The use of undocumented workers on a Trump construction site such as the hotel described by The Washington Post this week is certainly nothing new.
Thirty-five years ago, a small army of illegal immigrants was used to clear the site for what became the crown jewel of Donald Trump’s empire.
The 200 demolition workers—nicknamed the Polish Brigade because of their home country—worked 12-hour shifts, seven days a week with no overtime to knock down the old Bonwit Teller building and make room for Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.
According to testimony in a protracted civil suit in federal court, the laborers were paid $5 an hour or less when they were paid at all. Some went unpaid after the contractor had financial troubles. A few never received even the paltry sum that was owed them for their dirty and hazardous efforts preceding the construction of Trump’s monument to his own wealth.
“They were undocumented and worked ‘off the books,’” Manhattan federal Judge Charles Stewart said of the workers after they became the subject of a 1983 lawsuit. “No records were kept, no Social Security or other taxes were withheld.”
Trump was speaking with more firsthand knowledge than his readers likely imagined when he wrote in his 2011 book Time to Get Tough: Making America #1 Again that “illegal immigration is a wrecking ball aimed at U.S. Taxpayers.”
How interesting that he would choose a wrecking ball as a metaphor.
The lawsuit involving literal demolition—Case 83CIV6346 in Manhattan Federal Court—was brought by Harry Diduck, a now deceased dissident member of Local 95 of the House Wreckers Union. His lawyer, Wendy Sloan, says he was one of a group of like-minded workers who simply wanted “a real union.” They had stood to gain nothing at all for themselves as they sought to prove that Trump and his partner, along with the general contractor, conspired to cheat the House Wreckers out of pension and welfare contributions by hiring these non-union laborers.
Judge Stewart initially tossed out the complaint against Trump and his partner on the grounds that the contractor was the responsible party regarding the workers. The plaintiffs appealed, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reinstated the complaint, returning the case to Judge Stewart.
During the 16-day non-jury trial, a number of the Polish workers testified that Trump underlings had threatened them with deportation if they caused trouble. They walked in to the job from Brooklyn when a transit strike hit the city. Some of them slept at the site.
Two workers further testified that they had approached Trump in person to demand overdue wages.
Trump took the stand, even back in those days sporting a red “power” tie, blue pinstriped suit, and that hair. He told the court that he almost certainly did not speak to the laborers, in part because he was fearful of venturing into so dangerous a workplace.
“I tend not to walk into buildings under demolition,” Trump said. “You have to be very brave to be in a building under demolition. I’m not sure I’m that brave.”
He added that he had no need to visit the site because “You can see it from a block away.”
He further testified that in any event he could not remember ever speaking to any of the workers or even being aware there were Polish workers on the site.
“When did you learn Polish workers were on the job?” he was asked by his lawyer, Milton Gould.
“Probably sometime after the demolition,” Trump replied.
“Did it ever occur to you that they were illegal?” Gould inquired.
“It was never proven to me that they were illegal,” said the developer, adding that he only heard that they might not be in the country legally “sometime after the demolition work.”
At one point, he allowed that he had become aware that there were undocumented workers there, but only late in the project.
“Probably after the demolition,” he said.
He apparently was referring to having retained the contractor who hired the Polish Brigade when he said, “I can make mistakes. This was a mistake.”
The lawyer representing the Polish Brigade had reported receiving a call from someone who identified himself as “John Baron” and said Trump was ready to hit the lawyer with a $100 million lawsuit if he kept causing trouble.
Trump now acknowledged on the stand that he had used the pseudonym “John Baron,” as had one of his assistants. But Trump insisted that his use of it was only long after the completion of the Fifth Avenue tower, which became the first of many properties on which he so rapturously bestowed his real surname.
“Lots of people use pen names,” he told a reporter after he stepped down from the witness stand. “Ernest Hemingway used one.”
The judge found against Trump, his partner, and the contractor, saying they had joined in a “conspiracy.” Stewart found that Trump’s man on the scene, Thomas Macari, “was involved in every aspect of the demolition job.”
“He knew the Polish workers were working ‘off the books,’ that they were doing demolition work, that they were non-union, that they were paid substandard wages with no overtime pay, and that they were paid irregularly if at all,” the judge found.
Stewart suggested that it would have been difficult for anyone not to notice the Polish Brigade.
“The Polish workers were obvious not only in numbers but also in appearance,” the judge found. “In contrast to the union workers, the nonunion Polish workers were distinguished by the fact that most of them did not wear hard hats.”
Trump appealed. The Second Circuit returned a complicated opinion, overturning part of the decision and referring it for “further proceedings.”
The appeals court found that if the Trump parties had not known of the Polish workers, “they should have known.” According to The New York Times, Trump maintained that he was not aware there were undocumented laborers on the site. He said he was also unaware of the circumstances they were working under. He insisted he was not liable for the union payments.
“All we did was to try to keep a job going that was started by someone else,” Trump told The New York Times in 1998. “In fact, we helped people and it has cost a lot of money in legal fees.”
The case was finally settled in 1999 and then sealed. That was 19 years after the demolition began, 16 years after the suit was filed.
Trump did not return a request for comment placed through a spokeswoman.
The tower that is his crown jewel and symbol of his wealth continues to stand on ground cleared by 200 undocumented workers who labored off the books, 12 hours a day, seven days a week, for no more than $5 an hour with no overtime.