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The Trump offensive: Cabinet picks signal major employer offensive against Labor

Analysis by Dave Schneider |
December 28, 2016
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Wisconsin workers protest right-to-work legislation.
Wisconsin workers protest right-to-work legislation. (Fight Back! News / Staff)

Jacksonville, FL - On Dec. 8, President-elect Donald Trump announced fast food executive Andy Puzder as his pick for Secretary of Labor. Puzder is the CEO of CKE Restaurants, which owns Hardee's, Carl’s Jr. and several other national chains.

If confirmed by the Senate, Puzder will head up the Department of Labor, which sets wage and hour standards, controls unemployment insurance and enforces U.S. labor law.

During his presidential campaign, Trump criticized free trade agreements like NAFTA and the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership and portrayed himself as an anti-establishment candidate. This populist message resonated with a section of white workers in Midwestern states hit hard by free trade agreements, like Michigan and Ohio.

Far from standing up to big business, however, Trump stands ready to lead an onslaught of attacks on the working class on behalf of corporate America. During the interim period before his inauguration on Jan. 20, 2017, Trump has made peace with the same banks and monopoly capitalists he sometimes criticized during the campaign. The cabinet assembled by Trump includes more billionaires than any previous administration. Instead of ruling through loyal politicians and bureaucratic puppets, the 1% directly holds power in Trump's administration, with certain corporations and banks (Exxon Mobil, Goldman Sachs) explicitly getting seats at the table.

Trump's cabinet picks signal the beginning of a massive government-led employer offensive against labor unions, collective bargaining and workers' rights. With labor at its weakest point in decades, employers hope to deal a mortal blow to the remaining unions and roll back the protections and gains made by working people. The next four years promise an open class war between employers and workers - a war that today's unions are incredibly ill-equipped to fight. To defeat the Trump offensive, labor must embrace the weapons they fought and won with in the past - and do so quickly.

Opening shots: The Carrier scam and trade policy

Trump announced Puzder as his pick for Labor Secretary just days after posting a string of nasty anti-union attacks on Twitter. Leaders of United Steelworkers (USW) 1999, which represents Carrier manufacturing workers in Indiana, came under fire from Trump after a heavily publicized deal struck between the president-elect and Carrier management earlier in the month.

Trump met with Carrier over plans to outsource its profitable Indiana manufacturing operations to Mexico, seeking lower labor costs and higher profit. In exchange for a series of corporate tax cuts totaling at least $6 million, Carrier supposedly agreed to keep some of their plants in the U.S. According to Trump, the deal saved 1100 U.S. jobs slated for relocation.

Details later emerged revealing that Trump's deal only keeps about 800 jobs in the U.S., leaving 600 Carrier workers unemployed. Chuck Jones, president of USW 1999, slammed Trump for leaving the union out of negotiations and exaggerating the number of jobs saved by the deal.

Trump responded on Twitter with a whiny anti-union rant directed at both Jones and USW 1999. Blaming the union for outsourcing, the president-elect wrote, "If United Steelworkers 1999 was any good, they [Carrier] would have kept those jobs in Indiana." Trump singled out Jones, who he claimed had "done a terrible job representing workers."

By themselves, these tweets seem petty and childish. In actuality, they mark a dramatic shift in the president-elect's public approach towards organized labor. Trump criticized union leaders for backing his opponent, Hillary Clinton, on the campaign trail, but he stayed away from the outright anti-union rhetoric used by other Republican candidates, like Scott Walker and Marco Rubio. His goal was obvious: break off a large percentage of union voters from Clinton. With the election over, Trump dropped all pretenses. He attacked USW 1999 by name and blamed the union for the loss of U.S. manufacturing jobs.

Trump campaigned heavily against corporate outsourcing and he repeatedly vowed to bring manufacturing jobs back to the U.S. But cabinet picks like billionaire and free trade advocate Wilbur Ross for Commerce Secretary suggest Trump has no intention of "ripping up" trade agreements like NAFTA. It seems more likely that Trump will scapegoat unions, higher wages, and work rules for supposedly making domestic manufacturing too expensive for corporations.

Weaponizing the Department of Labor

Thus far, Trump's proposed cabinet secretaries hold views sharply at odds with the stated purpose of their departments and agencies. Texas Governor Rick Perry, an oil industry puppet and Trump's pick for Energy Secretary, called for abolishing the Department of Energy in 2012. Similarly, climate-change denier Scott Pruitt received Trump's nomination to head up the Environmental Protection Agency. For the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Trump tapped Ben Carson, an outspoken opponent of public housing for poor and working people and a person with zero government experience.

Trump's pick for Secretary of Labor follows this trend. As the top executive of a major fast food corporation and an outspoken opponent of unions, Puzder has frequently come into conflict with the Department of Labor he now seeks to run.

Workplace safety ranked low on Puzder's list of priorities as CEO of CKE Restaurants. During Puzder's tenure, the Department of Labor issued 98 OSHA safety violations, including 36 that posed fatal or serious bodily harm to workers, to CKE Restaurants and its subsidiaries. Employers have long sought to roll back OSHA, which allows workers to anonymously report hazards to the Department of Labor and carries steep fines for violations. With Puzder able to control OSHA investigations and enforcement, companies stand to make larger profits at the expense of the health and safety of workers.

Wage theft runs rampant throughout the fast food industry, and CKE Restaurants under Puzder was no exception. The Labor Department conducted numerous investigations into wage theft complaints by workers at CKE Restaurants, most of which resulted in fines, settlements and damages awarded to workers. A particularly disturbing 2007 investigation found that Hardee's Food Systems Inc., a part of CKE Restaurants, had illegally withheld overtime from over 450 workers and was forced to pay $58,000.

Employers will face no such consequences from Trump's Secretary of Labor. Wage theft investigations will become few and far between as Puzder scales down the size of the Labor Department, which already suffers from a shortage of staff. Puzder also pledged to repeal overtime protections for workers, which were expanded under President Obama, paving the way for greater exploitation and higher profits.

Trump declares war on the Fight for $15

In the last four years, fast food workers, like those employed by CKE Restaurants, have waged a countrywide struggle for a $15 per hour minimum wage and union representation. Using a combination of protests and one-day strikes, the Fight for $15 campaign has won victories in cities like Seattle, Los Angeles and New York City, where local governments have agreed to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour for some workers. Their efforts, supported heavily by SEIU, have mainly targeted the fast food industry, where corporations like CKE Restaurants rake in obscene profits by exploiting a non-union, low-wage workforce.

By picking a fast food CEO to head the Department of Labor, Trump has declared war on the Fight for $15 movement. Puzder vocally opposes raising the federal minimum wage, currently at $7.25 per hour, which puts him in line with Trump's own position that "wages are too high" for workers in the U.S.

National right-to-work: Trump's anti-union kill shot

National right-to-work legislation sits at the core of this new employer offensive against unions.

Right-to-work laws force unions to represent workers who refuse to join and pay dues. This gives workers a disincentive to join, since they receive all the benefits of union membership whether they pay dues or not. The effect is a net drain on union resources, which go towards representing non-members, and a weakened position at the bargaining table with employers.

Right-to-work laws came about in 1948, when an anti-labor coalition of Democrats and Republicans passed the Taft-Hartley Act on behalf of employers. This devastating piece of legislation outlawed solidarity strikes, restricted union activity and allowed states to pass so-called 'right to work' laws. Since that time, 26 states have enacted right-to-work legislation. The Bureau of Labor statistics estimates that workers in these states make about $6000 per year less than workers in states where all workers in union workplaces pay dues.

After the 2010 election brought a wave of Tea Party governors to power, employers successfully passed right-to-work laws in union strongholds like Michigan, Indiana and Wisconsin. Since then, however, unions defeated similar efforts in Missouri, West Virginia and most recently Virginia. Attempts to push right-to-work in the three strongest union states - California, New York and Illinois - have go nowhere.

With union density at its lowest point since the Great Depression, employers hope to break organized labor with national right-to-work legislation. Republican Congressman Steve King of Iowa and Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky introduced the National Right to Work Act to both houses of Congress in 2015, but it stalled in the face of a guaranteed veto by President Obama. Trump, an outspoken supporter of right-to-work, along with a Republican-controlled Congress, gives employers an opportunity to turn their twisted dream into reality.

Support for national right-to-work legislation - along with other anti-union laws, like the Employee Reform Act - in Trump's proposed cabinet goes beyond Puzder. Billionaire Betsy DeVos, tapped by Trump for Secretary of Education, was the main financial backer of Michigan's 2012 right-to-work law. DeVos is the daughter-in-law of Richard DeVos, the founder of Amway, who made his fortune by ripping off poor and working people with ‘multi-level marketing’ pyramid schemes.

DeVos pushed right-to-work in Michigan under the Trojan horse of ‘education reform,’ aimed at weakening teachers’ unions and converting public schools into private charter schools. As Education Secretary, DeVos can leverage national education policy against both the teachers’ unions and organized labor as a whole.

Labor must fight back

The danger posed by Trump brings to mind another U.S. president who presided over a massive employer offensive against Labor: Ronald Reagan. Reagan came to power in 1980 with the full backing of banks, billionaires and corporations. After the economic crisis and stagnation of the 1970s, employers desperately wanted to boost profits, and they saw organized labor as their main obstacle. Reagan set to work immediately by breaking the 1981 Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) strike. In doing so, he signaled to employers that the federal government would support their campaign to roll back wages and benefits.

Unfortunately, labor finds itself in an even weaker position today than it did under Reagan. In 2015, union membership reached its lowest point since World War II, sitting at 11.1% (14.7 million). The private sector experienced an even worse drop in union membership, going from 16.5% in 1983 to 6.7% in 2015.

But the crisis facing labor goes beyond membership numbers. Most of today's union leaders have abandoned the strike weapon as a tactic for struggle. Only 12 work stoppages involving a total of 47,000 workers took place in 2015 in the U.S. Even in 1981, the same year Reagan busted the PATCO strike, 145 work stoppages involving 729,000 workers took place around the country.

Instead of struggling against employers and contending for working class power on the shop floor, union leaders have favored an approach of collaboration with management. Since this strategy seldom produces better contracts, these same leaders put the union's money, time, resources, energy and reputation into electing politicians, mostly from the Democratic Party, in hopes of passing pro-worker legislation. Put simply, this strategy came crashing down in 2016.

The Trump offensive has the potential to devastate unions and the entire working class if the labor movement continues down the same failed path. Employers hope to break organized labor once and for all under a Trump presidency, and this radical anti-union cabinet of one-percenters intends to lead this effort. It's well-past time for the U.S. labor movement to reclaim its historical legacy of militant, production-halting strikes and resistance.

Dave Schneider is a 26-year-old Teamster shop steward and community organizer from Jacksonville, Florida.