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2017 was a year of eroding workers’ rights

Thursday, December 28th, 2017

There have been a series of victories for labor rights in recent years. Graduate student workers at private colleges and universities now have the right to unionize. In New York, employers are no longer allowed to ask for an employee’s salary history — a question that often hurts women and people of color. And the Fight for 15 has scored wins in cities across the country.

But the Trump administration stands in the way of much of the progress labor activists are demanding. It may not be as noisy or ripe for attention-grabbing headlines as Betsy DeVos’ education department or Scott Pruitt’s Environmental Protection Agency, but Alexander Acosta’s labor department has rolled back a number of key Obama-era labor advances.

“Acosta is not a bomb-thrower,” said Jeffrey Hirsch, law professor at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Unlike some of Trump’s other less traditional choices for agency heads, Acosta had already been confirmed by the Senate for three previous positions and was considered a safe choice for labor department secretary.

Still, it’s clear the department is now under a Republican administration.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which enforces fair labor practices, has an employer-friendly majority. The General Counsel of the NLRB is Peter Robb, a lawyer who management-focused firm Jackson Lewis wrote would “set the stage for the board to reverse many of the pro-labor rulings issued by the Obama board”. The Senate also confirmed to the NLRB William Emanuel, whose nomination was supported by corporate donors and industry groups like the National Retail Federation, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and National Restaurant Association. Emanuel’s work previous focused on union avoidance tactics and among his former clients were Amazon, Target, Uber, and FedEx.

With these new additions, the Department of Labor has been busy dismantling protections for workers. Here are some of the biggest ways the Trump administration rolled back workers’ rights in 2017:

Less accountability for corporations like McDonald’s

One of the labor rollbacks that gained the most attention this year was the board’s decision to overturn the new joint employer standard that was supposed to make it easier for corporations to be held accountable for unfair labor practices at their franchises. Labor advocates expected the decision for some time after the department rescinded guidance that defines who a joint-employer is.

The Obama administration’s standard on joint employers went beyond simply looking at who sets wages and hires people, and considered a worker’s “economic dependency” on the business. McDonald’s has tried to avoid responsibility for violations like wage-theft for years. In 2016, McDonald’s settled a wage-theft class action and released a statement that said it “reconfirms that it is not the employer of or responsible for employees of its independent franchisees.”

“Under the previous rule, you only needed to show [McDonald’s] had a theoretical amount of control. They reserve the right to control terms and conditions of work and controlled those conditions in an indirect manner like setting policies that other companies have to follow,” Hirsch explained. “The new case has said that no, you need actual direct control. When push comes to shove, it’s a matter of evidence and how much proof you have, so you may well still have a case against McDonald’s but you’re going to have to show that there is more actual control.”

Reduced protections for quality investment advice

In August, the Labor Department said it would like to delay a rule that would require financial advisors to act in the best interest of their customers and their retirement accounts. According to a federal court filing, the department wanted to delay implementation of the rule to July 2019. The full implementation of the rule is currently set for January 2018.

There are two standards investors have to be aware of right now: the fiduciary standard and suitability standard. A financial adviser operating under what is called the “suitability standard” is only required to make sure a client’s investment is suitable for the client’s finances, age, and risk tolerance at that point in time, but they don’t have a huge legal obligation to monitor the investment for the client. Under the fiduciary standard, an adviser must keep monitoring the investment and keep the customer’s overall financial picture in mind. In addition, advisers must disclose all of their conflicts of interest, fees, and commissions under the fiduciary standard. Right now, it’s easier for advisers to push investments that will make them money but are not necessarily in clients’ best interest, said Paul Secunda, professor of law and director of the labor and employment law program at Marquette University Law School.

“That rule has been substantially cut back, though how far back we’re still waiting to see. The current admin is in a holding pattern right now and my sense is that it could be cut back fairly dramatically even further,” Secunda said.

None of these labor department actions have been good enough for the financial industry, however. Plaintiffs in a lawsuit that included the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, the Financial Services Institute, the Financial Services Roundtable and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, sent a Dec. 8 letter to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. The plaintiffs said the delay of regulation shouldn’t hold up their appeal, where they argue the department does not have the authority to promulgate the rule, according to InvestmentNews.

Reduced worker safety

Experts on labor violations and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration told ThinkProgress they were concerned about how OSHA would respond to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, especially since the Trump administration has slashed worker safety rules from the Obama administration. 

Trump’s OSHA has left behind regulations on worker exposure to construction noise, combustible dust, and vehicles backing up in factories and construction sites, according to Bloomberg BNA. It also abandoned a rule that would change the way the agency decides on permissible exposure limits for chemicals. The July regulatory agenda did not list any new rule-making. The president’s 2018 budget would have killed OSHA’s Chemical Safety Board, which looks into chemical plant accidents, as well as the Susan Harwood grant program, which benefits nonprofits and unions that provide worker safety training.

“OSHA is taking a turn we usually see during Republican administrations, which means a lot less inspections and enforcement and a lot more trying to get employers to self-regulate or voluntarily comply which has not really worked that well historically,” Secunda said. “People who participate in these voluntary participation programs are usually employers who are already in compliance and those who continue to be bad actors are not really impacted by these voluntary programs. OSHA is about to be run by corporate America, which is obviously not good for employees.”

Deciding to let go of Obama-era overtime rule

In July, the labor department moved to roll back an Obama administration rule that would have expanded the number of workers eligible for overtime pay by 4.2 million. The department has not appealed a U.S. District Court in Texas that gave business groups the temporary injunction they wanted.

The current threshold for overtime pay is at just $23,660 a year, and the Obama-era rule would have nearly doubled that. In 1974, 62 percent of full-time salaried workers had a salary that allowed them to be eligible for overtime, but today, only 7 percent of full-time salaried workers earn a salary below this level, according toDavid Weill, dean of the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University who headed the Wage and Hour Division of the department during the Obama administration.

Referring to Acosta, Weill wrote in U.S. News, “Failure to appeal this flawed decision will leave millions working long hours with low pay and abrogate his responsibility to protect the hardworking people he and the Trump administration profess to care so much about.”

Labor department focus on ‘harmonious workplaces’

In one of the NLRB’s less discussed decisions this month, it overruled the Bush-era standard Lutheran Heritage Village-Livonia. This standard went into further detail on whether facially neutral workplace rules, policies, and handbook provisions could unlawfully interfere with Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act. (Under Section 7, it’s unlawful for employers to interfere with employees’ organizing rights.) The NLRB provides the example of employers threatening, interrogating, or spying on pro-union employees or promising employees benefits if they stay away from organizing as unlawful activity under Section 7.

Under the 2004 standard, employers could have the violated the National Labor Relations Act by instituting workplace rules that could be “reasonably construed” to prohibit workers from accessing these rights even if the employers don’t explicitly prohibit the activities.

Hirsch said he was surprised by the decision to reverse a Bush-era decision. “To me, it seems like they’re doing more than they needed to, which makes me wonder if they’re trying to make a point.”

Hirsch added that the decision appeared to carve out certain types of rules, such as a civility code in the workplace, and say they were permissible. The decision referred to employers who wanted “harmonious workplaces” and cast any opposition to such a requirement to be impractical, but Hirsch said there needs to be a balance in NLRB decisions between clarity and flexibility.

“That can be problematic bevause they’re rules that depending on the history of what has happened in that particular workplace and it could actually be viewed as fairly chilling for those employees,” Hirsch said. “… Labor and management relations aren’t always harmonious. In fact, they are designed not to be in a  lot of ways. Sometimes harsh language is used by both sides and sometimes that is OK, or we’re willing to tolerate that as part of the collective bargaining process rather than having violent strikes, like we did before the NRLA.”

‘Micro-unions’ are out of luck

The NLRB made another business-friendly decision this month when it decided that a unionized group of 100 welders and “rework specialists” at a manufacturing company with thousands of workers was improper. This means it will be easier for employers to oppose what are referred to as “micro unions” even though it can be advantageous for workers to organize this way. The decision went against eight federal appeals court rulings, according to Reuters.

LGBTQ workers’ not protected by Title VII

There is ongoing debate over whether LGBTQ workers have rights to ensure that they are treated fairly in the workplace under Title VII, part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin, and religion. In July, the Department of Justice undermined rights for LGBTQ people when it filed a brief arguing that prohibition of sex discrimination under federal law does not include the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Trump Dept. of Labor Rule Would Legalize Employers Stealing Workers’ Tips

Friday, December 15th, 2017

Last week, the Trump administration launched yet another front in its war on workers when the Department of Labor (DOL) proposed a new rule that would allow restaurants and other employers of tipped workers to begin legally pocketing their workers’ tips. 

The DOL’s proposed rule would ostensibly allow restaurants to take the tips that servers and bartenders earn and share them with untipped employees, such as cooks and dishwashers. This may sound like as a reasonable change, since kitchen staff are essential to the dining experience. Indeed, we do need to reform how restaurant workers generally and tipped workers specifically are paid, including reducing pay disparities between “front of the house” workers and kitchen staff.

But this proposed rule is not really aimed at fixing these problems. How do we know? Because, critically, the rule does not actually require that employers distribute “pooled” tips to workers. Under the administration’s proposed rule, as long as tipped workers earn the minimum wage, employers could legally pocket those tips for themselves.

Evidence shows that even now, when employers are prohibited from pocketing tips, many still do. Research on workers in three large U.S. cities—Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York—finds that 12 percent of tipped workers had their tips stolen by their employer or supervisor. Recent research also shows that workers in restaurants and bars are much more likely to suffer minimum wage violations—meaning being paid less than minimum wage—than workers in other industries. In the 10 most populous states, nearly one out of every seven restaurant workers reports being paid less than the minimum wage.

In some cases, this is the result of employers illegally confiscating tips. In others, it may be the result of employers asking staff to work off the clock, taking illegal deductions from paychecks or paying less than minimum wage to workers who may feel they cannot speak up—such as formerly incarcerated individuals, undocumented workers or foreign guest workers. These violations amount to more than $2.2 billion in stolen wages annually—and that’s just in the 10 largest states.

With that much illegal wage theft occurring, it should be clear that when employers can legally pocket the tips earned by their employees, many will. And while the bulk of tipped employees work in restaurants, tipped workers outside the restaurant industry—such as nail salon workers, casino dealers, barbers and hair stylists—could also see their bosses begin taking a cut from their tips.

The Economic Policy Institute estimates that under the Trump administration’s proposed rule, employers would pocket nearly $6 billion in tips earned by tipped workers each year. Trump’s DOL even acknowledges that this could occur, stating “The proposed rule rescinds those portions of the 2011 regulations that restrict employer use of customer tips when the employer pays at least the full Federal minimum wage.” In other words, so long as servers, bartenders and other tipped workers are being paid the measly federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, employers can do whatever they please with those workers’ tips. The DOL claims that this is actually a benefit of the proposed rule because it “may result in a reduction in litigation”—that is, fewer tipped workers being able to sue employers who steal their pay.

The fact that Trump’s DOL would so brazenly work to undermine protections for one of the lowest-paid, most poverty-stricken segments of the workforce says a lot about this administration’s values. The federal DOL is many workers’ primary source of protection when mistreated by an employer. In fact, 14 states effectively defer their wage and hour enforcement capacity to federal officials—meaning that outside of a private lawsuit, the federal DOL is these workers’ only option for recourse.

An administration that genuinely cared about working people would crack down on employers stealing from workers, not propose to legalize it.

This blog was originally published at In These Times on December 15, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: David Cooper is a Senior Economic Analyst at the Economic Policy Institute.

Labor Department Proposes Legalizing Wage Theft

Friday, December 8th, 2017

The Labor Department is moving quickly to establish a new rule that would make tips the property of restaurant owners instead of workers.

This week, President Donald Trump’s administration proposed getting rid of an existing rule that makes tips the property of servers that restaurant owners cannot take away.

Under the new proposal, restaurant owners who pay their employees as little as $7.25 per hour could do whatever they want with tips left by customers for waitstaff. Restaurant owners could even keep the tips for themselves.

The federal minimum cash wage for tipped workers—at just $2.13 per hour—is already lower than for other workers. This low subminimum wage means that tipped workers depend on tips for virtually all their take-home pay after taxes, so they receive their take-home pay directly from customers. Not surprisingly, tipped workers have higher rates of poverty, discrimination and sexual harassment. Undocumented and immigrant workers in the restaurant industry are particularly vulnerable to wage theft.

The administration’s proposal would take money out of the pockets of some of the lowest-paid workers in our country and hand it over to restaurant owners, many of them big corporations.

Does that sound familiar? This is the same kind of reverse Robin Hood scheme as the disgraceful tax bill now making its way through Congress.

We cannot let them get away with this. The administration is trying to sneak this change through without hearing from workers, customers or even employers who disagree at a time of year when tipped workers are the busiest. The deadline for comments on this proposal is Jan. 4, 2018.

This blog was originally published at AFL-CIO on December 8, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Kelly Ross is the deputy policy director at the AFLCIO.

Tell the Labor Department Not to Repeal the Persuader Rule

Monday, June 19th, 2017

The Labor Department issued a proposal on Monday that would rescind the union-buster transparency rule, officially known as the persuader rule, designed to increase disclosure requirements for consultants and attorneys hired by companies to try to persuade working people against coming together in a union. The rule was supposed to go into effect last year, but a court issued an injunction last June to prevent implementation. Now the Trump Labor Department wants to eliminate it.

We wrote about this rule last year. Repealing the union-buster transparency rule is little more than the administration doing the bidding of wealthy corporations and eliminating common-sense rules that would give important information to working people who are having roadblocks thrown their way while trying to form a union.

AFL-CIO spokesman Josh Goldstein said:

The persuader rule means corporate CEOs can no longer hide the shady groups they hire to take away the freedoms of working people. Repealing this common-sense rule is simply another giveaway to wealthy corporations. Corporate CEOs may not like people knowing who they’re paying to script their union-busting, but working people do.

If the rule is repealed, union-busters will be able to operate in the shadows as they work to take away our freedom to join together on the job. Working people deserve to know whether these shady firms are trying to influence them. The administration seems to disagree.

A 60-day public comment period opened Monday. Click on this link to leave a comment and tell the Labor Department that we should be doing more to ensure the freedom of working people to join together in a union, not less. Copy and paste the suggested text below if you need help getting started:

“Working people deserve to know who is trying to block their freedom from joining together and forming a union on the job. Corporations spend big money on shadowy, outside firms that use fear tactics to intimidate and discourage people from coming together to make a better life on the job. I support a strong and robust persuader rule. Do not eliminate the persuader rule.”

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist.  Before joining the AFL-CIO in 2012, he worked as labor reporter for the blog Crooks and Liars.  Previous experience includes Communications Director for the Darcy Burner for Congress Campaign and New Media Director for the Kendrick Meek for Senate Campaign, founding and serving as the primary author for the influential state blog Florida Progressive Coalition and more than 10 years as a college instructor teaching political science and American History.  His writings have also appeared on Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.

HELP Committee Should Ask Acosta for Commitments to the DOL Mission

Tuesday, March 21st, 2017

Ahead of Wednesday’s confirmation hearing for Alexander Acosta as Secretary of Labor, workers and workers’ advocates have been vocal about their concerns with his appointment. Workplace Fairness, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and Senator Elizabeth Warren, among others, are seeking assurances from Mr. Acosta about how he intends to protect workers and carry out the mission of the Department of Labor.

While we haven’t seen the level of outrage with the Acosta nomination that we saw with former nominee Andrew Puzder, Mr. Acosta still has a lot to answer for, and his relative lack of a record on workers’ rights issues is cause for concern. Will he protect against political influence and work to uphold the Department’s mission to promote worker welfare and assure workers’ benefits and rights?  Or will he toe the line of the Trump administration, fail to aggressively pursue investigations and litigation, and leave American workers out in the cold?

Transparency

Earlier this month, Workplace Fairness sent a position statement to the Senate HELP committee in charge of the confirmation hearing. Workplace Fairness focuses generally on advocating for workers’ rights, and more specifically on ensuring that America workers have access to comprehensive, easy to understand, information about their legal rights and remedies in the workplace. Workplace Fairness made clear that in light of recent issues with information going missing from government websites, Mr. Acosta should commit to ensuring that DOL continually provides transparency about his intentions going forward, and provides comprehensive information to the public about our rights in the workplace and how to enforce them.

Politicized hiring

Another issue sparking a call for assurances from Acosta is the potential for politicized hiring at the Department of Labor. The Trump administration is actively promoting an anti-worker agenda, from appointing a cabinet full of millionaires, to cutting the budget for programs that help workers, and working to repeal the Affordable Care Act which will dramatically impact all workers’ health benefits, even those insured through their employers. It is vital that the Secretary of Labor guard against politicized hiring that would turn the Department into an ally of the current administration rather than an agency committed to protecting workers. Acosta will most certainly have to answer questions about the 2008 report from the Office of the Inspector General which implicated him in politicized hiring at the Department of Justice when he was an Assistant Attorney General. The report found that he failed to properly supervise his deputy assistant who was clearly engaged in politicized hiring, in violation of civil service laws. He will need to explain to the HELP Committee how he intends to ensure that this type of hiring doesn’t happen at the Department of Labor. The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Right recently issued a statement (joined by Workplace Fairness and 86 other organizations) specifically asking how Acosta would prevent political interference with the Office of Federal Contract Compliance, the Wage and Hour Division, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics as they carry out their missions to enforce rules and laws like the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Overtime Rule, and report vital statistics and information to the  American public.

Budget cuts

Senator Elizabeth Warren also raised grave concerns about a variety of issues, including politicized hiring and budget cuts at the DOL in her 23-page letter to Acosta, asking him to respond by March 27.  Senator Warren asks Acosta to detail how he intends to continue the work of investigating and litigating labor law violations under Trump’s proposed 21% cut to the DOL budget. She says

“I am also concerned about how you will respond to President Trump’s plan to cut more than 20% of DOL’s budget-the third biggest cut to any agency after the State Department and the Environmental Protection Agency…These draconian cuts will hobble your ability to run core parts of the agency, including the divisions that investigate and enforce the federal health and safety standards that keep workers safe on the job and the federal wage and hour laws that ensure that workers are paid fairly.”

The cut would bring the DOL budget to its lowest level since the 1970’s, according to the New York Times.

The upshot

It is expected that Acosta will be confirmed, as confirmation only requires a simple majority vote, and the Republicans have 52 seats in the Senate. Democrats and workers’ rights advocates hope to use this confirmation hearing as an opportunity to get some important assurances and commitments from Acosta on the record.

Many workers’ rights groups and other organizations, like the Economic Policy Institute, with its Perkins Project, are poised to pay close attention to what the Department does in the coming years, and to hold the Secretary of Labor accountable for the promises he makes. And as always, Workplace Fairness will continue to maintain free, up-to-date, comprehensive, easy to read information for the public about what their rights are in the workplace, and how to enforce them. These efforts will become even more critical in the days ahead as government agencies are forced to eliminate staff positions and enforcement activities, and potentially lessen their commitment to protecting the rights of workers.

SHANNON RUSZ has been associated with Workplace Fairness since 2009. Since 2014 she has worked as Content Manager for Workplacefairness.org, and most recently has taken on the role of Acting Executive Director of Workplace Fairness. Shannon is an attorney practicing in the Annapolis, Maryland area. She received her undergraduate degree from Virginia Commonwealth University and her Law degree from The George Washington University Law School.

What Slashing the Labor Department Budget by 21 Percent Would Mean

Friday, March 17th, 2017

The Trump administration’s “budget blueprint” would devastate worker safety, job training programs and legal services essential to low-income workers. Its cuts include a 21 percent, or $2.5 billion, reduction in the Department of Labor’s budget.

The budget would reduce funding for or eliminate programs that provide job training to low-income workers, unemployed seniors, disadvantaged youth and for state-based job training grants. It eliminates the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) training grants as well as the independent Chemical Safety Board. Also targeted for elimination is the Legal Services Corporation, which provides legal assistance to low-income Americans.

“Cutting these programs is cutting the safety net for the most vulnerable workers, those striving for the middle class,” said Matt Shudtz, executive director at the Center for Progressive Reform. “This budget would eliminate training programs for them, the kind of things people need to move up in the world. It is very anti-worker and anti- the most vulnerable workers.”

Judy Conti, National Employment Law Project (NELP) federal advocacy coordinator, didn’t mince words.

“This budget will mean more illness, injury and death on the job,” she said Thursday, the day the proposed budget was released.

Targeting programs that prevent injury and illness

The White House budget proposal justifies its enormous cuts to the Department of Labor by saying it focuses on the agency’s “highest priority functions and disinvests in activities that are duplicative, unnecessary, unproven or ineffective.”

The budget would close Job Corps centers that serve “disadvantaged youth,” eliminate the Senior Community Service Employment Program, decrease federal funding for state and local job training grants—shifting more financial responsibility to employers and state and local governments. The budget would also eliminate certain grants to the Office of Disability Employment Policy, which helps people with disabilities stay in the job market.

Also slated for elimination are OSHA’s Susan Harwood training grants that have provided more than 2.1 million workers, especially underserved and low-literacy workers in high-hazard industries, with health and safety training since 1978. These trainings are designed to multiply their effects by “training trainers” so that both workers and employers learn how to prevent and respond to workplace hazards. They’ve trained healthcare workers on pandemic hazards, helped construction workers avoid devastating accidents, and workers in food processing and landscaping prevent ergonomic injuries. The program also helps workers for whom English is not their first language obtain essential safety training.

“The cuts to OSHA training grants will hurt workers and small employers,” said David Michaels, former assistant secretary of labor for OSHA. “Training is a proven, and in fact necessary method to prevent worker injuries and illnesses. OSHA’s training grants are very cost effective, reaching large numbers of workers and small employers who would otherwise not be trained in injury and illness prevention.”

“Everyone, labor and management, believes that a workforce educated in safety and health is essential to saving lives and preventing occupational disease. That is the purpose of the Harwood grants,” said Michael Wright, director of health, safety and environment at United Steelworkers.

The White House says eliminating these grants will save $11 million, a miniscule fraction of the $639 billion the Trump administration is requesting for the Department of Defense.

“No words to describe how cruel it is”

Eliminating the Chemical Safety Board (CSB) would mean no independent federal agency dedicated to investing devastating industrial accidents such as the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the West Fertilizer plant explosion, Freedom Industries chemical release in Charleston, West Virginia, and the Chevron refinery fire in Richmond, California. Those are among the hundreds of cases CSB has investigated over the past 20 years or so.

“Our recommendations have resulted in banned natural gas blows in Connecticut, an improved fire code in New York City, and increased public safety at oil and gas sites across the State of Mississippi. The CSB has been able to accomplish all of this with a small and limited budget. The American public are safer today as a result of the work of the dedicated and professional staff of the CSB,” said CSB chairperson Vanessa Allen Sutherland in a statement.

“The cost of even one such accident would be more than the CSB’s budget over its entire history. And that calculation is only economic. The human cost of a catastrophic accident would be enormous,” said Wright. “The CSB’s work has saved the lives of workers in chemical plants and oil refineries, residents who could be caught in a toxic cloud, even students in high school chemistry labs.”

The budget proposal also jeopardizes essential legal support for low-wage workers. While not dedicated to employment issues, the Legal Services Corporation provides vital services to low-wage workers, including on issues related to workers’ compensation and other job benefits.

“Gutting the Legal Services Corporation,” said NELP’s Conti, “there are no words to describe how cruel it is, especially considering grossly underfunded the agency is.”

“The government should be investing in workers, their families, and communities, but instead this budget drastically cuts the programs meant to uplift them,” said Emily Gardner, worker health and safety advocate at Public Citizen.

The White House calls the budget proposal a “Budget Blueprint to make American Great Again.” On a call with reporters, Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, “this is the ‘America First’ budget” and said it was written “using the president’s own words” to turn “those policies into numbers.”

“This is not so much a budget as an ideological statement,” said David Golston, government affairs director at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

This article originally appeared at Inthesetimes.com on February 17, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Yale e360, Environmental Health Perspectives, Mother Jones, Ensia, Time, Civil Eats, The Guardian, The Washington Post, Salon and The Nation.

Despite Some Union Support, Trump’s New Labor Pick Would Be Terrible for Workers

Tuesday, March 14th, 2017

President Donald Trump’s new pick to head the Labor Department is getting an early boost from a “divide-and-conquer” strategy against labor unions and their allies, even before his qualifications and background as a civil servant are scrutinized in a Senate confirmation hearing.

The nomination of R. Alexander Acosta was announced by Trump less than 24 hours after the president’s first choice for the job, hamburger-chain executive Andrew Puzder, dropped out of consideration. Puzder faced mounting Senate opposition, even from some conservative Republicans, because of disclosures that he had personally broken labor law by hiring an undocumented household servant, and also that he had been accused of spousal abuse many years ago.

Labor unions and Democratic Party leaders in Washington, D.C., had maintained a unified front against the Puzder nomination but that unity dissolved almost immediately with the announcement of Acosta’s nomination February 16. His first confirmation hearing, which was scheduled for this week, has been moved to March 22.

The first endorsement came from the International Union of Operating Engineers, followed by one from the International Association of Fire Fighters and then the Laborers International Union of North America (LIUNA) got on board. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka even offered lukewarm praise, telling MSNBC News: “Well, we’re going to vet him, but he does have a history of enforcing the laws that protect workers, which is a real plus, whereas Puzder had a history of violating the rules.”

Acosta, 48, is currently dean at the Florida International University’s law school, a position he has held since 2009. A Harvard-trained lawyer, he held several appointed positions in the administration of George W. Bush. Before that, he was a labor lawyer at the giant law firm Kirkland & Ellis LLP, known for representing large multinational corporations.

Pro-labor Democrats in the Senate have been conspicuously quiet on Acosta’s nomination—at least thus far. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat from Massachusetts, for example, was an outspoken opponent of Puzder but spokeswoman Alexis Krieg tells In These Times that the senator has no comment on Acosta.

Not so shy is Erik Loomis, assistant professor of history at the University of Rhode Island and a labor commentator at the progressive blog Lawyers, Guns & Money. He said:

“The selection of Alexander Acosta should provide no comfort for those who worked to reject Andy Puzder. Acosta has a lifetime of anti-union and anti-worker positions. Appointed to the National Labor Relations Board by George W. Bush, Acosta consistently decided with employers during his term. His support of Ohio’s attempt to suppress black voting in 2004 is deeply disturbing. That the AFL-CIO seems to think Acosta is as good as they are going to get under Trump is depressing, but perhaps realistic.”

William B. Gould IV, a law professor at Stanford University, agrees with Loomis’ analysis of Acosta’s tenure at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). He says Acosta had “a short, and for the most part uninspiring record” at the NLRB. Acosta served at the board for just eight months in 2003, a time when anti-union Republicans were in control.

Gould, a former NLRB chairman during the President Bill Clinton administration, cites several cases as examples of Acosta’s anti-worker positions:

  • Alexandria Clinic, P.A., 339 NLRB No. 162 (2003). Acosta voted that hospital strikers could be legally fired because they delayed the beginning of an otherwise legal job action by several hours.
  • Curwood Inc., a division of Bemis Company Inc., 339 NLRB No. 148 (2003). Acosta voted to ignore otherwise illegal threats made by the employer against workers trying to form a union. He also sanctioned otherwise illegal promises of new benefits to workers who would vote against the union.
  • Beverly Health, 339 NLRB No.161 (2003). Acosta voted against a corporate remedy in spite of the fact that the company had been found guilty of extensive misconduct on other occasions. His vote was in the minority.

“Curiously, one opinion of Acosta’s, while laudable and appropriate, will give him problems with the anti-immigrants,” among conservative Republicans, Gould adds.

In the case of Double D Construction, 339 NLRB No.48 (2003), Acosta stated that a worker who used a false social security number should not be considered guilty of committing a crime. Such misrepresentations are just part of the workday reality for undocumented workers, Acosta argued. This was the correct decision, according to Gould, but will likely be viewed differently by Republicans favoring a hard line against immigrants.

Equally problematic for worker rights advocates is Acosta’s tenure at the Department of Justice, where Acosta held appointed positions starting in 2003, says Saru Jayaraman, co-director of the pro-worker Restaurant Opportunities Center United.

There are at least two “troubling” episodes in Acosta’s Department of Justice career, Jayaraman says. First, Acosta is on record supporting efforts to restrict voting rights for African Americans in Ohio in 2004. In that case, Acosta was accused of exerting political pressure to help suppress voter turnout. “Voting rights are essential to labor rights, so I see this as important,” Jayaraman says.

So does the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, an advocacy group that has been fighting attempts to restrict voting laws. Committee President Kristen Clarke stated:

Mr. Acosta led the Civil Rights Division at a time that was marked by stark politicization, and other improper hiring and personnel decisions that were fully laid to bare in a 2008 report issued by the Office of Inspector General (OIG). The OIG found that actions taken during Mr. Acosta’s tenure violated Justice Department policy and federal law. Political and ideological affiliations were used as a litmus test to evaluate job candidates and career attorneys, wreaking havoc on the work of the Division. This egregious conduct played out under Mr. Acosta’s watch and undermined the integrity of the Civil Rights Division. It is hard to believe that Mr. Acosta would now be nominated to lead a federal agency tasked with promoting lawful hiring practices and safe workplaces.

A second troubling incident was a plea deal that Acosta negotiated while he was the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida in 2005, Jayaraman says. In that case, a man accused of having sex with underage girls and soliciting prostitution received a light sentence, apparently because the man was a wealthy businessman who could afford expensive lawyers, she claims.

“This was a sexual predator. This is very relevant to workers in the restaurant sector because sexual harassment and sexual abuse in the restaurant industry is just rampant,” Jayaraman tells In These Times. “Acosta does not take the issue seriously.”

But in the final analysis, “it doesn’t matter whether it’s Puzder or this guy (Acosta). The agenda is the same … The secretary of labor doesn’t set the policy, the president does,” says Jayaraman.

Loomis concurs.

He says: “Trump’s selections, both Puzder and Acosta, are inherently anti-worker. But so is Donald Trump, despite the unusual level of support he received from union members.”

This blog originally appeared at Inthesetimes.com on March 13, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper’s New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

The People Fired Puzder

Monday, February 20th, 2017

Andy Puzder, President Trump’s pick to run the Labor Department, didn’t really bow out. He was fired.

But even though Trump made the phrase “you’re fired” his motto, he didn’t force Puzder out. We did. Working people sent him the pink slip.

When Trump was inaugurated less than one month ago, he figured he could dictate his policies and ram his appointments through the Republican-run Congress. Being the least popular president elected since polls began recording public sentiments apparently didn’t faze him.

Trump loaded his proposed cabinet with billionaires, cronies and crooks, goading his opponents.

One of the Worst

Of all the unqualified and inappropriate crew of cabinet nominees, Puzder was one of the worst. As the CEO of the parent company of the Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. fast-food chains, he has both personal and political beliefs that clash with public values. He opposes raising the minimum wage or requiring that restaurants pay servers the same minimum wage as other workers earn and he routinely violated labor laws at his own restaurants. He behaves in a sexist way and defends the sexist behavior of his subordinates. And yet had he become the next Labor secretary, he would have been required to enforce the labor laws he flouts.

It’s no surprise that low-wage workers and the labor movement found Puzder unacceptable. Ahead of his scheduled Senate hearings, thousands of workers — including people who work at Puzder’s own restaurants — protested the nominee in front of Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. restaurants from coast to coast.

Puzder has also enraged women and advocates over his use of sexualized images of women in Carl’s Jr. ads. In his own words: “We believe in putting hot models in our commercials, because ugly ones don’t sell burgers.”

Saru Jayaraman, Executive Director of Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United, said on Democracy Now!,

You’ve seen these ads of Carl’s Jr. restaurants in which they have nearly naked women holding up burgers in front of their breasts or lying on the floor eating a burger or feeding burgers to each other in naked positions. And then you look at the data from our report and other reports showing that young women, often very young women, 16-, 17-, 18-year-old girls, were harassed, grabbed, assaulted in various ways, as I said, told by customers, “Why aren’t you dressed like the girls in the ads?”

(ROC United is an affiliate of People’s Action.)

In Trouble from the Beginning

Puzder’s nomination was in trouble from the beginning. His hearing was postponed at least four times because the nominee failed to provide required paperwork to the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee.

What eventually forced Trump to demand Puzder’s withdrawal was the growing opposition to Puzder’s nomination among some GOP senators. Those Republicans were angered, not by his sexism and abuse of working people, but his hiring of an undocumented woman to clean his home. Politico reports that some close Trump advisor’s didn’t fully back Puzder’s nomination because he supported moderate immigration reform.

Puzder’s anti-worker behavior should disturb every American. Over the past few years, amid rising inequality, the plight of low-wage workers has become a central issue in economic debates. There’s broad support for increasing the minimum wage nationally to begin to address the stagnation of real wages. In state after state, voters have approved ballot initiatives that boosted the minimum wage within their borders, and in Seattle, Los Angeles and now New York State, voters have embraced a pay floor of at least $15 per hour.

Opposition to Puzder generated an organized barrage of calls to senators and the White House, petitions, protests and more. The repeated delays of his confirmation hearing might have hurt Puzder as well. Senate Republicans tried to rush all the cabinet confirmations because they knew due diligence and scrutiny would expose the questionable records of Trump’s team. As the delay dragged on,  more and more revelations, like the damning tape of his ex-wife appearing in disguise on the Oprah Winfrey show describing how Puzder physically abused her, came to light. (She later retracted the charges and said she regretted her Oprah appearance.)

No Accident

It’s no accident that Puzder bowed out just two days after National Security Adviser Gen. Mike T. Flynn’s resignation. The Trump administration’s confidence is shaken. GOP unanimity is broken. Just last week, Trump’s Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, couldn’t be confirmed without Vice-President Mike Pence’s tie-breaking vote when two Republicans voted against it.

Thousands of local protests as part of the #ResistTrumpTuesdsays campaign and in response to the outrageous immigration orders have fueled public rage against the administration and its supporters. Boycotts of Uber, Disney, Tesla and other corporations cooperating with Trump’s economic agenda have also alarmed business leaders.

Plus, the past two weeks have GOP senators feeling the heat as their constituents have showed up at town halls meetings and Senate offices demanding opposition to dismantling Obamacare and Trump’s crooked cabinet.

All of that pressure brought on Puzder’s demise. The people sent him packing.

Within a day of Puzder’s bowing out, Trump named Alexander Acosta, dean of Florida International University College of Law, as his new nominee for Labor secretary. Acosta is sure to also get strong scrutiny from people who work for a living and their advocates.

The people have begun to slow the momentum of the Trump/GOP anti-people agenda. And the resistance to their agenda has only just begun.

This post originally appeared on ourfuture.org on February 16, 2017. Reprinted with Permission.

Libero Della Piana is the Director of Digital Organizing at People’s Action. Follow him on twitter @ldellapiana.

 

Trump’s Labor pick hasn’t even had a hearing yet and his confirmation is in serious jeopardy

Wednesday, February 15th, 2017

The fight against President Donald Trump’s pick for secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor, fast food CEO Andy Puzder, is shaping up to be as intense as opposition to Betsy DeVos’ nomination for education secretary. Puzder’s long delayed confirmation hearing is set for Thursday, and a few Republican senators are already signaling they may vote against him.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), Sen. Lisa Murskowski (R-AK), Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC), and Johnny Isakson (R-GA) are withholding their support of his nomination. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) made it clear through a 28-page letter with 83 questions for Puzder that she will ensure his confirmation process will be a knock-down, drag-out fight. Other prominent Democrats have spoken out against his record as an employer, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has called on President Trump to withdraw Puzder’s nomination.

DeVos ultimately squeaked through a Senate floor debate, but only after an unprecedented tie-breaking vote from Vice President Mike Pence. For weeks before that vote, thousands of people flooded Senate offices with calls against her nomination, and teachers and their allies protested.

Two Republican senators, Sen. Collins and Sen. Murkowski, who now represent half of the Republican senators withholding support for Puzder, voted against her confirmation. Now that twice as many Republicans have already voiced apprehension regarding Puzder, his chances of being confirmed appear even lower.

In her letter, Warren mentioned his “record of prolific labor law abuses and discrimination suits” and “a sneering contempt for the workers in your stores, and a vehement opposition to the laws you will be charged with enforcing.”

Puzder’s CKE Restaurants, which owns fast food restaurants such as Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr., has been the subject of class action lawsuits over the denial of overtime pay as well as lawsuits accusing the company of discrimination. Workers also allege that they were fired for protesting as part of the Fight for 15 campaign.

ROC United, a restaurant employee advocacy group, released a report last month showing that many of the over 500 workers surveyed experienced sexual harassment and unsafe conditions working at CKE restaurants. Sixty-six percent of female CKE employees said they had experienced sexual harassment at work, compared to 40 percent of women who reported such incidents across the entire industry. Puzder has also opposed a $15 per hour minimum wage.

Puzder’s nomination has also been plagued with reports of domestic abuse against his first wife, Lisa Fierstein. On Tuesday, a Missouri judge will rule on whether to unseal records from Puzder’s 1987 divorce, just two days before the nominee’s confirmation hearing. Republican and Democratic senators have also received a tape from the Oprah Winfrey Network that shows a 1990 episode titled, “High-Class Battered Women,” in which Fierstein appeared to discuss the alleged domestic abuse. Fierstein has since retracted the domestic abuse allegations.

Collins has seen the tape, according to Bloomberg, and said, “I am reviewing the other information that has come to light and I’m sure all of this has been explored thoroughly.”

Like the teachers unions that opposed DeVos, which often work with the Fight for $15 campaign, labor groups also have the power to galvanize opposition to Puzder. Last Thursday, thousands of workers protested against his nomination across the U.S., a spokesman for the Fight for 15 campaign told The New York Times. Some of the protesters demonstrated at Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s locations.

The passionate response to DeVos’ nomination, and eventually confirmation, may also be owed to the broad appeal of protecting public school funding, since plenty of middle class Americans of all political stripes send their kids to public schools or know someone who is a teacher. There is a possibility that a broad swath of Americans would similarly oppose a nominee for labor secretary whose record suggests that he will trample on labor protections.

This blog originally appeared at Thinkprogress.org on February 14, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

Casey Quinlan is an education reporter for ThinkProgress. Previously, she was an editor for U.S. News and World Report. She has covered investing, education crime, LGBT issues, and politics for publications such as the NY Daily News, The Crime Report, The Legislative Gazette, Autostraddle, City Limits, The Atlantic and The Toast.

Worker advocates are getting under labor nominee Andy Puzder's thin, thin skin

Friday, January 20th, 2017

Donald Trump proposes to put fast food CEO Andy Puzder in charge of the Department of Labor, where he could bring his program of wage theft, automation, and sexism to workers nationwide. Unions and worker advocacy groups are not so enthusiastic about this proposal, and one of the ways they’ve tried to register their concern is by tweeting at Puzder. This has revealed something new, interesting, and pathetic about the wealthy, powerful, outspoken political nominee: he has incredibly thin skin. Puzder has been steadily blocking his critics on Twitter:

The Hardees and Carl’s Jr. CEO has blocked the Twitter accounts of at least five labor advocacy groups. This week, he even blocked one of the country’s most prominent union leaders, Mary Kay Henry of the 2-million member Service Employees International Union.

“Yes, the Twitter news is true. A sentence I can’t believe I’m writing,” an SEIU spokesperson told BuzzFeed News on Tuesday evening. The union is the second-largest in the country, and has been the main backer of the Fight For $15 movement to raise wages in the fast food industry.

As a veteran fast food leader opposed to wage hikes, Puzder’s beef with Henry and the SEIU seems clear. But he’s handing out the blocks more liberally than that. The cabinet nominee has also blocked the National Employment Law Project, the Economic Policy Institute, MoveOn.org, the Fight for $15, and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights — all organizations that advocate on behalf of workers, especially low-wage workers and workers of color.

These groups are sober, policy-focused, and polite. As NELP’s Judy Conti told Buzzfeed, “We’re not name-calling. There are no ad hominem attacks.” But Puzder apparently can’t even face being tweeted at about New York Times coverage of himself, at least if it’s a progressive think tank doing the tweeting.

Just think: a labor secretary who doesn’t want to hear from pro-worker groups.

This article originally appeared at DailyKOS.com on January 18, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. Labor editor since 2011.

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