President-elect Donald Trump’s career as a businessman with ventures and investments around the world will present an unprecedented number of presidential conflicts of interest when he moves into the Oval Office. As the employer of some 34,000 people, Trump is hardly a disinterested party when it comes to dictating national labor and employment policy. His appointments to the federal courts, the National Labor Relations Board, and the Department of Labor, as well as his consideration of worker-related legislation and his ability to use executive action to resolve labor disputes are rife with potential conflicts, ethics experts say.
One glaring conflict—his refusal to bargain with unionized workers at his Trump International Hotel in Las Vegas—could take center stage once Trump becomes president in January.
Five days a week, Maria Mendoza cleans the bathrooms, kitchens, and living areas of Trump’s Las Vegas hotel. She cleans as many as 13 rooms a day, sometimes spread across five different floors. After each day of work—which she’s done for six years—the joints in her fingers hurt, and her shoulder aches from lugging the 30 pounds of dirty linens at a time. She earns $14.71 an hour, and while the hotel offers health insurance, it’s too expensive for Mendoza to afford.
That’s not the industry norm. Workers at other hotels on the strip often make $3 more an hour, enjoy free health care, and have access to a pension plan. That’s because Las Vegas is a union town—95 percent of the hotels and casinos on the strip are unionized. The Culinary Workers Union Local 226 represents 57,000 casino and hotel workers in the city, the majority of whom are Latino and women.
About two years ago, the Culinary Union began an organizing drive at the 64-story hotel that Trump manages and co-owns with close friend and casino tycoon Phillip Ruffin. The owners, doing business as Trump Ruffin International LLC, were not happy. AsThe Huffington Post reported, they promptly hired an anti-union consulting firm, paying it more than $500,000 over the course of six months. Nevertheless, the bosses’ attempts to dissuade their employees failed. In December of last year, hotel workers—including Mendoza—narrowly voted, 238-209, in favor of unionization.
Trump and Ruffin then contested the election with the National Labor Relations Board, filing 15 separate complaints alleging that the union had threatened voters, and refusing to come to the bargaining table. The NLRB dismissed each complaint, and in March certified the union as bargaining agents for the hotel workers. Yet Trump still did not recognize the union. Just five days before the election, the NLRB ruled that Trump and Ruffin were violating federal labor law by refusing to bargain with the union. The two owners promptly filed an appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, hoping that the federal court would overturn the NLRB’s ruling.
Even though Trump is now the president-elect, Mendoza says things haven’t changed. “I still see him as my boss,” she told the Prospect through a Spanish-speaking interpreter. “I feel that even though he is [president-elect], he still needs to listen to his workers and sit down and negotiate a contract. And we’re still going to keep fighting for what we deserve.”
The union has been organizing a national boycott of Trump’s businesses since September as a way to pressure him to come to the bargaining table, and organizers say that they will continue to hold protests—like the one that featured a wall of taco trucks around the Las Vegas hotel—outside his properties.
“Yes, we’ve never had a [collective-bargaining agreement] with the U.S. president before,” admits Bethany Khan, communications director for the Culinary Workers Union, “but we’ll continue to hold companies and the boss accountable, including if the boss is the president of the United States.”
The nature of his job as president could propel Trump smack into a conflict of interest with the union dispute. As Henry Graber wrote in Slate, Trump will soon have the authority to fill two vacant spots on the five-member NLRB, allowing him to once again give the board a pro-business majority. Later on, he will also be able to appoint the NLRB’s general counsel, who determines which cases the board hears. Those appointees will then be in a position to rule on future labor disputes between the Culinary Union and Trump’s Vegas hotel, or on other disputes between unions and workers and Trump’s business operations.
Additionally, as Graber points out, the chief judge on the D.C. circuit is Merrick Garland, nominated to the Supreme Court by President Obama, but strongly opposed by Trump and congressional Republicans. “Now,” Graber writes, “Garland will rule on Trump’s hotel while Trump will fill what might have been Garland's place on the Supreme Court.”
Trump will at some point also appoint new judges to the D.C. circuit, which is charged with hearing all cases that emerge from the NLRB, the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, and the Environmental Protection Agency—all of which could also deal with future disputes related to Trump’s businesses.
As president, Trump could also block certain labor policies that would impose added costs on his businesses. For instance, as Dave Jamieson explains in The Huffington Post, Trump may be able to single-handedly determine the fate of Obama’s new overtime rule, which would give overtime pay to more than four million workers, some of whom surely work for Trump’s enterprises. Additionally, if, by some miracle, the GOP-controlled Congress decides to pass a federal minimum-wage increase or some other type of policy that benefits workers and hurts Trump’s bottom line, he could simply veto it.
Meanwhile, Trump’s Department of Labor could also be rife with conflicts of interest. The last Republican labor department, headed by Elaine Chao (tapped by Trump for his transportation secretary), was notorious for its weak enforcement of wage and hour laws, and for subjecting unions to intense and costly auditing processes. Theoretically, Trump could use the department to target specific unions, like the culinary workers, for investigation.
On top of that, one of the leading candidates for Trump’s labor secretary is Andy Puzder, the CEO of CKE Restaurants, which owns the Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s fast-food chains. About 60 percent of DOL investigations under Obama into Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s restaurants, mostly franchisees, were found to have violated wage and hour laws. As Ben Penn reports for Bloomberg BNA, if Puzder does become labor secretary, that could present a slew of ethical problems.
Though he has walked back promises to put his assets into a blind trust and has insisted that the president can’t have a conflict of interest, just last week Trump pledged to resign control of all of his businesses. Yet experts are still concerned that such a move is not guaranteed to remove the appearance of conflict of interest, or to insulate Trump from corruption. The only way for Trump to genuinely avoid conflicts would be for him to be to relinquish ownership and divest himself of all his business holdings, say watchdogs and ethics experts—something he has yet to say he will do.
That leaves labor advocates wondering whether Trump the union-busting employer will continue his assault on workers when he assumes the presidency.