Odds are that you haven’t heard the name Patrick Pizzella before, but you probably should get to know it. Pizzella is President Donald Trump’s nominee for deputy labor secretary, which would make him the second most important man in the Department of Labor.
That’s an awfully powerful position for a man who formerly lobbied to maintain sweatshop labor on US territories. Mother Jones did a deep dive into Pizzella’s past, and what the publication found is hardly befitting of a man tasked with looking out for workers’ rights.
In the late ’90s, Pizzella worked for Jack Abramoff. Odds are that you have heard Abramoff’s name, because he subsequently and famously went to prison for four years for corruption and bribery; 21 of Abramoff’s associates were also convicted on similar charges.
Pizzella’s job under Abramoff was to lobby American politicians to keep standard labor laws away from the North Mariana Islands. When this island cluster bargained to become a commonwealth of the United States back in 1975, it secured itself the right to set its own minimum wage and establish its own immigration policy.
These permissions granted by the US became seriously problematic. Local businesses began inviting foreigners to come to the North Mariana Islands on work visas and paid these desperate people terrible rates. Employees would rack up debt to their bosses and be forced to stay to pay it off in a system that was tantamount to indentured servitude.
On top of that, workers were regularly beaten, and there were even reports of female employees being forced to have abortions so that they could keep working uninterrupted. Some slept in prison-like conditions with a dozen roommates and were forced to sign contracts that they wouldn’t practice religion or try to form a union. Many were stiffed on overtime pay.
The North Mariana Islands made a killing shipping cheaply made clothing to the continental US since, as a territory, it could label their products “Made in the USA.” Over time, however, lawmakers learned of the sweatshop conditions and expressed an interest in intervening.
The island businesses started paying Abramoff over $3 million to “lobby” on behalf of them. It fell on Pizzella to convince members of Congress that their concerns were overblown. He organized lavish vacations for over 100 legislators to show them sanitized versions of the businesses, while explaining that the islands were an example of the free market in action.
Michael Soussan, a lobbyist colleague of Pizzella, wrote a memoir of their time on the islands, describing the job as “help[ing] these factory owners get away with exploitation. Their efforts were sadly successful – Congress did not act to change the minimum wage/immigration laws for the islands until 2007 after Abramoff was no longer lobbying on their behalf. (By that point, he was in jail.)
By any reasonable standard, aiding in worker “exploitation” should preclude Pizzella from overseeing fair labor standards, not put him in line to become the Secretary of Labor’s righthand man.
In the interest of fairness, it should absolutely be pointed out that Pizzella also served for years as an assistant labor secretary for George W. Bush and was subsequently placed as chair of the Federal Labor Relations Authority by Barack Obama. Trump hasn’t just pulled Pizzella into government work from nowhere, he’s tapped someone who has been a part of the past two administrations.
Granted, Trump’s appointment is the most egregious because Pizzella will have his most important, influential job yet, but still, shame on Bush and Obama for similarly overlooking Pizzella’s track record and normalizing that kind of job experience as something that can be considered appropriate for the federal government.
Pizzella knows this part of his résumé is terrible, too. In his confirmation hearing for his role with Bush, he declined to go down “memory lane,” calling his work for the North Mariana Islands as “ancient history.” In fact, he had only stopped his lobbying work just six months prior.
This time around, when Senator Al Franken questioned him about this chapter of his life, Pizzella said he wasn’t aware of any labor abuse and referred to the problems as mere “allegations.”
Gross. America’s labor force deserves someone who is far more committed to their rights and humanity.
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