ATLANTIC CITY - They stoically deal cards at blackjack and poker tables in this gambling mecca, often to high rollers who think nothing of losing thousands of dollars in a night.
Yet Atlantic City's casino dealers are paid less than minimum wage, at $4 an hour; most of their income comes from tips.
Their peers - the casino hotel workers, cooks, waiters and waitresses who make up the backbone of what is now a $5.2 billion gambling industry here - have long been represented by unions. The dealers, who work eight-hour shifts on their feet, have been on their own in Atlantic City for more than two decades.
But a climate of mounting uncertainty, from slots competition in Pennsylvania that threatens Atlantic City's biggest source of revenue to a recent series of ownership changes among the casinos, has turned this resort's dealers workforce into fertile ground for union organizers.
And the union that has been organizing more than any other is the United Auto Workers.
It has tapped the nearly 8,000 dealers in Atlantic City - a feat that has been tried, but had fallen short in three previous attempts since the first casino, Resorts, opened in 1978. The most recent involved dealers at the Tropicana, who fell two votes short in 1997 in their effort to join the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.
Suddenly emboldened and, many say, just fed up, dealers at four of the 11 Atlantic City casinos petitioned in recent weeks for an election to join the UAW.
On Thursday, dealers at Bally's became the most recent group to seek representation by the UAW.
Two casinos held elections last month. On March 17, Caesars dealers voted 572-128 in favor of joining the UAW. Two weeks later, Trump Plaza dealers voted more than 2-1 in favor of the UAW. Trump Marina dealers will vote May 11.
Gary Cook, 49, who holds two jobs to make ends meet as a part-time dealer at Showboat and as a full-time dual-rate pit manager at Caesars, said the gambling industry had not kept up with the cost of living.
"The bottom line is that these companies down here are making a ton of money," said Cook, who started as a dealer straight out of college at $4 an hour in 1981. Today, he makes $4.24 an hour. "Yet, they are basically scrimping and cutting the dealers' pay and their benefits."
The dealers' hourly wages are so low because of the tips they routinely receive. Tips can be 75 percent to 95 percent of a dealer's income, depending on where they work and how long they've been dealing.
But Cook and other dealers say their wages have been frozen, their health benefits have shrunk, and the casinos are increasingly relying on a growing workforce of part-time dealers, who have no benefits at all.
"We didn't go down to Atlantic City and solicit," said Joe Ashton, regional director for UAW Region 9, which includes New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York. "The dealers got in touch with us, and in great numbers.
"That tells you that they are dissatisfied with their working conditions and their job security," he said.
Several Atlantic City dealers confirmed Ashton's statements. The UAW successfully organized dealers in Detroit in 2000.
Ashton said the UAW had the support of Unite Here Local 54, which represents 16,500 casino and hospitality workers in Atlantic City.
"We support all workers rights' to organize," said Local 54 president Robert McDevitt.
In this seaside resort that proudly markets itself as "Always Turned On," there is growing fear among the dealers. They say the push for higher profits and concern over the bottom line among casino operators was more pressing than ever.
Job security was also a thing of the past, as the casinos have been tossed around to the highest bidder in recent years.
The Sands Casino Hotel shut its doors in November after 26 years in Atlantic City when it was purchased by Pinnacle Entertainment Inc., of Las Vegas.
Harrah's Entertainment Inc., the world's largest gambling company, which owns four casinos in Atlantic City, was recently sold to two private-equity firms for $27.8 billion.
Trump Entertainment Resorts Inc., the casino company controlled by Donald J. Trump, last month enlisted the help of investment-banking firm Merrill Lynch & Co. Inc. to assist it in exploring strategic alternatives, meaning any of the three Trump casinos could end up on the block.
A new owner - Columbia-Sussex Corp., of Fort Mitchell, Ky. - took over the Tropicana Casino Resort in January and has since laid off close to 1,000 employees.
And today, a controversial smoking ban takes effect in Atlantic City, confining smoking to 25 percent of the gaming floors. Casino operators say the smoking ban will likely further cut into revenue, since a vast majority of gamblers tend to also want to smoke.
"We're getting hit from all sides," Carlos Tolosa, Eastern Division president for Harrah's Entertainment, said last week.
Tolosa tried to minimize the impact of the UAW's forthcoming vote among Bally's dealers. The National Labor Relations Board in Philadelphia is expected to announce a date soon.
"We trust, by the time our Bally's dealers vote, they will make a well-informed decision," Tolosa said. "We believe that third-party representation is not in their best interest.
"We do not believe having a layer between our dealers and Bally's will serve them or their needs," he said.
Tony Rodio, president of Resorts and the Atlantic City Hilton casinos, which are owned by Colony Capital L.L.C., of Los Angeles, said management and employees at his two casinos had successfully fended off the UAW. He said that about 170 dealers at the Atlantic City Hilton blamed the UAW for misrepresenting itself and requested to have union cards they recently signed revoked.
"The best way to ensure job security for the employees is to maintain a financially healthy business," he said.
Rodio said union membership did not prevent workers from losing their jobs when the Sands closed, or during the recent wave of layoffs at the Tropicana.
He said that the UAW had lost nearly one million members nationally because of the struggling U.S. auto industry and that it was trying to replenish its diminished ranks by recruiting casino workers in Atlantic City.
"They're starving for members, and they've seized on an opportunity," Rodio said. "They need new members badly, and they're looking here."
But gambling experts say the rapidly expanding and fiercely competitive casino industry is fostering a climate for workers to want to join unions, particularly dealers as they realize their growing importance to Atlantic City.
While slots revenue overall is down this year nearly 5 percent, revenue from table games - which Pennsylvania does not have - has been edging up. Revenue figures released last Tuesday by the New Jersey Casino Control Commission showed that table-games revenue was up 4.6 percent for the month and 5.2 percent for the year.
The tension between management and dealers is growing. Most of the casinos here recently reiterated to their employees that they risked "termination" if they spoke to members of the media about their concerns during this contentious time.
Trump Plaza veteran dealer Adrian Huggins, 43, summed up the feelings of many of his brethren.
"We make a substantial amount of money for these places," said Huggins, after casting a "yes" vote on March 31 to join the UAW, "and we get nothing but peanuts."