On October 18, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee advanced a number of Trump labor picks to the full Senate, where they will likely be confirmed by the GOP-controlled body.
While Trump’s labor efforts have received little attention from the mainstream media, the administration has effectively begun to chip away at the few protections which still exist for workers and increase the already expansive power of business. Earlier this year, Trump killed an Obama-era rule that would have given millions of people a raise. The action came just a couple months after the administration moved to tilt the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) back to a Republican majority via the selection of two union-busting nominees. The labor nominees currently making their way through the Senate fit the same pattern, portending an even harsher climate for workers in the years to come.
Patrick Pizzella, a member of Federal Labor Relations Authority, is Trump’s pick for deputy secretary of labor, the second-ranking official in the Labor Department. Pizzella’s confirmation hearing was bundled into the proceedings for the two aforementioned NLRB picks. The Senate had only been in session for 10 days when Pizzella was selected and, despite calls from almost 50 labor organizations to postpone the hearings until members could further research the selections, Senate HELP Chairman Lamar Alexander declined.
The fast-tracked process allowed Pizzella to avoid any rigorous grilling, although he did have to field some critical questions from Sen. Al Franken, who asked Pizzella about his time working for disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Pizzella was part of Abramoff’s team at Preston Gates & Ellis LLP from 1996 to 2001, where he helped fight against basic workplace protections being established in the Northern Mariana Islands. “In fact, the Mariana Islands were your firm’s largest lobbying client [and] obviously that is a concerning history for someone that will now be charged with enforcing worker protection laws,” Franken told Pizzella.
Since the North Mariana Islands are a US commonwealth, the government was able to produce goods with “Made in the USA” labels while escaping US minimum wage laws. The country paid Abramoff’s firm over $6 million to prevent Congress from imposing such laws on the islands. According to Senate testimony, 91 percent of the workers were immigrants from China, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, who were being paid about half of the US minimum wage to work 12-hour days, seven days a week. They were also forced to live behind barbed wire, in shacks that lacked proper plumbing. In 2006, anti-sweatshop activist Wendy Doromal described the situation to NPR:
The barbed wire around the factories face[s] inward so that the [workers] couldn’t get out. They had quotas that were impossible for these people to reach and if they didn’t reach them, they’d have to stay until they finished the quota and they wouldn’t be paid for that work. They were hot, the barracks were horrible. A lot of the females were told you work during the day in the garment factory and then at night you can go and work in a club and they’d force them into prostitution at night … if some female got pregnant, they either had to go back to China to give birth or have a forced abortion.
During the July hearing, Pizzella told Franken that he was unaware of the abuses, and pointed out that he was not one of the many Abramoff colleagues who ended up being convicted. Franken’s concerns were not allayed. “If Mr. Pizzella had acknowledged that he was wrong on this issue many years ago, his nomination would be a little less troubling to me,” Franken said after Pizzella was advanced. “But in my private meeting and in his nomination hearing, he was dismissive about these abuses.”
Cheryl Stanton is Trump’s pick for the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division administrator. A former Bush administration lawyer and current head of South Carolina’s Department of Employment and Workforce, Stanton would enforce federal wage and overtime laws in her new role.
Last year, Stanton was sued by a company for failing to pay her house cleaners. In the lawsuit, Laurie Titus of Sunflower Cleaning Group says Stanton refused to pay her for four separate visits, each of which cost $90. “I have emailed, mailed, and certified mailed trying to get payment,” the lawsuit said. Stanton paid the balance after the lawsuit was filed, according to Titus.
In April 2016, Bill Beckham, a former director of organizational integrity at Stanton’s South Carolina agency, resigned from his position after claiming that she had instructed him to take action against an employee who didn’t deserve it. “In all my years as a manager, I’ve never been spoken to by a supervisor in such a confrontational and abrasive manner as you have done in our last two meetings,” Beckham wrote in his resignation letter. “I respect your authority, but I can’t in good conscience comply with an order I consider to be morally and ethically wrong. It’s apparent that my concerns mean nothing and any issues I’ve raised have been summarily dismissed.”
David Zatezalo is Trump’s pick to be assistant secretary of labor overseeing the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). Zatezalo is a former coal executive whose company, Rhino Resources, was cited for multiple safety violations. While he was executive, Rhino was issued two “pattern of violation” letters from MSHA. MSHA also sought a federal court injunction against the company in 2011 after it was discovered that workers at a Kentucky mine were being tipped off to inspections and, during that same year, the company paid out $44,500 in fines after a foreman was killed at a mine in Virginia. If confirmed, Zatezalo would not only oversee MSHA, he’d also be in charge of regulating the actions of the coal operators he used to work with.
Although Zatezalo says he doesn’t believe there will be any conflict of interest at his new position, he told the Wheeling Intelligencer that coal executives helped him secure the nomination. “There aren’t a lot of people in the industry I don’t know, and people said, ‘You’d be great for that position. I’m going to call Sen. [Mitch] McConnell and tell him he needs to support you for this,'” Zatezalo told the paper. “I am pretty excited because I think for the first time we have a president who is more in tune with working America rather than being lofty and esoteric in what he wants to do. I feel good about that and I feel there’s some things I can do.”
Zatezalo would be taking over at MSHA at a time when black lung disease cases are rising in Appalachia. A 2016 NPR report found that the disease is occurring 10 times more often than federal regulators report. MSHA could potentially increase the regulations surrounding silica dust, which comes from cut rock and can cause lung disease.
Peter Robb is Trump’s pick to be general counsel at the NLRB. Robb, a longtime management-side labor lawyer, would decide which unfair labor practice cases should reach the board for decision. Robb’s connection to anti-worker policies is undoubtedly the most striking of the nominees, as he’s directly linked to the most infamous moment in recent labor history.
In 1981, Robb helped Ronald Reagan bust the Air Traffic Controllers Union. Robb was the attorney who filed unfair labor practice charges against the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) on behalf of the Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA) after a court ruled that the strike was not legal. PATCO was decertified, over 11,300 workers were fired, and Reagan banned most of the striking workers from federal employment forever. Not only was PATCO crushed, organized labor was dealt a blow that it has never entirely recovered from.
“Workers in the private sector had used the strike as a tool of leverage in labor-management conflicts between World War II and 1981, repeatedly withholding their work to win fairer treatment from recalcitrant employers,” historian Joseph A. McCartin wrote in 2011. “But after PATCO, that weapon was largely lost. Reagan’s unprecedented dismissal of skilled strikers encouraged private employers to do likewise…. By 2010, the number of workers participating in walkouts was less than 2 percent of what it had been when Reagan led the actors’ strike in 1952.”
Donald Trump ran a presidential campaign that highlighted the concerns of “forgotten” American workers and promised to “drain the swamp,” but his labor selections double down on GOP economic orthodoxy. It remains to be seen what kind of resistance his Labor Department picks will face, but with Republicans controlling the Senate, it seems probable that the labor movement will soon have committed enemies in high places.
“If President Trump were serious about improving the lives of working men and women, he would advance nominees to key positions with experience advocating for working people,” the Economic Policy Institute’s labor counsel Celine McNicholas told Truthout. “Instead, time after time, he has selected nominees whose track records demonstrate dedication to representing employers accused of stealing workers’ wages, retaliating against workers trying to organize their workplace, and endangering workers’ safety. With these nominations, Trump is undercutting workers and a fair economy.”