Economy & Work

Trumping Labor: The Republican Plan to Gut Workers’ Rights

The president and congressional Republicans are pushing a radical agenda that could harm workers and unions — including millions who helped elect them.

Trumping Labor: The Republican Plan to [...]

Members of labor unions and Occupy Wall Street demonstrators participate in a "March For Jobs and Fairness" on Dec 1, 2011 in New York City. Thousands attended the late afternoon rally which included members of over 300 New York City and tri-state unions. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

This post originally appeared at The Progressive.

In 1989, during the transition from Presidents Reagan to George H.W. Bush, the right- wing Heritage Foundation expressed dismay that “free market” reforms were not moving fast enough. The group weighed in with a burly 900-plus page “Mandate for Leadership,” urging Reagan Revolutionaries to more aggressively dismantle government regulations.

Along with breaking the 1981 air traffic controllers strike and stacking the National Labor Relations Board with anti-union judges who helped decimate union organizing and membership, Reagan had cut nearly one-fourth of Labor Department staff and hacked its budget by about 20 percent. But for many on the right, this radical rollback wasn’t enough: Heritage recommended repealing the minimum wage, resisting employer-based health insurance and child care and gutting job training programs, among other priorities.

Fast forward to 2017: After decades of dwindling union membership and worker power, and regulatory diminishment under both parties’ administrations, President Donald Trump and congressional Republicans are pushing a radical Heritage-style agenda that could deliver immediate and long-term harm to workers and unions across the United States — including millions of those who helped elect Trump.

The blue-collar and middle-class workers who backed Trump in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio and elsewhere are in for a shock. Trump’s first labor secretary pick, fast-food mogul Andrew Puzder, strenuously opposed worker overtime pay and employee break time, and his restaurant chains, including Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr., have repeatedly violated minimum wage, civil rights and other laws.

President Trump and the Paul Ryan-led Congress could soon unravel an array of worker safety and wage protections, gut labor regulations and enforcement and undermine workers’ ability to organize, according to high-ranking former Obama Administration officials and others.

President Trump and the Paul Ryan-led Congress could soon unravel an array of worker safety and wage protections, gut labor regulations and enforcement, and undermine workers’ ability to organize, according to high-ranking former Obama Administration officials and others.

This inventory of harm — courtesy of a Heritage Foundation “Blueprint for a New Administration” and other right-wing think tank plans — is expansive. It includes national and state “right-to-work” measures to debilitate unions; fewer protections from toxic chemicals and other workplace hazards; less enforcement of minimum wage and wage theft laws; repeal of new overtime rules covering millions of middle-class workers; and weakened protections for whistleblowers who report workplace hazards and abuses.

According to David Weil, who served as administrator for the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division from 2014 to January 2017, Obama-era progress on overtime pay, wage theft, homecare workers’ wages, paid sick leave and other initiatives could quickly be scrapped — inflicting immediate harm on millions of low- and middle-income workers, many of them Trump voters.

“He seems to be, in his nominations and his pronouncements, talking about policies that will absolutely hurt those very same people,” Weil says in an interview.

In his view, the Obama administration helped workers whom the economy had left behind by broadening the overtime rule and its “small steps” toward paid sick leave and a sensible minimum wage policy. “You step away from that and in my view, you are stepping away from the people you are professing to help,” he says.

Erasing these gains would be “relatively easy and maybe make some members of his political community happy,” Weil says. “But I don’t see a lot of [benefit to] those voters in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania who turned out and might have supported his campaign.”

The Heritage Foundation, a standard go-to think tank for Republican administrations, has unrivaled influence on the Trump policy agenda, supplying many of its leaders to the transition team, and its 86-page “Blueprint” recommending aggressive policy overhaul. The Heritage agenda includes:

  • Repealing the Davis-Bacon Act, which requires federal contractors to pay prevailing wages to their workers, such as those building bridges and roads.
  • Moving the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) from a penalty-based enforcement emphasis to more “voluntary compliance” by companies.
  • “Protect the self-employed” by ending Obama’s initiative to protect millions of workers, such as Uber drivers, domestic workers and others commonly misclassified as “independent contractors” to evade employer responsibilities.
  • “Rein in the NLRB” by ending National Labor Relations Board’s efforts to speed up union elections. Obama’s NLRB, the group grouses, “cut the time frame for union elections in half.”
  • “Restrict government unions” by eliminating collective bargaining rights for public-sector unions, which, Heritage claims, “organize against voters and taxpayers.”

At the top of the Republican hit list are public sector workers — the most unionized portion of the workforce. Even before Trump took office, Republicans revived the Holman Rule, an 1876 measure enabling the government to summarily (and selectively) cut individual federal workers’ pay to $1. As The Washington Post reported, “Opponents and supporters agree that the work of 2.1 million civil servants, designed to be insulated from politics, is now vulnerable to the whims of elected officials.”

Meanwhile, the Promote Accountability and Government Efficiency Act, introduced by Republican Rep. Todd Rokita of Indiana, would make federal employees “at will,” meaning they can be fired for any reason with limited legal recourse. This would turn the civil service into a “favoritism system,” says Jacqueline Simon, public policy director for the American Federation of Government Employees, the nation’s largest public-sector union, representing nearly 700,000 workers. Rokita’s bill would eliminate the grievance process and paid union representation on the job for federal workers, Simon says.

“We should watch carefully if they try to take away collective bargaining rights for federal workers,” Simon warns. “If there’s nobody to hold political appointees to account, there is unchecked authority in the executive branch.” A functioning and politically independent civil service, she adds, is one of the “central pillars of democracy.”

Another Heritage proposal circulating among Republicans recommends gutting the federal retirement system, according to Simon. “They want to get rid of defined benefits and require federal employees to pay an additional 5.5 percent of their salaries into their pensions,” she says. “They’re joining the race to the bottom, turning the federal government into Walmart.”

Bill Fletcher Jr., former president of the TransAfrica Forum and a longtime labor leader, expects a full-scale assault on what’s left of unions in America. “The objective of Ryan and Trump is the annihilation of organized labor,” he says. “I call it the final offensive. They don’t want to just eliminate unions, they want to eliminate workers’ right to organize.”

Beyond direct labor policies, the Republican agenda to scrap Obamacare, erase immigrant rights and slash safety net programs would profoundly undermine workers’ lives.

“Their tax cuts could undermine any safety net that’s left,” says Maurice Emsellem, program director of the National Employment Law Project. Given the array of changes coming, “at the federal level it’s a tectonic shift.”

Trump’s agenda, argues the nonpartisan Economic Policy Institute, “includes policies that would do nothing to reverse near-stagnant wage growth and rising inequality. Tax cuts for the rich and corporations, deregulation of finance and worker protections and assaults on unions would all clearly undercut working Americans’ economic clout, not increase it.”

The Republican siege on immigrants, sanctuary city protections and public education will harm workers, explains Alysabeth Alexander, political action chair for Service Employees International Union Local 1021, which represents 54,000 San Francisco Bay Area workers. Austerity and privatization measures would undermine public sector unions, and Trump’s likely push for education privatization will undercut teachers’ unions, she says.

“Certainly, what we found in the Bush years was immigration raids used to intimidate workers during union organizing,” Alexander says. Obama deported nearly three million immigrants during his tenure, yet prohibited raids during union drives, something likely to be erased by the Trump administration.

The GOP agenda will only worsen wage and income concerns expressed by both Republican and Democratic voters, notes Economic Policy Institute President Lawrence Mishel. “Something that was agreed upon across the political spectrum is that wages have been stagnant for ordinary workers. So we have a litmus test: What is this administration going to do to improve growth of wages for regular workers?”

Trump’s appointees to the Federal Reserve Board, Mishel worries, “may raise interest rates, which would slow the recovery and prevent us from getting unemployment down further.” Higher unemployment erodes workers’ bargaining power for better wages and working conditions.

While Obamacare repeal grabs the headlines, lesser known regulations and enforcement initiatives that impact millions of workers will likely be unraveled or undermined, former top Obama administration officials say.

“I worry about many of the initiatives that the Department of Labor worked on because we endeavored to make life better for workers,” says Patricia Shiu, who served as director of the Department of Labor’s Federal Contract Compliance programs division from 2009 until just weeks before the election.

That progress now at risk, Shiu says, includes initiatives to expand Family and Medical Leave Act protections for same-sex couples, efforts to strengthen enforcement of equal pay laws, the new overtime rule (still being battled in the courts), sex discrimination protections for pregnant women and Obama’s extension of Title VII civil rights protections to LGBT people.

Programs at risk include Family and Medical Leave Act protections for same-sex couples, efforts to strengthen enforcement of equal pay laws, the new overtime rule, sex discrimination protections for pregnant women and civil rights protections to LGBT people.

Debbie Berkowitz, who served as senior policy adviser and chief of staff at OSHA from 2009 to 2015, believes workers may soon feel the harm of Republican policies, as employers “cut corners” on workplace safety. “The effect is immediate for workers — especially for vulnerable workers in the most dangerous and low-wage jobs who may not be getting safety trainings,” says Berkowitz, now a senior fellow at the National Employment Law Project.

From repealing rules to cutting staff and freezing enforcement initiatives, Trump can speedily diminish OSHA’s already-shrunken presence in workplaces, Berkowitz explains. As it is, OSHA has fewer inspectors than in 1992, and it would now take the agency 145 years to inspect every workplace in America. If OSHA reduces its inspection presence and cuts violation penalties, as expected, worker injuries and fatalities grow more likely, Berkowitz says.

“There will be a push to get the agency out of enforcing the law and more toward issuing information sheets,” she predicts.

Since it can take many months to repeal a regulation, the labor rollback may come first via fiscal policy: “Congress will attach riders to the budgets of different agencies that can defund enforcement,” Berkowitz says. “You’ll have budget cuts which will mean less enforcement . . . Congress may do terrible things first.”

In an interview with The Progressive, Obama’s top OSHA administrator, assistant secretary David Michaels, would not speculate about Trump’s agenda, but touted Obama initiatives to protect worker health and safety. “We certainly focused on more vulnerable workers, immigrant workers, temporary workers,” and millions who work under multiple employers, whose protections are tenuous at best.

Seemingly obscure initiatives such as extending OSHA coverage for temporary workers have a huge impact, Michaels says. “What it means is when we go into a workplace, we ask the employer, are there any temporary workers? Are they exposed to hazardous conditions or any violations of our standards?” By treating host employers and temp agencies as “joint employers,” OSHA can “issue citations against both of them,” says Michaels.

This progress, along with Obama’s extension of overtime rules that could benefit up to 13 million workers, is likely to be erased by the Trump administration. Trump’s initial pick, Puzder, vigorously opposed overtime pay and joint employer responsibility rules that would apply to franchises of major corporate chains such as his. A Texas judge has stalled the overtime rule with an injunction, and Trump’s Labor Department could simply drop the government’s appeal, says Weil.

“Keep your eye on it, because that’s 13 million middle-class workers who deserve overtime, who do not always receive overtime and they will benefit from these protections if the rule is upheld,” Weil says. “A lot of them are women, and a large percentage are college-educated workers who at one time would have had unequivocally middle-class jobs, who now can be working for $30,000 a year, 60 to 70 hours a week and are not receiving overtime. To be blunt, it is absolutely absurd.”

What can labor and the left do to resist the onslaught on workers? Following an election in which a whopping 43 percent of union households defied union endorsements and voted for Trump, labor unity is seriously frayed. Still, labor and others have fought Puzder’s nomination, protesting in front of the Labor Department and Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. outlets.

“I’ve heard a number of labor leaders say they will work with [Trump] on trade issues,” says Fletcher. “Those in organized labor who suggest there are grounds for working with Trump totally and completely misunderstand the situation.” The relatively strong union worker vote for Trump, says Fletcher, signals that “the union movement has failed to conduct anti-racist education and practice, it has failed to take seriously right-wing populism, and it has failed to develop a more comprehensive critique of neoliberal capitalism.”

“Those in organized labor who suggest there are grounds for working with Trump totally and completely misunderstand the situation.”

Many in labor stress the need for more politically engaged labor activism, working with movements for social, racial and economic justice. “The labor movement has to begin listening,” says Sal Rosselli, president of the National Union of Healthcare Workers. The union is holding “listening meetings” with members around the state, and is supporting single-payer healthcare in California and immigrant sanctuary in healthcare facilities.

Labor unions must “do a better job of turning members into activists,” adds Simon of the American Federation of Government Employees. “If you join the gym but never go, you don’t get anything out of it.”

Alexander, recently elected as a delegate to the California Democratic Party, says labor must reassert its voice and identity at a time of attacks and waning influence. “Unions are places where workers can join together and have each other’s back,” she says. “We need to say we are standing up for our future, a 40-hour work week, health care, affordable higher education and a good retirement. These are things most people everywhere want, and labor has to build that vision.”

Christopher D. Cook

Christopher D. Cook is a contributing writer for The Progressive and an award-winning journalist whose writing has appeared in Harper’s, The Atlantic, The Nation, the Los Angeles Times and elsewhere. He was an elected Bernie delegate for San Francisco’s 12th Congressional District. He is the author of Diet for a Dead Planet: Big Business and the Coming Food Crisis. See his work at christopherdcook.com and on Twitter: @chrsdcook.

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