A Senate committee will begin hearings this week on the confirmation of Donald Trump’s nominee for labor secretary, fast-food magnate Andrew Puzder. And like most Trump cabinet nominations, Puzder is controversial.
Senator Elizabeth Warren issued a press release highlighting his “opposition to minimum wage laws and other vital protections for workers and families, and his company’s prolific history of labor and discrimination suits.” Oprah Winfrey threw some fuel on the fire by releasing to the Senate a (hard-to-find) video of an episode of her show in which Puzder’s ex-wife leveled allegations of physical abuse.
But the most damning criticism may be from the current and former employees of the department Puzder hopes to lead. Shortly after his nomination was announced in December, an internal petition opposing Puzder’s confirmation began circulating chain letter-style among current and former Department of Labor (DOL) staffers. One DOL staffer, who spoke to Fast Company on a condition of anonymity, says the petition originated in the Office of the Solicitor, where hundreds of lawyers work to enforce the nation’s labor laws.
The employees of the Labor Department are hardly the first to disagree with their potential new boss. Their methods might not work in every workplace, but here’s how DOL employees have managed to take a stand without putting their livelihoods in jeopardy.
Our DOL source received the petition email January 31st, but chatter within the agency about Puzder began well before that. (Trump nominated Puzder December 9th.) The discussions had been “uncomfortable,” the source said, because everyone realized they might soon be reporting to Puzder.
The Labor Department comprises many agencies and bureaus responsible for a myriad of tasks, but its main jobs are compiling objective employment data, rule making, and enforcing labor laws. Solicitors Office lawyers carry that work into the real world, resolving cases and prosecuting offenders across the country.
Department of Labor staffers are prohibited by law from engaging in any political advocacy during work hours or on work property. So the petition email was sent via the personal email accounts of current and former agency staffers. Deciding who would be sympathetic to the cause was a delicate matter, which is why the email was distributed like a chain letter. It originated with a small group of people in the Solicitors office, then was forwarded to colleagues they believed held similar views. The email asked that each recipient send the letter to 10 other colleagues who might want to sign.
For the Labor Department employees who drafted, signed, and circulated the petition, the risks were considerable. But, as our source points out, for many in the agency Puzder represents such a threat to the core mission of the agency—to protect the rights of workers—that they were moved to participate anyway.
The email, which came to staffers with the subject line, “Concerns about Puzder,” opens like this:
As we imagine many of you have also done, a number of us have recently been talking about how upset we are about President Trump’s nominee to serve as secretary of labor. And we decided that there might just be something we can do about it in our capacity as private citizens.
The petition, it’s hoped, will influence the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions, which will review Puzder’s nomination before it’s sent to the Senate Floor for a vote. They hope to target Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine), one of the members of the committee, who has already publicly expressed concerns about Puzder’s fitness for the cabinet post. From the email:
We believe that a carefully drafted and measured letter . . . could potentially help to influence her vote. If Senator Collins were to vote against Mr. Puzder (assuming the democratic members of the committee also vote against him), the administration would have a choice of withdrawing the nomination or allowing it to go to the Senate floor with a negative recommendation from the committee. Faced with that prospect, the administration might well withdraw Mr. Puzder’s nomination.
The email petition gave no indication of how many staffers have already signed. The originators of the letter say they will only send the letter to the confirmation committee if 200 or more current staffers sign. As of Tuesday, the letter had not yet been sent to the committee. However, since it’s been shared with the media, sources within the Senate committee say that members are aware of its content.
It’s the unpredictability of Puzder as labor secretary that’s causing unease in the agency now, our source says. Democratic administrations favor a labor secretary who emphasizes legal enforcement of labor regulations. Republican administrations, on the other hand, typically appoint a labor secretary who emphasizes resolving regulatory breaches through non-legal means. But Puzder has no public service record to use as a bellwether to predict his future behavior. That, coupled with his professional and personal record, makes him an atypical—and unpredictable—appointee, to say the least.
The recent Labor rulings that Puzder would likely try to immediately change include an overtime pay regulation finalized last spring, the federal minimum wage increase that was a keystone of the Democratic platform, and updated paid leave guarantees that President Obama signed via executive order last year.
The Labor Department also enforces several immigration regulations. But Puzder’s views on immigration don’t line up neatly with Trump’s—which makes the outcome there difficult to predict.
Nevertheless, Puzder is likely to win confirmation. “If they didn’t defect over Betsy DeVos, they’re not going to defect over Andrew Puzder,” says Alec Levenson, a labor economist and USC’s Marshall School of Business. “Unless they discover something else about him that isn’t public yet.
“I mean, he doesn’t look like evil incarnate,” Levenson said, “but he doesn’t mind if workers’ lives get harder, either.”