits.”

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