Their boss is famous for firing people with merciless gusto. So you can imagine it took just as much chutzpah for the workers at the Trump International Hotel in Las Vegas to rally today and demand the right to unionize and to gain respect on the job.
While the Donald seeks election to a new post, roughly 500 workers at the hotel are focusing on a very different vote: They’ve been pushing to form a union for months, and are trying to snatch a bit of Trump’s campaign spotlight this summer to call on him “Make America Great Again” right on his home turf. As a recent ad for the unionization campaign proclaims: “We think that working for Mr. Trump in Las Vegas is a chance to make our lives better…but only if he pays us the same wages and benefits as everyone else working on the Strip.”
Of course, what do they expect from the man who’s built a brand for himself as a ferocious corporate overlord? His attitude on the campaign trail is as ruthless as his management style, laced with racial invective and almost self-caricaturing jingoism. (Not to mention hypocrisy—just ask the many low-wage immigrant laborers he has exploited over the years). But amid the buffoonery, the local hospitality union, Culinary Workers Union Local 226, is pressing serious charges of labor violations and denouncing his operations as a bastion of union busting in an otherwise union town.
In fact, the nearby Las Vegas strip and downtown area have a roughly 95 percent union density. Local 226, a Nevada affiliate of UNITE HERE, recently sealed several multi-year contracts covering tens of thousands of local food-service workers, housekeepers, and other hospitality staff, featuring wages and benefits topping $20 an hour, full health and retirement benefits, and workplace-grievance procedures. Not surprisingly, Trump’s staff is heavily comprised of immigrants whose terms of work lag behind union hospitality workers in benefits, wages, and job security.
About 86 percent of workers in the planned bargaining unit have signed “Union Yes” cards. UNITE HERE is seeking neutrality from the employer and a straight card-check majority vote for unionization, rather than plodding through the NLRB ballot process. Nonetheless, according to the union, the management has run a stealth campaign to persuade hotel staff that organizing is not in their best interest.
According to NLRB charges filed by the union, five hotel workers were “unfairly suspended for exercising their legal right to wear a union button and organize their coworkers” last year (they were eventually reinstated with back pay, along with an agreement to post workers rights publicly and not interfere with future organizing). Last June, the union filed new charges alleging the management “violated the federally protected rights of workers to participate in union activities” including “incidents of alleged physical assault, verbal abuse, intimidation, and threats by management.” The workers charged the managers with blocking organizers from distributing pro-union literature in the workers’ dining room, while stealthily allowing anti-union activists to campaign during work hours.
Sebastian Corcordel, who came to the United States from Romania over a decade ago and has been working as a server at Trump International since it opened in 2008, hopes a union can provide the job security he feels his workplace has long lacked, along with long-overdue raises. The resistance facing the campaign, in his view, underscores how badly the staff needs basic protections and grievance procedures at work.
“I see [this] with myself, and with my coworkers. They try to [apply] pressure: Don’t do this, don’t do this, don’t go with the union,” he says of the management, pointing to a flurry of anti-union propaganda flyers and posters. Some coworkers are wary of the organizing drive, he concedes: “Some of them are very very afraid to be a part of the union…[but] It’s their right, and nobody can retaliate against them.” And when others criticize his support for the campaign, the proud naturalized citizen replies, “This is my right. Like the right to vote.”
The Trump workers build on a legacy of social movements on the Strip. In the 1960s, Las Vegas was a battlefield for civil-rights struggles in the push to desegregate casinos. In later years racial conflicts would erupt and intersect periodically with labor strife, as militant black working-class communities formed the backbone of the gambling industry. Under the leadership of former hotel worker turned union chief Hattie Canty, UNITE HERE’s multiethnic coalition staged massive strikes and won contracts that set a remarkably high bar for labor rights in the post-industrial Sunbelt economy. Christopher Johnson on BlackPast.org notes: “By 1996, room maids could earn approximately $9.25 an hour; more than double the average wage for hotel maids in other cities. For Hattie Canty, as with most unionized workers, these wages had enabled a middle class lifestyle.”
But Vegas’s good fortunes are fleeting, The recession hit the low-wage workforce hard, and unemployment spiked among Nevada’s black and Latino populations.
As a core immigrant job sector, the hospitality industry has actually managed to rebound somewhat, compared to another major industry for low-wage immigrants, construction, making the Vegas hotels that much more vital to the Latino community’s long-term economic recovery. Still, both industries are rife with occupational hazards, abuse and discrimination. Embattled unions like Local 226 are holding the line in Vegas against the brand of neoliberal hegemony Trump champions.
Trump’s election platform promises the deportation of millions of undocumented immigrants and sealing the borders, supposedly to protect American workers. But Corcordel scoffs at the notion of immigrant workers’ somehow taking more than they give to the economy—particularly the chunk of it controlled by Trump himself:
The entire hotel is immigrants.… So I don’t know why he’s against immigrants, because we do our job very fairly and we help him too to grow [the business].… how you gonna have the hotel without workers to work?
While Trump trumpets his plan to make the country “great again” and “improve jobs, wages and security for all Americans,” the new Americans who make his businesses run each day hope their boss comes around to letting them finally improve their own jobs, wages, and security—by forming their own more perfect union.