It’s no secret that the Trump administration is corporation-friendly to a fault. For all the talk of the underserved coal miners and workers whose jobs have been stolen by free trade agreements or China, the Oval Office has not been a friendly — or even safe — place for workers in the past eight months. We’ve already reported on the discontinuation of a number of worker safety programs and regulations but there’s much more to Trump’s undercutting of the fundamental rights of American workers going on.
We talked with Sharon Block, the executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School, about what’s on her radar as the Trump machine moves quickly forward. In Block’s 20-year career, she’s worked for the National Labor Relations Board and most recently served as the head of the policy office at the Department of Labor under President Obama. She and her team were, in fact, responsible for many of the policies being undercut or discarded by the new crew in town.
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According to Block, the regulatory rollback we’ve already seen “has been nothing short of stunning.” From day one in office, Trump has made clear which side he would take. Looking at the big picture, Block says “at every turn where this administration has been presented with a choice between how to help workers or how to bow down to the interests of corporations, they always side with business.” She ran down the highlights — or lowlights — of what’s been happening thus far, in an interview, which has been lighted edited for clarity.
We [The Obama administration] raised the overtime threshold, which was unbelievably out of date. It might be actually one of the few things that everybody seems to agree on or at least they’ll give lip service to: that it’s ridiculous to have an overtime threshold for salaried workers that is so low that you can be paid below the poverty line for a family of four. It essentially means that employers — if you’re salaried — can make you work for free after 40 hours. We raised it to what we thought was a reasonable and responsible level. It was immediately challenged in court, but Secretary Alexander Acosta has now announced that they are essentially abandoning the rule and not waiting for a court ruling. That’s 4.2 million people who were impacted by the overtime rule who now have to sit around and wait and see what, if anything, they’re going to do to fix this problem — which even Republicans have acknowledged is a problem. The recovery was starting to take hold but we still weren’t seeing the kind of wage growth that you would hope. Looking at the longer-term trend toward wage stagnation for middle-class and low-wage workers, the overtime rule was really an important piece of trying to address that problem. It’s not like that problem has gone away; we’re still not seeing that robust wage growth that you would hope to see with an unemployment level as low as it was when President Obama left office. So the fact that they’re walking away from the overtime rule is not because it’s not needed anymore.
Conflict of Interest and Fiduciary Rule
The Conflict of Interest Rule or Fiduciary Rule was an incredibly important step, at least in part, in addressing the retirement crisis we have in this country of not enough people saving enough money for a secure retirement. These problems are not simple to solve, but we thought an important piece of the solution was to ensure that when people did get it together and start saving money, that that money worked for them as opposed to for the advisers.
The fact is that people now don’t have pensions, and so they have to make really sophisticated, difficult decisions for themselves about how to invest their retirement savings. More and more people need to rely on advisers to help them navigate a financial services industry that is incredibly complicated. We thought it wasn’t right to have the additional complication of trying to figure out if the person sitting across the table from you had your best interest in mind or their own best interest. We came up with a great solution that would both give retirement investors the comfort that they knew that the person sitting across the table from them was acting in their best interest and be responsive to what we heard from the financial services industry, that the new rule had to be workable for them. But it didn’t come as a surprise when the Secretary Acosta announced that they are delaying implementation of the rule, the teeth of this rule, until July 2019. Who knows what they’re going to do to weaken the rule between now and then? We do know that retirement savers are going continue to lose money as long as the rule is on hold.
The Trump administration has also announced that it’s going to completely back away from an important part of the fiduciary rule that protected the rights of investors to pursue class actions when they are treated illegally by advisers. This is what’s at issue in the Murphy Oil case that’s pending in the Supreme Court, which will be argued on the first day of the upcoming term.
The case is about the right of workers to join together in class-action lawsuits. [The case involves “whether arbitration agreements with individual employees that bar them from pursuing work-related claims on a collective or class basis in any forum are prohibited as an unfair labor practice.”]
This is a coordinated effort to make sure that workers are put in as weak a position as possible when they’re standing in court across from big, powerful corporations. This decision to switch sides in Murphy Oil is a stark example of the Trump administration really putting their thumb on the scale on the side of corporations when the difference in interests between workers and corporations are as stark as possible.
The Beryllium Rule and Worker Safety Issues
Rolling back safety standards is a huge concern. Rules where we thought we had industry support are being shelved. Look at the Beryllium Rule — this has been in the works for years and years. We did work with the industry with this rule and the administration has announced now that they’re delaying it, and that they’re going to lop off big pieces of it. They are taking out shipyards and construction workers — not because they’re not exposed to beryllium or because they don’t die of beryllium disease — but because the employers asked them to. Same thing with silica. They’ve said they’re going to push it back.
Our estimates say that around 600–700 people die every year from silica exposure. So they might try to say these are just delays, but people’s lives are being affected — people who will get sick because these protections didn’t go into place when they were supposed to.
They’ve done a lot in terms of rolling back transparency, and that’s been a big issue in the occupational safety and health area. For example, we had a proposal to require electronic submission of information about work-related injuries. OSHA was going to make this information more accessible to the public both so the workers could see it and also so academics and other people could study these issues, look for patterns and come up with better policies — all the things that transparency is important for. The administration has now said they’re going to delay this requirement for at least a year. Again, no guarantee this will go forward the way it should.
Donald Trump says he cares so much about miners. We did a rule toward the end of the administration that simply said that at the changeover between shifts, mine operators are to make sure that the previous shift tells the next shift about any hazards. It just required that they flag anything that could be potentially troublesome on the next shift so the people have basic information. And they’ve delayed that, too.
I think these actions all reflect this very strong anti-regulatory push that is premised on a belief that we should trust employers to know what’s best in their workplaces and not worry about accountability. I think they try to play a little cute with the fact that these are delays, that they don’t actually have to articulate their position on the merits of these rules. They’re pushing the can down the road while, especially in the safety and health area, it’s people’s lives that are at stake.
State of the Unions
They are clearly trying to make the most of a short amount of time in rolling back and undermining whatever progress the Obama administration was able to make in terms of supporting the interest of workers.
I certainly don’t think [the union movement] is dead, but I think it’s obviously in a much weaker position than it’s been in a long time. We are seeing really serious consequences for the workforce and the economy at large, not just for the people who used to be in unions and who aren’t anymore. What we’re going to likely see in front of the Supreme Court this year is a move to weaken public-sector unions — state and local government workers.
Soon the National Labor Relations Board will have a Republican general counsel and a Republican majority of board members, so you’ll see a lot more dramatic rollback of decisions there that have been important to workers.
If you look at the rate of union density in this country right now, it’s lower than it was before the Wagner Act passed during the New Deal. That is pretty stunning. It’s easier to destroy than it is to build. They are clearly trying to make the most of a short amount of time in rolling back and undermining whatever progress the Obama administration was able to make in terms of supporting the interest of workers.
Cuts to the Department of Labor
We expected they would not have robust support for enforcement agencies or International Labor Affairs Bureau or the Women’s Bureau — not to minimize how devastating that is — but those are of perennial objects of Republicans’ budget scalpel. But it was a big surprise that they proposed such a dramatic budget cut for the Employment and Training Administration. That is an area where we traditionally had bipartisan support.
One of the first things the Trump administration and the Republican congressional majority did with the Congressional Review Act was to dismantle what we thought was a good government policy — our Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces Executive Order. It required government agencies who control billions in federal procurement dollars to consider federal contractors’ records on how they treat their workers in deciding whether or not to award federal contracts.
There are lots of different factors that go into making those decisions, and we thought taking a look at whether contractors had safety and health violations, whether they had cheated workers out of wages, whether they had unfairly undermined efforts to organize workers — it just made sense. It’s taxpayers’ money. Most taxpayers are workers; why should their money be going to companies that violate the law in terms of how they treat their workers? It was one of the first uses of the Congressional Review Act in the Trump administration. They completely dismantled it.
Recently they announced they’ve stopped work on the EEO-1, which makes transparent whether there are gender or race disparities in how corporations pay their employees. Again, this is simply about transparency. This is about how people know whether they’re being treated fairly or not. We know that when companies have to compile this kind of data and they have to really take a look at themselves, often they’ll self-correct. This is merely a good government proposal and it now seems dead in the water.
I went back and looked at the Chamber of Commerce policy recommendations from the transition, and you can look down the list of things that the Chamber asked the Trump administration to do and see that it’s now doing almost everything on the list.
I love the movement on Martin Luther King Day to do community service. I wish we could do something like that around Labor Day — to have people stop and appreciate what the labor movement has done for all workers in terms of supporting legislation, like the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Fight for $15 and the Occupational Safety and Health Act. What we’ve seen as the labor movement has declined is how that really has hurt all middle-class workers, minimum-wage workers — all workers. We need to think about the contributions that the people who actually work in this country make and what’s at stake when the federal government turns its back on working people, despite the rhetoric from Trump during the campaign.
I’ve been really heartened by my former colleagues. So many of them are still engaged in doing what they can to protect the legacy of the Obama administration — not because it’s the Obama administration, but because we really believed in it. People are sad and they’re worried but they’re not discouraged. They’re still fighting.