Editor’s Note from Bill Moyers:
If you didn’t see many workers marching to celebrate over the Labor Day weekend, there’s a reason for it. Actually, a lot of reasons for it — many of them summed up in this Nation magazine article by Helaine Olen, author of the revealing book Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry. The title of her story sums up her diagnosis: “The Rollback of Pro-Worker Policies Since Trump Took Office Is Staggering.” Our old friend and regular contributor, historian Bernard Weisberger, read the article and responded:
We are headed back to the worst anti-labor era of our history, and the engineers of the regression are very good (so far) at stifling the few voices of protest like those that gave birth to progressivism. Where is our 2017 Henry George [crusading political economist and journalist of the 19th century who sparked several reform movements]? Frank Lester Ward [botanist, paleontologist and sociologist, also of the 19th century, who championed universal public schools to educate Americans for self-government]?
I know there are people who think like them but the cards are even more heavily stacked against their being heard. The great mass of people — educated ones included — don’t read serious books, they don’t know their history, they don’t know how their government works or even how big a part they can play in taking it back if they’ll bother to get engaged, instead of just waiting for Godot. They are so fearful of losing even the little security they have left that they don’t bother to press for unionization and walk picket lines or take nonviolent direct action like, say, the Montgomery bus boycott. Of course, I am generalizing widely but I keep looking for any similarities to the incipient political revolutions of the 1880s and 1890s and can’t find them.
The Rollback of Pro-Worker Policies Since Trump Took Office Is Staggering
by Helaine Olen
This post originally appeared in The Nation.
A few months ago, President Donald Trump devoted his weekly address to the beleaguered American employee. “For too long, American workers were forgotten by their government — and I mean totally forgotten,” he said. “My administration has offered a new vision. The well-being of the American citizen and worker will be placed second to none.”
No doubt he’ll come up with more pro-worker blather for Labor Day. Don’t listen. The only way Trump is helping the average employee is if you consider The Simpsons’ Mr. Burns a working stiff.
The rollback of labor rights and protections since Trump took office is staggering. It puts worker safety at risk and guarantees that many workers will earn less, but that’s not all. Measures to help victims of discrimination receive redress are on the scrap heap. Unions are running scared. “It’s a death by a thousand cuts,” explains Heidi Shierholz, a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute.
Last week, as most of us in the United States were riveted by Hurricane Harvey’s descent on Texas, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration removed from its internet home page a list of workers who died as a result of workplace injuries, burying it deep within the website. At the same time, it changed how the list is compiled; it will now only include instances where the company was cited for safety violations leading to a worker’s death. Details such as the name of the deceased worker are also no longer considered worthy of inclusion. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution worked out that of the at least 32 Georgia workers it determined died as a result of work-related injuries since October 1 of last year, only two even get a mention on the new list.
Then on Tuesday, the day Trump visited hurricane-stricken Texas, the White House announced it had put a stop to a 2016 Obama-administration ruling requiring companies with 100 or more employees to report pay by gender, race and ethnic background to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Advocates had hoped it would help combat the United States’ stubborn pay gap. But Ivanka Trump, a self-described advocate for women’s rights, was not disappointed. “The proposed policy would not yield the intended results,” she sniffed in a statement accompanying the White House decision. “We look forward to continuing to work with EEOC, OMB, Congress and all relevant stakeholders on robust policies aimed at eliminating the gender wage gap.
Those “robust policies” won’t include the Obama-era Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces order. That’s gone too. That 2014 executive order required prospective federal contractors to disclose workplace safety and discrimination violations. It also mandated pay transparency and forbade mandatory workplace arbitration in cases of discrimination and harassment at the covered businesses. Supporters proclaimed it a major advance in civil-rights regulation. Management-side law firms and business interests were less than impressed. Legal powerhouse Littler Mendelson, which says on its website that it’s the largest “global” employment and labor-law practice, claimed it “dramatically increases risks for government contractors.” Well, that wouldn’t do. “The rule simply made it too easy for trial lawyers to go after American companies and American workers who contract with the federal government,” then–press secretary Sean Spicer explained when asked. Maybe Ivanka Trump wasn’t available to offer cover that day.
Then there is worker pay. Last year, the Obama administration announced a major revamp of the nation’s overtime rules. Proponents expected the change to boost the pay of 4.2 million workers and ultimately add about $12 billion to American paychecks over the next decade. Opponents — including 21 state governments and the US Chamber of Commerce — took to the courts, and, almost week before it was set to take effect, a Texas judge issued a temporary stay.
It’s hard to blame Trump for that, but easy enough for everything that’s happened since. His appointees are now working to make the world safe for employers who would like to get 50 hours of work for 40 hours of pay. Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta recently started the regulatory process on the overtime rule all over again, seeking comment on, among other issues, whether the standard should vary by the size of the employer or the geographic region of the United States it’s located in.
— Helaine Olen
Nor does Trump, who campaigned on a promise to never cut Social Security, seem particularly concerned about the finances of Americans after they age out of the workforce. The Trump administration rolled back an Obama administration regulation that gave states the express permission to set up retirement savings accounts for the millions of American workers who lack such an option at work. The Trump administration is also doing its best to put roadblocks in front of the new, beefed-up standards for giving individual retirement savings advice, the so-called fiduciary standard. This past week, the Department of Labor published a proposal seeking to delay implementation of parts of the law still not in effect for another 18 months.
Why, you may ask, would anyone want to make the prospects for Americans in retirement, already dim, worse? Well, there are billions of reasons — as in the $17 billion annually the Obama administration estimated bad retirement advice — advice that was not required to take savers’ best interests into account — was costing us. That reform was so reviled by many in the financial services industry that Gary Cohn, Trump’s director of the National Economic Council, ranted to The Wall Street Journal that the rule to force financial advisers to put their clients’ interests ahead of their own is like forcing restauranteurs to only offer nutritious offerings. “This is like putting only healthy food on the menu, because unhealthy food tastes good but you still shouldn’t eat it because you might die younger,” he said.
In fact, when it comes to fair pay, nothing seems too small for Trump administration notice. When you dine out and leave a tip at the end of the meal, do you think the money goes to your server? The answer to that question is yes, thanks to a 2011 Obama-era regulation banning restaurants from pooling staff tips and distributing them to behind-the-scenes employees. Unfortunately, the hospitality industry wasn’t a fan. Last month, the Department of Labor began the regulatory process to reverse part of the rule, and will likely allow the practice to resume for workers earning at least the minimum wage.
The same goes for workplace safety. OSHA is reworking a last-minute Obama administration regulation meant to protect workers in construction and shipping from exposure to toxic beryllium, a cause of lung disease. The new idea: Keep the new standard in place, but eliminate the parts of the rule that require such things as exposure assessment. Then there is the Chemical Safety Board, a little-known governmental outfit that, as George Zornick reported for The Nation earlier this year, investigates chemical accidents such as the death of four workers at a Texas DuPont facility after they were poisoned by the accidental release of a compound used to manufacture insecticides. Trump’s proposed 2018 budget would eliminate it.
And let’s take a moment to discuss the National Labor Relations Board. William Emanuel and Marvin Kaplan, the two men Trump nominated to fill the NLRB’s empty seats, come with a long record of supporting management over workers. (Emanuel, in fact, is a lawyer and shareholder at Littler Mendelson, the firm that sounded an alarm over the possibility employers with federal contracts could no longer force employees into arbitration over sexual harassment and discrimination claims.) That, in turn, jeopardizes a long list of decisions made in the past, including ones that permitted graduate students at private universities to form and join unions, and made it easier for small groups of employees within a larger workforce to unionize. Then there is the 2015 Browning-Ferris ruling that increases the likelihood a corporate entity could be declared a joint employer with a franchise. Overturning that would be a major kick in the gut for the Fight for $15 movement.
And it’s not like things were so great before Trump took office. The United States government never required employers to offer employees paid sick or maternity leave. As for paid vacation? Donald Trump could head off to his New Jersey golf course for more than two weeks away from Washington, but our nation is the only first world economy that doesn’t require employers to offer any compensated time off for rest and relaxation at all. Not even one measly hour. If Donald Trump had anything to say about, I missed it.