LAS VEGAS, NV — Since 2012, Marisela Olvera has folded the towels, tucked in the sheets, and vacuumed the floors of 64-story, gold-plated Trump International Hotel just off the Las Vegas Strip. But unlike the tens of thousands of hospitality workers just like her across the city, her boss is running for president.
“He says he wants to make America great,” she told ThinkProgress in Spanish. “Well, he should start here in his own house, his own business. He always brags about how he has millions and millions and millions of dollars, but he pays his workers less than most in Las Vegas.”
This week, the hotel’s management refused to recognize the union and demanded the federal labor board throw out the results of the December 5th election, in which a majority of the 500-odd workers voted to be represented by Culinary Workers Union and Bartenders Union.
Eric Trump, the company’s executive vice president of development and acquisitions — and Donald Trump’s son — released a statement claiming “over 200 employees…stood up and categorically rejected union representation due, in large part, to the union’s many hostile, intimidating and dishonorable tactics.” When ThinkProgress reached out to attorneys hired by Trump as to what “tactics” they objected to, they said they were not authorized to speak about the case.
According to Olvera, a legal permanent resident who works from 4:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. five or more days a week, it was not the first sign the company would fight the union effort.
When the management at the Trump hotel caught wind of the union drive last year, they hired the “union avoidance” consulting firm Lupe Cruz and Associates. That company, which has busted union campaigns at American Apparel, the trucking company Conway, and some Hilton hotels, boasts on its website that it can help clients in “preserving a union free work place.”
Olvera told ThinkProgress that over several months, employees of Lupe Cruz held individual meetings with union organizers and so-called captive audience meetings with the entire staff to try to quash the union effort.
“They intimidated us a lot,” she said. “I know I can’t speak ill of the place where I work, but I’m allowed to speak the truth, and the truth is that they pressured us a lot [to vote no]. They told us the union only wants our money, that if we supported the union we’d lose our jobs, that the company would put our names on a blacklist and no other hotels in Las Vegas would hire us. They told us to think of what our children would do if we were out of work. Everyone was very stressed. People were afraid. But bendito sea Diós, we still won, even with all that pressure.”
CREDIT: Alice Ollstein
A little over a year ago, a coworker cornered Olvera during their shift and in a hushed voice invited her to a secret meeting at the union’s headquarters. As soon she heard the word “union,” she was on board. A veteran of the California farmworker labor battles of the 1960s and 70s, Olvera says her time organizing in the fields with Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta taught her that “a union makes all the difference.”
“I was a campesina leader,” she said, referring to her time with the United Farm Workers in Monterey County, California. “Agricultural labor is very different from the hotel industry, but the poor are always having to fight for their necessities.”
After attending know-your-rights trainings at the offices of the local Culinary Workers Union, Olvera began recruiting her coworkers. Armed with flyers printed in English, Spanish, Tagalog and Amharic, she approached employees one by one to ask them about the hardships they faced on the job. “Some are getting older and are worried about retirement benefits. Some are sick and need better insurance. Some just need basic labor protections, since right now they can just fire us whenever they feel like it.”
For Olvera, the strongest motivation is securing better health insurance plans for herself and her coworkers.
“I have three coworkers who have cancer and they can’t pay their medical bills,” she said. “One hasn’t even been able to start treatment yet because she can’t afford it. Our current insurance plan doesn’t work.”
Olvera’s two sons are currently in public colleges on sports scholarships — mixed martial arts and football — but they need medical insurance in case of injuries on the field or in the ring. “If they don’t have insurance, they can’t play, and if they can’t play they can’t attend the school,” she said. “I’m already paying $99 a month for my work insurance, which doesn’t cover anything. I can’t afford to keep buying them private insurance on top of that.”
When she learned that unionized workers at nearby hotels made about three dollars more per hour and had free health insurance with no out-of-pocket premiums, she redoubled her efforts to convince her 500 colleagues to vote for a union at Trump International.
CREDIT: Alice Ollstein
A study by the University of Nevada-Las Vegas found that unionized workers in the state’s hotel industry make “significantly higher” wages than their non-union counterparts. The Culinary Workers Local 226 in particular has “done a spectacular job catapulting thousands of dishwashers, hotel maids and other unskilled workers into the middle class,” according to the New York Times, even as other local workers live “near the poverty line.”
It’s a disparity Olvera has seen play out around her.
“We all have neighbors and relatives who are in unions, and we can see they have better houses, their families have better health care, they can retire with a pension,” she said. “So many things we don’t have.”
With the Trump management refusing to recognize the votes of Olvera and her colleagues, lawyers for the two sides will both have to present arguments to the National Labor Relations Board, which will hear the case on January 5th in Las Vegas. The workers have already received offers of support from local clergy members, the U.S. Secretary of Labor, and all three Democrats running for president, some of whom have marched in the streets with them in front of the hotel.
If the company still does not agree to bargain with its employees, the union may decide to apply pressure by picketing or calling for a boycott. Before things escalate that far, the workers hope to first make a simple appeal to Trump, who already runs unionized hotels in Toronto and New York City.
“Hopefully, Donald Trump will just listen to his heart and come sign a contract so we can have better pay, better benefits, better everything,” she said. “I will feel calmer when that happens, when I know my family will be protected. So we will continue to fight until we have a contract.”