At Trump’s Companies, Workers Have Long Suffered Illegal Threats and Intimidation

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Investigations Economic Justice

At Trump’s Companies, Workers Have Long Suffered Illegal Threats and Intimidation

Sharona Coutts

Financial and regulatory documents show that Trump retained substantial ownership and control of the companies whose records Rewire examined. On at least eight occasions since 2007, Trump's companies have had to reinstate or reimburse workers who were fired illegally in retaliation for their union activities, the documents show.

Soon after workers at the Trump International Hotel Las Vegas voted in favor of joining the Culinary Workers Union in late 2015, they noticed something strange was happening to their clothing, shoes, and other belongings left in the garment lockers they used during their shifts working at the luxury venue.

When they returned to their lockers, they would find that their shoes were missing, their clothing was ripped, their purses had vanished, or their eyeglasses had been smashed, workers told Rewire.

For Celia Vargas, a Trump Hotel housekeeper and member of the organizing committee for the union drive at the 1,300-room hotel, the problem became especially acute the day she opened her locker and discovered that the hormonal medication she had been using to fend off breast cancer was gone.

“For me it was terrible,” she said in a telephone interview. “Now I don’t leave anything in the locker.”

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Instead, the 57-year-old adds her belongings to the 300-pound cart already laden with coffee; water; miniature shampoos, conditioners and moisturizers; and fresh linen that she pushes between rooms during her eight-hour shifts.

After Vargas’ medication disappeared, she said that she and five other co-workers attempted to report the incident to Las Vegas police, but were unsure of the fate of their complaint.

Asked the status of her cancer treatment at the moment, Vargas’ typically robust and energetic tone dropped.

“Sometimes I feel like I have something burning inside my breast,” she said. “I had surgery and then three months of radiotherapy, and then I was taking the pills.”

After a pause, she added, “The insurance over there didn’t pay for the hospitalization costs.”

Indeed, better health care is one of Trump’s Las Vegas workers’ demands, in addition to pay equal to what workers at other hotels on the Strip earn, and having a say in their hours.

Vargas stresses that she can’t prove that the thefts and destruction of her and her colleagues’ belongings are part of a pattern of retaliation against the workers for unionizing, but given what has been happening inside the walls of Trump’s gold-plated property, she says that is her best guess.

The Trump campaign did not respond to Rewire’s request for comment by deadline. However, multiple decisions and filings with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) show that Donald Trump and his organizations have a long history of illegal retaliation and intimidation of their own workers, including at his Las Vegas hotel in recent months.

On at least eight occasions since 2007, Trump’s companies have had to reinstate or reimburse workers who were fired illegally in retaliation for their union activities, the documents show. Financial and regulatory documents show that Trump retained substantial ownership and control of the companies whose records we examined.

His managers have surveilled workers at his casinos in both Atlantic City, New Jersey, in the mid-2000s, and in Las Vegas in the past year, and have threatened them when they appeared to support a union—even when that support manifested in actions as mild as wearing a yellow union badge.

He has spent $770,000 over the years on union-busting firms that force employees to attend “captive audience meetings,” during which workers are subject to intense propaganda that they described to Rewire as brainwashing sessions.

In a 2009 decision handed down by the NLRB, an administrative law judge found that Trump’s company had created an atmosphere of “pervasive hostility to the union cause and, by extension, those who supported it” at one of the three casinos Trump then owned in Atlantic City, the Trump Marina Hotel Casino.

So extreme was the pattern of illegal activity at the Marina that the board made the unusual decision to set aside a failed union vote and order a new one.

Sharon Rivera, a retired union official for the United Automobile Workers (UAW)—which represents workers in a wide array of industries, including casinos—led the charge to organize workers at Trump’s Marina casino in the mid-2000s.

A 30-year veteran of the union movement, Rivera had worked in the campaigns to organize workers at two other casinos in Atlantic City—Caesars and the now-shuttered Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino—at around the same time, but said she had not seen anything like the type of intimidation and dishonest tactics deployed by Trump against his own employees at the Marina.

“This was the most egregious intimidation I’d ever seen with casinos up to that point,” she told Rewire in a phone interview. “It’s incredible to me that anyone could think Donald Trump is a friend of the working man. I think that’s a complete joke.”

Rewire’s analysis of these decisions shows that despite his claims to be a great employer and job creator—and a champion of working Americans—Trump in fact has a habit of violating his own workers’ rights and dignity.

In New Jersey, an Atmosphere of “Pervasive Hostility” Toward Workers

Trump originally purchased what was to become the Trump Marina Hotel Casino in the mid-1980s from the Hilton chain of hotels, and renamed it the Trump Castle, and then changed the name again, to the Trump Marina.

The rebrandings didn’t spare that location from the same series of bankruptcies that affected nearly all of Trump’s dealings in the early 1990s. Trump declared bankruptcy for his business entities in the early 1990s and again in 2004, and was forced to give up slices of his ownership of the Marina to appease creditors.

Taking into account his direct ownership and ownership through his various holding companies, Donald Trump emerged from the 2004 bankruptcy with nearly 29 percent ownership of his three Atlantic City Casinos—the Marina, the Taj Mahal, and the Plaza—according to a document from New Jersey’s casino regulator.

In early 2007, the nation was still enjoying the great real estate boom, but Trump’s workers in New Jersey were less than happy.

They complained of many of the problems common to casino workers at that time: Unpredictable shifts meant that card dealers could be scheduled to work from midnight to 4 a.m. one day, but from 4 p.m. to midnight the next, Rivera told Rewire. Managers would put workers on what were called “swing shifts,” which meant that shifts could be doubled on top of each other, leading to grueling hours. There were also disputes over equitable distribution of tips among employees, who earned $2 or $3 an hour, but made most of their wages through tips.

Health and safety problems were also a big concern, Rivera said. Constant exposure to secondhand smoke within the gambling rooms, along with exposure to spitting from customers on the casino floors, were chief amongst workers’ complaints.

“All of Atlantic City had had it with the conditions that they were working under,” recalled Rivera. “At Trump Marina, Trump Enterprises decided they were going to have to put a stop to the union drives and that’s where they came up with these tactics.”

Much of what happened during that fight is detailed in a February 2009 decision by the National Labor Relations Board.

Of all of the misconduct by Trump management catalogued in the decision, the treatment of Mario Spina, a full-time dealer with an impeccable employee record who had worked at the casino for more than 20 years, stands out.

Rewire’s efforts to reach Spina were unsuccessful, but his story is laid out in significant detail in the NLRB decision.

In the words of Earl E. Shamwell Jr., the administrative law judge who wrote the opinion of the NLRB, Spina “undertook in singular fashion the responsibility for educating employees—his fellow dealers—about the Union and the possible benefits of union representation.”

Everyone working at the casino knew Spina was the “go to” source for questions about the union. He distributed and collected union authorization cards, attended union meetings, and campaigned actively for the union in the workers’ canteen and break room, the judge found.

Notably, Trump’s “managers, Spina’s supervisors in particular, were well aware of his role in the election campaign and, as one supervisor in dramatic understatement testified, Spina did not hide it.”

On April 21, 2007, as Spina was walking through the games floor as part of his shift, he overheard a supervisor talking to a co-worker, telling him that certain categories of employees would all be laid off if the workers voted for the union.

In Spina’s account, which the NLRB accepted as true, he went over to the supervisor, Frank Mangione, and told him that those kinds of threats weren’t allowed by management during a union drive.

Mangione grew agitated, and asked Spina, “Mario, have I ever abused you or intimidated you in all the years I’ve worked with you?” Spina said he had not. He apologized for upsetting Mangione, and walked away.

But Mangione couldn’t leave it there, according to the NLRB decision. He went to his own supervisors and claimed that Spina had called him an “asshole supervisor,” and had acted aggressively towards him.

Based on that claim, and before doing any investigation of their own, a manager interrupted Spina’s shift to tell him that he was being placed on an investigative suspension for using profanity, a step that was almost always a prelude to being fired.

News of Spina’s suspension “spread like wildfire” on the casino floor.

It wasn’t just the fact that Spina—the lead union supporter—had been disciplined that troubled Trump’s employees. It was the fact that management’s claims against him were so blatantly trumped up.

First and foremost, the claim that Spina had called Mangione an “asshole” was patently preposterous to the many colleagues who had known him for a decade and longer.

Spina, many of them testified before the NLRB, simply never swore.

He was a devout Jehovah’s Witness, and in accordance with his beliefs, he abstained entirely from smoking, drinking, drugs, sex, and from using profanity, according to the decision. Given the context of working in a New Jersey casino—where, according to their own testimony, workers swore rather a lot, both during and between shifts—Spina’s clean mouth was especially well known.

Moreover, witnesses relied on by Trump’s company to corroborate Mangione’s account instead directly contradicted him. One witness, Angel Martinez, when asked whether Spina had sworn at Mangione, said, “No! No! No!” and added that he had “known Spina for 20 years” and “that Spina does not curse at people, that it was not his custom or style to use profanity.”

A second witness, Theodore Taylor, “stated emphatically that he did not hear Spina call Mangione an ‘asshole,'” according to the decision.

Indeed, what Taylor did say was that he endured substantial pressure from management to lie about what he had observed in order to bolster the case against Spina.

Administrative law judge Shamwell didn’t buy the company’s story that Spina had been properly disciplined for a serious infraction.

“Frankly, I believe that Mangione made the whole charge up,” Shamwell wrote. Referring to the company as the Respondent, he continued, “Rather, Spina’s discipline was based on his activities and support for the Union and to discourage the employees in their support of the Union.”

And, concluded Judge Shamwell, the plan to intimidate employees appeared to have worked.

Upon his return to work on April 26, Spina was “much more guarded in the pursuit of his campaign activities,” the judge found. “His fellow employees were very guarded, very careful, and some looked around to see if they were being observed as he spoke to them.”

Another witness, Lori Ludovich, said during the hearing that after Spina’s suspension, “the Union’s organizing efforts slowed down; everyone was afraid to talk.”

After hearing accounts from numerous other employees, Judge Shamwell concluded:

In my view, the negative effect of this action, which I have already determined was unlawful, was not merely devastating to the union cause, but was virtually tectonically negative in its impact on the employees’ right to make a free choice of whether to select the Union to represent them.

Trump’s managers didn’t stop there, however. In fact, their successful intimidation of union supporters only seemed to embolden them.

In one instance, Dolores Summers, a part-time dealer, requested a day off work to attend a family member’s funeral. Her supervisor, Jack Julian, approved her request but marked her as a “no-call/no-show” for her shift that day—an infraction that could have led to her being fired.

When Summers and another worker talked to Julian about the incident, he admitted his error but used the episode as an opportunity to threaten the workers about what would happen if they supported the union.

“Did you see how I handled that?” he said, according to the decision. “If you guys bring the Union in, I won’t be able to handle [that] the way I did—no disrespect to you or your family.”

Judge Shamwell found that threat amounted to a violation of labor law.

As the May 11, 2007 union vote grew closer, Trump supervisors continued to illegally interrogate workers about their union sympathies. They made more threats and surveilled workers. Opponents of the union blatantly began to wear anti-union clothing and pins on the gaming floor and during their shifts, even though any politicking on the floor was supposed to be banned.

But Trump management’s coup de grace was delivered on the morning of the vote, via a surprise maneuver that stunned even a campaign veteran like Sharon Rivera.

When employees arrived for work that day, they discovered that management had blocked off their usual parking lot. Rivera recalled that many spent their limited time trying to figure out how to get to where they could vote, as the casino had strict security and limited ingress for employees who were not currently on their shifts.

The NLRB ultimately rejected the union’s complaint that this tactic violated labor laws, but Rivera told Rewire that this particular stunt struck her as going beyond the usual anti-union stance from employers.

Ultimately, the union lost by a slim margin of 175-183 votes cast out of a total of 400 eligible voters.

The union challenged that result, and during the trial that ensued, many of the witnesses, both supporters and opponents of the union, were palpably scared and “clearly intimidated” while on the stand.

So extreme were Trump’s anti-union antics that the NLRB eventually made the extraordinary move of setting that vote aside and ordering a new election. By then, however, it was too late. According to Rivera, many of the workers had either moved on or were no longer interested.

And of course, conditions surrounding the casino business had changed dramatically. The global economy has crashed, sending many businesses, especially the gaming industry, into a tailspin.

Thinking back to that time, Rivera says she sees a preview of how Trump the businessman would conduct himself should he win the presidential election.

“What they did there was completely undemocratic,” she told Rewire. “They intimidated people, trying to prevent them from voting. To me, that was just completely un-American, in my vision of America and what democracy means here.”

Happening Right Now: Similar Tactics Used in Las Vegas Fight

Much of what happened at the Marina seems to have laid the groundwork for Trump’s current efforts to fight off the Culinary Workers Union at his hotel on the Las Vegas Strip.

Many of these tactics are described by the NLRB in multiple decisions handed down over the summer.

For instance, the holding company for the Las Vegas hotel, Trump Ruffin Commercial, had to repay two employees who claimed they were fired in retaliation for their pro-union activities. Those repayments only amounted to a total of $11,200, and as part of that agreement, dated June 20, 2016, Trump’s company did not admit that it had violated the National Labor Relations Act as alleged.

Just as they did in Atlantic City nearly a decade earlier, Trump’s managers have threatened workers, put them under surveillance, and interrogated them about their union sympathies.

Much of the intimidation was directed towards the 300 housekeepers, including Celia Vargas, along with the porters and linen attendants who work at the five-star hotel.

For example, the NLRB found that the director of housekeeping, Alejandra Magaña, told managers to rate employees on a point system, from 1 to 5, based on whether they were pro- or anti-union, “and to report their activities to Housekeeping, Human Resources (HR) Manager Gustavo Acosta and/or HR Director Jeff Peterson,” according to the decision. Ominously, Magaña told floor supervisors to make these reports verbally, not in writing.

On June 14, 2015, as employees finished their shifts, they were going through the “check-out” process, which included returning the hotel-issued iPads they used to note what was missing from each room and needed to be replaced.

Magaña was overseeing this process when one of her employees, Antonia Garcia, approached her to clock out.

According to the NLRB decision, Magaña asked Garcia to come with her into her office.

Once secluded from public view, Magaña asked Garcia, “What is that?”

Garcia replied, “What, my union button?”

According to the decision, Magaña answered:

“Yes.” At that point, Magaña stated words to the effect, “I thought you were on my side [meaning for the company and against the union].” Garcia responded “Why?” to which Magaña replied, “At this time, I see you as a traitor.” Surprised, Garcia replied, “for what reason?” to which Magaña responded, “I thought you were on my side, but now I see that you are one of the ones who attends the Union meetings.”

Administrative law judge Lisa D. Thompson, writing for the NLRB, found that Magaña’s questioning of Garcia violated the National Labor Relations Act.

Noting that Magaña was Garcia’s supervisor and the highest-level manager in the Housekeeping department, Judge Thompson found that Magaña’s questioning of Garcia about why she wore a union button was “inherently coercive.”

“Any reasonable employee in Garcia’s position would fear that they could be punished because of their support for the Union,” she wrote. “I find that Respondent [Trump Ruffin], through Magaña, sought to restrain, coerce and interfere with Garcia’s … rights by unlawfully interrogating her about her Union sympathies.”

Trump has also invested heavily in trying to win the war of ideas, the NLRB decision shows.

Managers at the hotel hold mandatory meetings known as “Trump Talks” up to four times a day, at 7 a.m., 8 a.m., 8:30 a.m., and again in the evening. These meetings last from five to 20 minutes, and typically are used by managers to discuss hotel business for the day.

During the union drive, they served an additional purpose.

“During the morning talks with housekeeping employees, called ‘Trump Talks,’ management often conveyed their opposition to the Union,” Judge Thompson wrote. She referred to the testimony of Floor Manager Anthony Wandick, who testified that “he was told to present the message that, ‘Corporate doesn’t want the Union here … to reinforce what [Donald] Trump is doing for employees and that we don’t need a union.'”

The hotel also brought in a national union-busting firm to hold “captive audience meetings,” during which the consultants repeated anti-union messages. Workers told us that they considered these meetings to be a form of re-education where, they said, the consultants tried to drum up fear by making false claims about the potential effects of joining the union.

Records from the Department of Labor show that Trump Ruffin spent $586,000 on these consultants in the last half of 2015. During the campaign at the Marina in 2007, Trump spent $175,000 on union busters to try to persuade workers against voting for the union.

Despite these efforts, on December 4 and 5 of last year, Trump’s workers at the Las Vegas hotel voted in favor of joining the union, 238 to 209.

But Trump refused to acknowledge the result of the election. His company filed an objection with the NLRB. The labor relations board rejected that appeal. With that, the workers were officially unionized.

America’s most famous negotiator, however, has so far refused to enter into negotiations to conclude a contract with his workers. Meanwhile, shortly after the election, Celia Vargas and her coworkers began to notice the strange damage and disappearances of their belongings from their garment lockers.

Bethany Khan, a spokesperson for the Culinary Workers Union, called again on Trump to enter negotiations with his workers, pointing to the irony of the candidate’s warnings that the presidential election could be rigged.

“Mr. Trump, he would love it if people voted for him for president and he would want that election to be respected, so why doesn’t he respect this federally mandated union election that’s already happened in his own hotel?” Khan said. “It is frustrating for workers that their boss won’t negotiate a contract with so many things on the line.”

In a local Las Vegas newscast last week, the host asked Trump a staccato-style question about the union fight.

“Culinary Union, very important here, most hotels on the strip have deals with them, Trump Tower does not. Why not.”

In typical Trump style, the candidate replied: “Well I think we’re going to end up working something out with them, we have good relationships and I think we’ll end up getting something that is satisfactory.”