Trump's Labor Pains: The Ups and Downs of His Union Relations

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Donald Trump speaks to supporters during a campaign rally in Warren, Michigan, on March 4. He has appealed to blue-collar workers, many of whom are union members, in places like Michigan. Carlos Barria/REUTERS

Carmen Llarull is not a tall woman. She looked even tinier than usual standing on the back of a flatbed truck last August, with the gold and mirrored edifice of the 64-story Trump International Hotel looming behind her along the Las Vegas Strip. Speaking softly in Spanish, the 60-something Llarull addressed the boisterous group of red-clad protesters, telling them “we need to stop all intimidations if we want respect and justice.” The Trump Hotel housekeeper claimed she’d been fired from her job for wearing a Culinary Workers Union pin. “But I’m back here again, to fight for all of you.”

Nearly a year later, Llarull and more than 500 maids, bartenders and bellhops at the Trump International are still fighting the presidential candidate and his company. In early April, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) certified the Local Joint Executive Board of Las Vegas, a partnership of the powerful local Culinary Workers Union and the Bartenders Union, as the legal collective-bargaining representatives for hotel employees. Hotel management, however, has been dragging its feet on new contract negotiations.

The theme of the Culinary Workers Union’s campaign against Trump has been “Start here” (as in, to “Make America Great Again,” in the familiar words of his campaign): start with your own Las Vegas employees. According to organizers, management at Trump’s Vegas hotel has been aggressively anti-union, which they’ve documented in a flurry of NLRB complaints filed since 2014 that allege the hotel has threatened, fired or otherwise retaliated against workers trying to organize. It’s alleged that Trump management has even tried to block them from communicating.

The Trump Organization did not respond to requests for comment, but in legal correspondence and hearing transcripts obtained by Newsweek under the Freedom of Information Act, lawyers for Trump vigorously contested those claims. But Trump International Hotel’s decision to fight the Culinary Workers Union’s organizing effort at every turn certainly doesn’t suggest a company that’s union-friendly.

That jars with the pitch Trump has been making on the campaign trail, as he aims squarely at marginalized American workers. He’s lambasted American companies, like Ford Motor, that are building factories overseas instead of in the United States and threatened sky-high tariffs on Chinese and Mexican imports to protect American manufacturers. “I have tremendous support within unions, and I have tremendous support in areas where they don’t have unions,” he boasted at a town hall in New Hampshire in February. “Workers love me.”

The Trump organization’s hardball tactics against unions in Las Vegas are also a departure from the way the real estate mogul has operated for much of his career, which has been centered in New York City, with its strong union ties. The Trump campaign didn’t reply to requests for comment on this matter either, but labor records and interviews with labor leaders and other experts suggest that rather than being union-busters, Trump and his organization worked well with unions on a regular basis.

“He always had the reputation of being someone who built union in New York City,” says Larry Cary, founding partner of Manhattan labor law firm Cary Kane LLP. But he emphasizes that in the ’80s and ’90s, the building trade unions had “a lock on major construction in New York City. It would have been very difficult to build other than union over that period of time.”

The battle in Sin City and dustups in Chicago late in the last decade suggest that as Trump’s company has grown and expanded beyond its home base in the Northeast, the organization’s approach to unions has become more confrontational.

“There’s been an evolution,” says one New Jersey union leader, who didn’t want to be quoted on the record saying anything complimentary about the presumptive Republican nominee. At one time, Trump “was a fairly good player in the area of union relationships,” the union leader says, but “as he expanded his little empire out of the metro area [of New York and New Jersey], they became more and more anti-union.”

It’s not that places like Chicago and Las Vegas don’t have strong union presences, but unions as a whole have less sway than they used to, certainly less than New York City’s construction unions once did. And Trump appears to be seizing on his newfound leverage with labor.

63_Trump Unions Donald Trump speaks to supporters during a campaign rally in Warren, Michigan, on March 4. He has appealed to blue-collar workers, many of whom are union members, in places like Michigan. Carlos Barria/REUTERS

Trump’s nuanced record with unions presents a challenge for his most vocal critics on the left, who are laboring to convince working- and middle-class voters—including many union households—that Trump is not their champion. “Trump economics are a recipe for low wages, fewer jobs, more debt. He could bankrupt America like he's bankrupted his companies,” Hillary Clinton, Trump’s likely opponent in November, warned members of the Service Employees International Union in Detroit in late May.

National union leaders representing the AFL-CIO, laborers, teachers and public sector employees are already laying the groundwork for a campaign to hammer the real estate tycoon as anti-worker. They recently teamed to form a super PAC that plans to attack Trump in the general election.

But plenty of local unions are more ambivalent. Few union leaders whom Newsweek contacted in New York, New Jersey or Chicago were willing to publicly comment on Trump at all, despite the outspoken anti-Trump rhetoric of their national parent organizations. Many either didn’t have anything bad to say about the mogul—though they emphasized they despise his politics—or simply didn’t want to step into the political fray. The president of the New Jersey AFL-CIO, for example, declined to speak to Newsweek because he “is staying neutral on the national political race at this time,” a spokeswoman said in an email.

That reflects both business and political realities. Those who work regularly with Trump in construction and hospitality want to maintain existing relations with his multibillion-dollar company, for one. They’re also no doubt aware of Trump’s appeal within their ranks. A December survey of nearly 1,700 working-class voters in Cleveland and Pittsburgh offered just a glimpse of that. Conducted by Working America, a community organization affiliated with the AFL-CIO, it found that a plurality of those who’d already picked their candidate were backing Trump, including one in four Democrats. And in Michigan, another state hit hard by the decline of American manufacturing, 55 percent of Republican primary voters surveyed for a CNN exit poll said foreign trade takes away U.S. jobs, a central plank of the labor movement. A sizable number of those voters—45 percent—voted for Trump in the primary.

“I have great relationships with unions. New York is mostly unionized,” Trump told Newsweek last summer, referring to construction unions, not the whole labor force.

While “great” may be an exaggeration, there’s plenty of evidence that Trump and labor groups have mostly played nice over the decades. Trump’s two New York hotels are unionized, according to Fairhotel.org, a site run by the Unite Here union. And the Trump organization or its contractors frequently signed what are known as “project labor agreements” for construction projects in the state, which are used to standardize labor contract terms with various unions for a given construction project. According to a Cornell University report on PLAs in New York, the Trump organization signed such agreements for its construction projects at the Trump National Golf Course and its clubhouse in Westchester County and the Trump Plaza condominium tower in New Rochelle in the past decade.

The candidate has seen some controversies in his home state, however. The most notorious labor dispute he faced in New York was over a contractor’s use of illegal Polish immigrants in the demolition of the Fifth Avenue site on which Trump Tower was built in the early 1980s. After 20 years of legal back-and-forth, he finally settled a lawsuit charging his organization owed millions to the demolition workers union’s medical and pension funds on behalf of the Polish workers.

But the Trump organization has faced comparatively few labor complaints from his home base in New York over the past nearly 18 years. Going back to 1998, NLRB case records show fewer than 50 complaints at properties in which the Trump organization has a controlling interest. Eighteen of those were related to New York or New Jersey properties over the course of more than a decade. But another 18 have been filed since 2014 as part of the dispute at the Trump International Hotel in Las Vegas. In contrast, since Trump ceded a controlling ownership of his eponymous Atlantic City casinos, unions have filed nearly 150 complaints against the new owners.

Labor lawyer and University of California at Berkeley lecturer David Rosenfeld says individual charges filed with the NLRB are not necessarily “a sign of any real anti-labor attitude.” The New Jersey labor leader agrees, saying, “There are always labor disputes, there are always going to be grievances.” It’s a more serious matter when employers attempt to obstruct labor organizing. “To me, it’s particularly serious if they won’t bargain after an election” certifying union representation, Rosenfeld says.

In New Jersey, there were minor spats over organizing, as in a 1991 case in which Trump’s Taj Mahal casino and resort in Atlantic City refused to recognize as members of the union part-time technicians who helped set up for live events and performances. The NLRB ruled against Trump. In 1993, the Trump Organization also lost another NLRB decision at the Taj Mahal, in which one of its employees was found to have illegally discouraged casino workers from trying to unionize. But according to the New Jersey union boss, Trump’s record in Atlantic City has been solid from the time he first began operating there in the early 1980s until the time he relinquished control of his three casinos in 2005 because of bankruptcy.

“Of all the operators, the Trump company, once you got to the right people, were the best people to deal with,” the boss says. “There was never a philosophy that the union didn’t have a right to exist.”

But that hasn’t been the case in recent years, as Trump properties have moved aggressively to block unionization drives, most prominently in the current showdown in Las Vegas. The organization also battled unions in Chicago, where it opened the glass-encased, 98-story Trump International Hotel and Tower in 2008. It is a looming new presence on the Windy City’s skyline, with 20-foot-tall gilded TRUMP signage that, one local architecture critic snarkily remarked, is “as subtle as Godzilla.”

In Chicago, the Trump company building the tower did sign a PLA with three local unions involved in the property’s construction. But Chicago and Cook County Building and Construction Trades Council President Ralph Affrunti recalls that “it took about two years for that PLA to come into existence, which is lot longer than is normal for us here.” And when the local laborers union, which was also involved in the project, called a strike in nine Illinois counties in 2006 over an unrelated contract dispute with area contractors, Trump sued, claiming the walkout violated a no-strike clause in the PLA, Crain’s Chicago Business reported. The lawsuit was quickly settled, though it was subject to a confidentiality agreement.

Trump also battled—and defeated—an effort by the Chicago hotel workers’ union to organize employees of his new hotel. According to news reports in 2008, Trump representatives spent several years negotiating with United Here Local 1 over a potential “neutrality agreement,” which, in effect, gives a company’s blessing for the union to try to organize workers. In one interview, the local Unite Here spokeswoman even noted that the national union “has a history of cooperative relationships at Trump properties.” But the Chicago talks fell apart, and the union began picketing the hotel shortly after it opened. It failed, however, to get the Trump organization to back down.

Neither national or local representatives of Unite Here would comment on their dealings with the Trump organization—which doesn’t surprise Kent Wong, director of the University of California at Los Angeles’s Labor Center, who says that if a union realizes its chances of organizing success are dwindling, “they may choose to redirect resources to an organizing campaign that they think has a better chance of succeeding.” But they wouldn’t necessarily want to publicly acknowledge their failure.

National labor organizations are not being nearly so reticent about Trump. The AFL-CIO, an umbrella organization representing 56 national unions, launched a digital ad campaign against the candidate in March, highlighting his praise of South Carolina’s “right-to-work” laws, which bar employees from being required to pay union dues. And labor leaders also speak of Trump’s opposition to an increase in the federal minimum wage and support for tax cuts for the wealthy.

But it’s telling that most of the labor leaders’ public criticism has been focused on his general character and divisive statements about minorities and less on his attitudes toward labor. Terry O’Sullivan, president of the Laborers International Union of North America, ripped into Trump at a labor event in Washington, D.C., in March, calling him a “racist, sexist, prejudiced billionaire bully.” (LIUNA is backing Clinton.) And Richard Trumka, head of the AFL-CIO, has called Trump “a bigot.”

Trump, however, has a few powerful cards of his own to play with union members. They include his vocal opposition to free trade agreements and his brash critique of the country’s corporate elite, which plays well with the many union members who believe the system is rigged against them. At a Cincinnati-area rally in March, Trump received a full-throated introduction from Butler County Sheriff Richard Jones, who slammed a former Trump rival in the primaries, Governor John Kasich, for promoting a bill limiting collective bargaining rights for public sector unions. Trump, Jones implied, would support those unions. And at a rally for striking Verizon workers in suburban Maryland in April, a number of Communication Workers of America members voiced support for Trump.

And then there’s Trump’s reputation as a job creator and employer—including of many union members. As Affrunti told Newsweek, if Trump wants to build another tower in Chicago, the local Building and Construction Trades Council would be “happy” to work with him.