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Trump, unions reach surprise agreements for workers at Las Vegas, D.C. hotels

In this Aug. 21, 2015, file photo, Geoconda Arguello-Kline, wearing red cap, front left, a Culinary Union officer, and State Sen. Ruben Kihuen, center, then a Democratic candidate for U.S. Congress, take part in a Culinary Union protest near the Trump International Hotel Las Vegas in Las Vegas. (Steve Marcus / Associated Press)
By Jonathan O’Connell and Drew Harwell Washington Post

Donald Trump’s hotel company and two of the country’s leading labor unions reached agreement Wednesday on deals that will set wage and health benefits for 520 workers at his hotel in Las Vegas and pave the way for more than 120 workers at his D.C. hotel to unionize.

The Las Vegas agreement resolves a high-profile disagreement at the Trump International Hotel Las Vegas. Trump is co-owner there and refused to recognize a vote to organize last year by the property’s housekeepers, maids, porters and cooks as members of the UNITE HERE Culinary Workers Union and the Bartenders Union.

The agreements mark the latest moves for Trump’s business to smooth over potential problem spots in the remaining weeks before his inauguration.

Workers in Las Vegas had appealed for help to the National Labor Relations Review Board — raising questions about whether the president-elect might try to influence the outcome once he enters office — and prompted workers to protest at Trump campaign events and in front of his D.C. hotel, marring the hotel’s opening celebrations this fall.

“This is it. This is what we’ve been fighting for, for over a year, to have a contract,” said Bethany Khan, a spokeswoman for Culinary Workers Union Local 226. “This has been a very long process but now there’s finally a contract, and workers at Trump hotels will have respect and dignity at work.”

In D.C., the Trump Organization has agreed not to intervene as between 120 and 135 workers there consider whether to join UNITE HERE. In a statement released by the union, Eric Danziger, the chief executive of Trump Hotels, called UNITE HERE “an important partner.”

“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, and to establish a reputation as one of the finest hotels in the world,” he said.

The coming together marks a change in tone from one Trump took in targeting unions on the campaign trail and since his election, particularly insults he tweeted at Indianapolis steelworkers union leader Chuck Jones.

Other union leaders have described Trump’s election as a crisis for workers even though Trump received more support from union households than previous Republican presidential candidates. Trump’s nominee for labor secretary, fast-food executive Andrew Puzder, has opposed additional overtime pay for workers and expressed skepticism over minimum wage increases.

John Boardman, executive secretary-treasurer of the D.C. affiliate of UNITE HERE, said in an interview that the discussions in D.C. were “cordial and fruitful and ultimately resulted in a deal that will allow those workers to organize if they wish.”

It’s unclear what a labor agreement in D.C. might yield. Dishwashers and housekeepers who recently organized at another new hotel nearby, the Marriott Marquis, are set to make $20.35 per hour beginning in March of 2017 and receive 100 percent health care employer-paid coverage for them and their families.

Boardman said the labor talks focused on workers in D.C. and that “there were no discussions about macro issues.”

Asked if he was surprised at the company’s stance, Boardman said: “I have been trying to parse out in my own mind on what might have motivated the Trump Organization to do this and I haven’t quite figured that out. It was a very, very cordial discussion and it ended up in an agreement that will ultimately allow the workers to make a free and unfettered choice,” he said.

Workers at Trump’s Vegas hotel voted to unionize last December after several months of campaigning. A labor agreement, though, was slow to materialize until last week, when over a few days, union representatives and Trump Organization executives negotiated a four-year contract, taking effect Jan. 1, that will cover roughly 520 housekeepers, bartenders, servers, porters and other staff at the hotel.

It will allow workers there to enjoy benefits long offered to workers at other hotels on the Las Vegas strip, including annual wage increases, a pension and company-funded health insurance, Khan said. Workers will also be able to resolve workplace issues through a formal grievance procedure. Union members voted to ratify the contract this weekend.

Lawyers and former ethics advisers to previous White Houses have urged the president-elect to divest from his business interests and sever other private ties that could influence his presidential policies and decision-making.

Khan and Boardman both declined to say who negotiated on behalf of the Trump Organization, whether it was Trump, his children or other executives.

Workers at Trump hotels in New York and Toronto are represented by unions, but Trump’s Vegas hotel had paid more than $500,000 to Cruz & Associates, a consulting firm that says it specializes in “union avoidance,” Department of Labor records show.

The Trump Organization agreed in June to give $11,000 in back pay to two workers at the Vegas hotel who told the federal labor board that they were punished by managers for trying to unionize.

But the company still refused to bargain, battling the union for months in court and before the National Labor Relations Board, a federal labor authority whose ruling members will be appointed by Trump once he enters office.

The entanglement became one of the most visible domestic conflicts for Trump’s private businesses and public power, as the Trump hotel last month asked a U.S. appeals court to overturn the board’s ruling that the company had violated federal law by refusing to negotiate with union employees.

Union workers showed little interest in letting Trump avoid bargaining in the days following the election.

“We’re like slaves working for someone who is going to run the country,” said Carmen Llarull, a 64-year-old housekeeper at the Trump Vegas hotel who said she made $3 less an hour than union workers at nearby hotels, shortly before the agreement was announced. “He knows who we are. The way we work, we’re going to get what we want.”

“He’s going to be the president. He has to show the workers, he has to show the country, that he obeys the law. He can’t be ignoring that the workers helped him win the election, and he still doesn’t want to sit with us and negotiate the contract.”

“How he can be a president if he has all these cases against the law?” Llarull said. “This case is going to be in his way, like a big stone, and we’re not going to go nowhere until we get that contract.”

“Him being president or not president, he’s still our boss,” Eleuteria Blanco, a 57-year-old housekeeper at the Vegas hotel. “We beat him twice legally. He needs to sit down and negotiate our contract.”

Trump has now settled a series of business disputes as he prepares to enter office. He agreed last month to pay $25 million to settle years-old fraud lawsuits aimed at his Trump University seminar series.

The Trump Organization also recently dissolved licensing deals for real-estate projects in sensitive diplomatic hot spots such as Brazil and Azerbaijan, where his partners and private revenue have come under scrutiny.