Black contractors lose appeal against Tommy White, Laborers 872

Alleging the union forced them out of business, contractors vow to continue long-running legal fight

By: - Friday January 20, 2023 5:00 am

Black contractors lose appeal against Tommy White, Laborers 872

Alleging the union forced them out of business, contractors vow to continue long-running legal fight

By: - 5:00 am

Five plaintiffs including four cleaning companies owned by Black women, allege Tommy White of Laborers Local 872 conspired to put them out of business after enticing them to sign on with the union to please major resorts. (Photo: Clark County School District)

Five plaintiffs including four cleaning companies owned by Black women, allege Tommy White of Laborers Local 872 conspired to put them out of business after enticing them to sign on with the union to please major resorts. (Photo: Clark County School District)

Laborers Local 872 boss Tommy White has weaponized his position, using it to financially bury anyone who crosses him, according to a group of Black subcontractors in the twelfth year of a discrimination lawsuit against White, the union and its trust funds. 

The suit filed by the subcontractors in 2011 alleges the union and trust funds, at White’s direction, attempted to destroy their companies by levying insurmountable fees, interest, and liquidated damages for failing to pay benefit contributions on time. They allege White, the union, and the trust funds engaged in a campaign to blacklist the companies among workers and employers.  

“There’s a list the union circulates in the hall and to employers,” plaintiff Gene Collins said of 872’s ‘delinquent list’ of contractors. “If you’re on that list, you don’t have an opportunity to get any work.”

Collins, a former state assemblyman, says his company appeared on the list within weeks of signing on to 872, though he says he didn’t owe a dime. He alleges the treatment he and other Black contractors have received from White has less to do with debt than the color of their skin. 

A ruling from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals could end the marathon battle, says the attorney for the union.  But the contractors say they are undetered. 

“The union and Tommy’s minions at the trust funds do everything to keep the foot on Black contractors’ necks,” says plaintiff Rosemary Phillips, the owner of a now-defunct construction cleaning company. “They tried to drown us in attorney fees, liquidated damages, and interest and make us get attorneys we cannot afford. Some of us haven’t worked for 10 years. We all have suffered physically, financially, and psychologically fighting for our rights.” 

The lawsuit alleges White intimidated witnesses and “worked against the interest of the African American small business contractors to ensure they were all forced out of business, and ensured that their work was given to the preferred non African American union contractors.”

The Ninth Circuit ruled this month that arbitrator Dennis Kist’s failure to disclose his decades-long relationship with the union’s attorney in the case does not warrant vacating Kist’s ruling in favor of the union. 

The five plaintiffs – four cleaning companies owned by Black women, and a cleaning and road flagging service owned by Collins – allege White conspired to put them out of business after enticing them to sign on with the union to please major resorts. 

“Every once in a while we might get a phone call saying — and usually they came from MGM because that was the big CityCenter job at the time – ‘We need a minority contractor. We have a spot we need to fill. Do you have any minority contractors that we can use?’” White relayed in a 2012 deposition in the case. “I guess they have a percentage of men that they have to use or something.” 

The “big CityCenter job,” a boon for the union’s 2,500 members, turned into a nearly half-billion-dollar lawsuit filed by international builder Tutor-Perini Corporation against MGM Resorts over construction of the Harmon Hotel. 

When Perini stopped paying subcontractors, White put out a video news release urging MGM to come up with pay for contractors, who he said were forced to take out loans to make payroll. But he warned at the same time the union “is ready and willing” to shut down subcontractors who are late with benefit payments, adding the union didn’t “want to put anybody out of work.”

“You can’t have it both ways,” Collins says of White’s video statement. “You can’t say it’s not our fault” that the contractors weren’t getting paid “ and then turn around and call me delinquent when he (White) understands MGM is not paying contractors.” 

The contractors allege 872 and the trust funds inflated amounts contractors owed for benefit contributions, imposed fees not levied on non-Black contractors, and enforced arbitrary and discriminatory collection practices. 

“They began to systematically run them out of business basically, and now there are no Black, African-American contractors that are part of the union,” the contractors’ attorney, Dan Winder, told the Ninth Circuit in December.  

White did not respond to requests for comment. 

“That whole minority thing…”

Local 872’s members primarily operate forklifts, jackhammers, and pour concrete. Of the 325 contractors signed on with the union in 2012, ten had local Black owners, White testified in deposition. Of those, six performed final construction site cleaning. In 2011, all but one of the six were plaintiffs in the discrimination lawsuit against White, the union, and its trust funds.  

“They’re using that whole minority thing to push the lawsuit, and it’s not going to work for them,” White told CityLife, a now defunct publication, in 2011. 

Six Star Cleaning & Carpet Services, Inc., a construction site cleaning company, owed the trust funds $260,000 in April 2012, according to the union trust funds, including $42,000 for attorney fees, $74,000 in interest, and $100,000 in charges stemming from so-called ‘redline’ jobs, work procured by contractors before signing on with the union.

“The union and Tommy's minions at the trust funds do everything to keep the foot on Black contractors’ necks.”

– Rosemary Phillips, plaintiff

Red line jobs are supposed to be exempt from union wages and benefits. White, the only person empowered to approve red line exemptions, testified he remembered Six Stars’ owner Rosemary Phillips’ request to redline a handful of projects, but says he never acted on it. 

“If you subtract the $100,000 for redline jobs, the actual balance is substantially less,” notes Phillips, a plaintiff in the suit against White, the union, and its trust funds. 

When MGM eventually agreed to pay CityCenter subcontractors who had been unpaid by Perini because of the litigation, Phillips received a $269,000 check she promptly endorsed and turned over to the trust funds, with whom she was haggling at the time over the redlined projects. 

“Instead of applying the $269,000 to the money I owed for CityCenter, the trust funds applied it to the redlined projects in dispute and told my union workers ‘No, she hasn’t made any payments for you.’”

From August 2012 to early 2013, while Six Star was under a settlement agreement with the trust funds to pay off $445,000, the trust funds piled on interest and attorney’s fees that more than doubled the amount the company owed. 

Phillips says with the help of family members she’s paid about $200,000 in attorney fees to five  lawyers in the last 12 years  – more than she believes she legitimately owed the union. She says she’s come close to losing her home on five occasions and has had cars repossessed.   

“Our attorney, Mr. Winder, has been pretty lenient with us,” Phillips said. “Every dime I scrape up goes to an attorney.” 

Floppy Mop owners Sheryl Archie and her son James McKinney ended up homeless when the company’s debt to the union trust funds ballooned from $3,550 in August 2010 to $930,000 in a matter of months, according to court documents. After winning a judgment against Floppy Mop for $535,158, the trust funds filed suit against Archie and McKinney personally, and won another judgment. 

Archie testified in the arbitration that White told her she’d never work again. 

White is no stranger to controversy. He has refused to cooperate with federal investigators looking into alleged union election irregularities, prompting a judge in 2018 to order the union’s compliance. He’s faced allegations of favoritism and discrimination, some substantiated, and has still muscled his way into Nevada’s elite power circles.  

In 2019, the Clark County Commission voted 5-2 to reappoint White to the Stadium Authority Board, which essentially owns Allegiant Stadium.

“If they wanted to affirm that board members can be racist, sexist, and threaten violence on Twitter (like Donald Trump does) and get away with it — they have succeeded,” then-Culinary Union Secretary-Treasurer Geoconda Arguello-Kline said in a statement following the vote.  

Failure to communicate?

In 2020, arbitrator Dennis Kist ruled against the Black contractors on three seminal counts in their lawsuit. The following year, Judge Gloria Navarro denied the contractors’ request to vacate Kist’s ruling, claiming he failed to disclose his decades-long relationship with David Rosenfeld, attorney for the union and White. 

The American Arbitration Association’s Code of Ethics states “persons who are requested to serve as arbitrators should, before accepting, disclose . . . any such relationships which they personally have with any party or its lawyer.”

Kist, reached via phone, declined to comment.  

“Had he (Kist) properly disclosed his relationships, both with the union, but with litigation with the union and with Mr. Rosenfeld’s firm over all of these years, my clients certainly would have chosen not to have him as an arbitrator,” Winder told the Ninth Circuit. 

Kist is the former president of the Las Vegas stagehands’ union who gained local labor folk hero status during the two-and-a-half month long 1984 strike on the Las Vegas Strip, when his tangles with police became nightly fodder for TV news. 

Court records indicate Kist served as Nevada co-counsel with Rosenfeld’s San Francisco firm on a number of occasions, and Rosenfeld personally represented the stagehands’ union in a 1996 discrimination case, a year after Kist’s tenure as president ended. Kist was called as a witness in the case, but hearing transcripts reveal Rosenfeld repeatedly referred to Kist as “my client.”

Rosenfeld acknowledged to the Current that references to Kist as his client  “were inaccurate in the sense that the client was the union. He was the alter ego.”

Kist was admonished by the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service for failing to disclose his professional relationship with Rosenfeld’s firm, but the FMCS said Kist’s omission “is considerably mitigated by the very long passage of time.”

“Neither Kist’s involvement in the 1996 lawsuit as a witness nor the fact that Rosenfeld’s firm was co-counsel with arbitrator Kist in a few cases that ended twenty years ago creates a reasonable impression that Kist was biased in favor or Rosenfeld or his client,” the Ninth Circuit wrote this month.

Collins and Phillips say they are unaware of any non-Black contractors suffering the same fate as the owners of the cleaning companies. 

“Look at the five of us,” Collins says of the plaintiffs. “None of us are working. This isn’t about money to Tommy White. It’s personal.” 

The plaintiffs are discussing their options with attorney Winder. 

“We aren’t giving up,” Phillips said. “If we have to, we’ll go to the Supreme Court.” 

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Dana Gentry
Dana Gentry

Dana Gentry is a native Las Vegan and award-winning investigative journalist. She is a graduate of Bishop Gorman High School and holds a Bachelor's degree in Communications from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.