Trump's Sleight of Hand Will Bring Ruin to American Workers
May 25, 2017
May 25, 2017
10 Min read time
Trump's policies spell disaster for economic equality. And the worst is yet to come.
Donald Trump campaigned on a promise to advance the interests of American workers but his actions have undermined them instead. Unfortunately, many of Trump’s betrayals of workers have been overshadowed by the White House’s antics and therefore have gone underreported. But Trump has already shown that it is the interests of corporations and the rich, not working people, that he intends to promote. Here are just some of the ways in which Trump’s seemingly disparate actions as president inflict a crushing blow to American workers—with the worst likely yet to come.
'The wellbeing of America and the American worker is my North Star,' said Trump. His actions prove otherwise.
Deregulation has been an early priority of Trump’s administration, launched by an executive order on January 30 requiring that for every new regulation issued, at least two prior regulations must be identified for elimination. This was followed by a February 24 order targeting “job-killing regulations.” In his accompanying remarks, Trump articulated his standard for which regulations should be jettisoned: “Every regulation should have to pass a simple test: Does it make life better or safer for American workers or consumers?” But he has instead elevated the profit-seeking of businesses over the well-being of their workers, unburdening corporations of rules intended to protect worker health and safety. Trump’s administration has already delayed the implementation of safety regulations related to exposure to workplace hazards, including beryllium and silica. And the Environmental Protection Agency’s reversal of a planned ban on the pesticide chlorpyrifos has already likely sickened forty-seven farmworkers in California. Trump also signed a bill curtailing OSHA’s ability to track occupational illness and injuries, crippling efforts to identify and ameliorate threats to worker safety. OSHA has also delayed a rule requiring the electronic submission of worker illness and injury date for online tracking. Some of the delays will likely turn into permanent reversals. Many more regulations will likely be targeted, since Trump has said he aims to reduce regulations by 75 percent.
In early April Trump gutted Obama-era protections designed especially to help women and vulnerable workers, repealing Obama’s 2014 Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces Executive Order. Most of the provisions had been enjoined by a Texas court in October 2016. The rule sought to enhance compliance with labor laws and contractor accountability by requiring companies that bid for federal contracts to disclose labor violations; it also required paycheck transparency, so that those in the employ of companies are informed of pay rates, overtime hours, and deductions, as well as their status as independent contractors or employees. In addition the rule banned forced arbitration clauses for sexual harassment, sexual assault, and workplace discrimination claims that require workers to resolve grievances through a private arbitrator, where they are less likely to succeed than in litigation and are awarded lower damages if they prevail. The reach of this reversal is broad: 22 percent of the American workforce is employed by companies that have at least one contract with the federal government. The bitter irony Obama hoped to avert was employees paying taxes that are then turned over to the very companies that violate their rights.
The Trump administration has also struck at policies aimed at encouraging and protecting workers’ retirement savings. Trump repealed an Obama-era rule clearing the way for cities and counties to automatically create retirement plans for private workers who are not offered one by their employers. He also issued a sixty-day delay on a fiduciary rule requiring advisors to act in the best interests of their clients instead of maximizing commission and fees. This may sound inconsequential, but according to the Economic Policy Institute, even this small delay will cost retirement savers “$181 million this year and $3.7 billion over the next 30 years—and this estimate is still an undercount because it does not include other subjects of potential conflicted advice, like 401(k)s.” The Department of Labor now says that the rule will take effect on June 9, with delayed implementation of critical parts, but signaled that its long-term fate is far from certain. Present-day earnings may be threatened as well. The administration has indicated that Trump supports a Republican bill recently passed by the House that allows employers to offer workers compensatory time instead of overtime, a move critics fear would undercut workers instead of offering the flexibility the bill’s proponents tout. Though the bill faces an unclear fate in the Senate, Trump’s support for it evinces his real priorities.
Trump's celebrated success in saving Carrier jobs from going to Mexico is belied by their recent announcement of massive lay offs.
Looking forward, Trump’s budget proposal bodes ill for workers and those struggling to enter the workforce, especially the most vulnerable. The budget he unveiled relies on deep cuts to social programs and provides big increases for military spending. The Department of Labor would see a cut of 20 percent of its present budget, gutting the agency’s already underfunded enforcement capacity. Programs on the chopping block include those that target workforce development initiatives aimed at the long-term unemployed, displaced workers, and at-risk youth. Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project, said in a statement, “The Trump budget would gut the very job-training programs workers need to develop the skills required to compete in emerging fields and fill many of the high-paying jobs available now and projected for the future.”
The budget would also erode economic security for workers by reducing student loan subsidies and loan forgiveness for public service workers; cutting jobs, pay, and benefits for federal workers; reducing Social Security Disability benefits; and slashing Medicaid, housing subsidies, and the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program. Legal protections for workers would also be gutted: the budget cuts nearly 250 jobs cut from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which enforces federal laws against discrimination, and totally eliminates the Legal Services Corporation, which funds legal assistance for low-income people. The impact on people with disabilities would be particularly severe if these measures go through. Trump’s budget will assuredly be changed through the congressional approval process: the GOP has long championed many of the inhumane proposals, but even some Republicans believe that these cuts are too severe.
• • •
Trump’s appointments also raise alarm.
His Supreme Court appointee Neil Gorsuch’s record evinces a history of favoring corporations over individuals. During his confirmation hearings, Senator Franken slammed Gorsuch’s sole dissent in TransAm Trucking v. Administrative Review Board (2016), commonly referred to as the Case of the Frozen Trucker. Alphonse Maddin was parked on the side of a highway in subzero weather in the middle of the night when his brakes froze and his heater broke. A company dispatcher advised him to wait for a repair truck. Two hours later, Maddin was showing signs of hypothermia, including slurred speech and numbness. Calling again for assistance from his employer, Maddin was told to “hang in there.” A half-hour later, help had not come, so he disconnected his trailer and set off in search of warmth. He was later fired for disobeying orders to wait with his cargo or drag the inoperable trailer behind his cab. Two appeals court judges held that Maddin was protected as a whistleblower because he had reported a safety issue and then refused to operate his truck in a dangerous way. But Gorsuch said in his dissent that Maddin’s only legal option was to stay by the side of the road, despite the “unpleasant” conditions. Franken called Gorsuch’s reasoning absurd.
Like other conservative judges, Gorsuch construes civil rights narrowly, often in ways that fail to protect workers. As the National Employment Lawyers Association argued, the “reasoning of the type found in many of Judge Gorsuch’s opinions undermines workers’ ability to vindicate their rights and undercuts the promise of a fair and just American workplace that is embodied by the employment statutes enacted by Congress.” And under an administration determined to untether corporations from regulatory restrictions, some Supreme Court watchers believe the new composition will undercut the collective bargaining that is critical to leveling the playing field between companies and workers. The Court is likely to reverse the 1977 Abood v. Detroit Board of Education that held that employees in public sector union shops who abstain from union membership must still pay a fee, in lieu of dues, to support the work of the union that directly benefits them, including “collective bargaining, contract administration, and grievance adjustment purposes,” though they are not obligated to pay for the union’s political activities. That issue was revisited during the court’s last term in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, where observers expected the Court to overturn Abood. But after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, the Court upheld the lower court decision by a 4–4 vote, thus allowing the fee to stand. Several lawsuits winding their ways through the system are likely to again place this issue before the Court, where Gorsuch is expected to cast a deciding vote.
The cumulative effect of Trump's policies will be the end of economic equality.
Some observers fear Trump’s labor secretary will also roll back workers’ protections. Trump’s initial pick, Andrew Pudzer, withdrew in February amid blistering opposition from labor and other groups. They decried his record of anti-worker policies as a fast-food magnate, including his opposition to overtime pay and break time and his restaurant chains’ repeated violations of labor laws. Trump then tapped Alexander Acosta, who elicited less resistance than his controversial predecessor, but that does not mean he will be a friend to labor. In his confirmation hearing, Acosta declined to endorse a Department of Labor rule raising the income threshold for overtime eligibility from $23,550 to $47,500, which was blocked by a federal court judge in Texas (though he did suggest some adjustment to account for inflation is due). The upgrade was estimated to benefit 12.5 million workers. Acosta also refrained from supporting an increase in the minimum wage. How Acosta strikes the balance between his agency’s mission to protect workers and Trump’s agenda to eviscerate the rules designed to achieve that goal will be quickly evident, since the delayed regulations will require immediate attention. But Acosta’s statement during the confirmation process that “we all work for the president and we all will ultimately follow his direction unless we feel like we can’t” does not inspire confidence. Given Acosta’s deference to his boss, the Department of Labor seems unlikely to sustain the progress made in wage and hour enforcement under the direction of David Weil, who headed the Wage and Hour Division under Obama. During his tenure Weil enhanced protections for workers by narrowing the classification of independent contractors and adopting joint-employer standards that expanded protection for workers in the low-wage sectors.
Adding to concern about administrative appointments is Trump’s consideration of union-buster Doug Seaton for a seat on the National Labor Relations Board. Trump may also tap Curtis Ellis to head the Department of Labor’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs. According to the National Employment Law Project, Ellis has “a long, well-documented history of extreme, xenophobic comments that could alienate our diplomatic allies, diminish the Labor Department’s foreign and domestic standing in high-stakes negotiations, and ultimately undermine the cause of promoting labor rights in the context of global trade.”
• • •
The negative impacts from these diverse actions add up to major losses for workers. And this is only the beginning, with Trump and the GOP likely to endorse many other harmful policies. Meanwhile workers face potentially catastrophic changes to health care coverage (including rollbacks on reproductive rights), tax reform that will benefit corporations, diminished environmental protections, and a budget that guts social safety net protections. Together these will further erode economic equality. As the Economic Policy Institute argues, Trumps agenda “includes policies that would do nothing to reverse near-stagnant wage growth and rising inequality. Tax cuts for the rich and corporations, deregulation of finance and worker protections and assaults on unions would all clearly undercut working Americans’ economic clout, not increase it.” Meanwhile Trump’s celebrated deal-making benefits for workers is belied by the recent Carrier announcement that it would lay off some 600 workers by Christmas, after Trump trumpeted his success in saving those jobs by convincing the company not to move to Mexico.
At a March ceremony marking the signing of his executive orders on trade, Trump remarked, “The wellbeing of America and the American worker is my North Star.” The actions of this administration and the Republican-led Congress thus far prove otherwise, as we lurch toward the most corporation-friendly worker climate in a generation.
While we have you...
...we need your help. Confronting the many challenges of COVID-19—from the medical to the economic, the social to the political—demands all the moral and deliberative clarity we can muster. In Thinking in a Pandemic, we’ve organized the latest arguments from doctors and epidemiologists, philosophers and economists, legal scholars and historians, activists and citizens, as they think not just through this moment but beyond it. While much remains uncertain, Boston Review’s responsibility to public reason is sure. That’s why you’ll never see a paywall or ads. It also means that we rely on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, pledge your contribution to keep it free for everyone by making a tax-deductible donation.
May 25, 2017
10 Min read time