Trump Organization Moves to Avoid Possible Labor Conflicts

2016-12-22 01:52:14

 

Trump Organization Moves to Avoid Possible Labor Conflicts

In its latest effort to defuse a major public relations problem that might have loomed over Donald J. Trump’s presidency, the Trump Organization on Wednesday announced union accords at two major hotel holdings.

The agreements resolve labor disputes that could have posed a conflict of interest for the president-elect and come on the heels of other similar moves in recent weeks. In November, Mr. Trump paid $25 million to settle a number of lawsuits surrounding fraud allegations at Trump University, his former for-profit education business, and this month the Trump Organization extricated itself from the management of a hotel project in Brazil, where the authorities were investigating allegations of corruption.

Taken together, the moves suggest that Mr. Trump is sensitive to at least the perception that his business dealings could cast a shadow over his presidency, even if he has yet to detail how he might seek a more comprehensive solution to potential conflicts, such as outright divestment.

“On the one hand, I think it’s important to acknowledge that this is meaningful, it does matter,” Danielle Brian, the executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, a nonpartisan ethics watchdog group, said of Wednesday’s agreements. “However, this piecemeal approach to dealing with conflicts is not going to deal with the bigger looming problem.”

The agreements also provide insight into Mr. Trump’s views on workers and labor unions. In contrast to the deal he helped broker at the Carrier plant in Indiana, which recently agreed to preserve about 850 jobs that it had planned to shift to Mexico, and which Mr. Trump was on hand to announce in person, the announcement of Wednesday’s deals came by way of a news release featuring statements from the Trump Organization and affiliates of the unions involved. The Trump transition team offered no comment and released no statement.

One of the two labor agreements provides a union contract to workers at the Trump International Hotel Las Vegas, whose union the hotel had previously refused to bargain with. The second agreement eases a hurdle to unionization at a recently opened Trump hotel in Washington.

The agreements reduce the probability that the National Labor Relations Board, which protects the labor rights of private-sector employees, will be called on to adjudicate disputes between workers and the Trump Organization. That possibility raised the prospect of a conflict of interest if Mr. Trump were to retain a stake in his business.

As president, Mr. Trump will eventually nominate all five members of the labor board, as well as its general counsel, who typically has the final say on whether to issue formal complaints against employers.

The speed of the negotiations at the hotel in Las Vegas suggested that Mr. Trump was eager to put the issue behind him before his inauguration in January, after the hotel resisted workers’ efforts to unionize there for most of the past year and a half.

The hotel hired consultants who spoke with employees at mandatory meetings about the risks of unionizing, according to earlier statements from the union. In charges filed with the labor board, some workers alleged that they had been fired or suspended from their jobs because of their unionization efforts.

After the successful union election last December, the hotel appealed within the labor board structure, arguing that workers had been intimidated into voting for the union. When the full board rejected its final appeal last month, the hotel appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

Bethany Khan, a union representative, said the new labor agreement had come together over a few days of negotiation last week and been ratified by union members over the weekend. Under the accord, the workers will join locals for culinary workers and bartenders that are affiliated with Unite Here, a prominent national union that represents hotel workers.

The two sides agreed to a contract beginning Jan. 1 and running through May 31, 2021, which follows a relatively standard template for hotels in Las Vegas by providing annual wage increases, pension and health benefits, and job protections.

Under the second accord, the Trump International Hotel Washington D.C. agreed to remain neutral as workers seek to unionize under a card-check agreement, enabling workers to simply sign authorization cards indicating that they want to unionize. The hotel will recognize the union if a majority of workers sign cards.

The alternative, a secret-ballot election, typically occurs when the employer opposes the unionization effort, as was the case at the Las Vegas property.

In a statement referring to the agreement in Washington, Eric Danziger, the chief executive of Trump Hotels, said, “We share mutual goals with the union, as we both desire to ensure outstanding jobs for the employees, while also enabling the hotel to operate successfully in a competitive environment.”

Wednesday’s agreements do not eliminate the potential for conflicts of interest involving Mr. Trump and the labor board. The board’s general counsel, whose replacement Mr. Trump will probably appoint next year, will be in a position to decide whether to issue complaints about allegations of labor rights violations, but could also leave the decision to career civil servants.

Such allegations could include refusing to bargain with the union in the future, or firing or disciplining union stewards for sticking up for fellow members under procedures outlined in the contract.

The decision on issuing a complaint is in some sense the critical step of the labor board process. There are typically 25,000 to 30,000 charges of unfair labor practices in a given year, of which only a fraction result in a complaint — about 1,270 last year — although some are settled.

Any complaint issued by a regional director or the general counsel could then come before the board, at least some of whose members are likely to have been appointed by Mr. Trump. But if the general counsel declines to issue a complaint, the charge is effectively dead and generally cannot be appealed.

“It’s the gateway into litigation,” said Wilma Liebman, a former labor board chairman.

There remains an open charge of unfair labor practices against the Trump Organization, which was filed on behalf of a worker advocacy group in September over the contract that employees of the Trump presidential campaign were required to sign. The group alleged the contract’s noncompete and confidentiality clauses illegally discouraged employees from exercising their rights to discuss working conditions.

Mr. Trump and his organization faced a potentially punishing calculus in deciding to bargain with the union in Las Vegas, aside from the issues of conflict of interest.

Even if the Trump hotel in Las Vegas had prevailed in its efforts to undo the union election in federal court, which was probably a long shot in itself, the culinary workers would probably have continued their unionization campaign, creating a lingering source of embarrassment for the president-elect.

In September, workers at the Boulder Station casino in Las Vegas — owned by a company controlled by Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, who until recently operated the Ultimate Fighting Championship, a mixed martial arts promoter — voted to unionize after a dogged campaign by the union that lasted more than six years. The campaign included the creation of a website highlighting the expletive-laced tirades of the president of the U.F.C., and an effort by union affiliates in New York State to fight the league’s attempts to overturn a law banning the sport there.

“They fight really hard,” said C. Jeffrey Waddoups, an economist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who studies union bargaining in the hotel and gambling industry. “It would draw a lot of attention.”

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