Business & Lobbying

Business groups shudder at thought of Sanders as Labor secretary

Chatter in Washington about the prospect of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) being nominated for Labor secretary is creating anxiety among business groups and optimism among unions.

Businesses are quick to push back on the idea of President-elect Joe Biden nominating Sanders, a sign they would likely mount a PR and lobbying campaign to deny him confirmation.

But they might not need to go that far. His nomination would be seen as a long shot if Republicans maintain control of the Senate, and his absence would leave Democrats with one less member of their caucus, at least temporarily.

Still, business groups are firing warning shots now and making their opposition clear. 

“Naming such a polarizing choice would be a pretty big bait-and-switch for a president-elect who ran on bringing the country together to solve problems,” said Matt Haller, senior vice president of government relations and public affairs at the International Franchise Association.

“This election said many things, but it was not a mandate by voters to turn America into a country that rejects capitalism — just ask the House incumbents who were thrown out of office in purple districts for being unable to separate themselves from the lunatic fringe agenda,” he added.

Aric Newhouse, senior vice president of policy and government relations at the National Association of Manufacturers, said the next administration and Congress should be focused more on bipartisanship.

“We think this is the time for middle ground, compromise, results-oriented policies and extremes on either side are not going to be conducive to getting things done in Washington. It’s not about individuals, it’s not about people, it’s not about politics, it’s about policy,” he said when asked about the prospect of Sanders leading the Labor Department.

Sanders on Wednesday said that, if asked, he would accept the position of Labor secretary.

“I want to do everything I can to protect the working families of this country who are under tremendous duress right now and whether that is in the Senate, whether that’s in the Biden administration, who knows? Let’s see how that unfolds,” Sanders said during an interview with CNN when asked if he was eyeing a position in Biden’s Cabinet.

“If I had a portfolio that allowed me to stand up and fight for working families, would I do it? Yes, I would,” Sanders said when pressed if he would accept a job as Labor secretary.

The Biden transition team declined to comment.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the country’s biggest business lobbying group, sidestepped a question earlier this week about whether they are concerned about a potential Sanders nomination for Labor secretary. 

“I think the president-elect has a history of surrounding himself with very competent individuals. The benefit of his long tenure in Washington is that he’s had the opportunity to work with lots of such individuals and I expect that those individuals who really come at their job from the prospect of what can they do to advance the administration’s top priorities — in terms of fighting the coronavirus, restoring the economy — are the ones who are likely to get the nod,” said Neil Bradley, chief policy officer at the Chamber, said on a call with reporters. 

Bradley also acknowledged the “recognition that those nominations are going to have to get approved by a Republican Senate.”

Republican control of the Senate is still uncertain since the majority won’t be decided until after two runoff elections on Jan. 5 in Georgia. The expectation, however, is that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) will retain his post in the 117th Congress.

That’s welcome news to business groups that had been bracing for a blue sweep and the more Sanders-like progressive policies that could have come with it.

If Sanders were to leave the Senate and join Biden’s administration, Vermont Gov. Phil Scott (R) would name an interim successor. Scott has indicated he would look to appoint someone who’s likely to caucus with the Democrats, much like Sanders does as an independent.

As a presidential candidate earlier this year, Sanders said he would aim to double union membership if elected. Several union leaders who spoke with The Hill said they would be thrilled to have Sanders atop the Labor Department.

“Bernie Sanders would be an amazing Labor secretary. He doesn’t just understand labor and advocate for working people, he grounds his life in the labor ideals of solidarity, equity, and leaving no one behind,” said Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA.

“Bernie understands that you can’t have a strong democracy or a thriving economy without a strong labor movement and power for working people to get a fair share of the value our labor creates,” she added. 

The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW), which represents 1.3 million workers, said Biden must nominate a Labor secretary who will prioritize workers.

“No matter who takes on this role, whether it’s Bernie Sanders or someone else, workers need a leader who will fight for them,” said Kim Cordova, vice president of UFCW International.

“They must prioritize increasing worker safety by investigating COVID-19 outbreak sites to hold employers accountable, mandating paid leave to end the ‘work while sick’ culture, investing in training and upskilling programs so that workers are prepared for the rise in automation, and making sure workers receive fair wages and benefits so they can support themselves and their families,” she added.

Cordova is also president of UFCW Local 7, which represents about 3,000 workers at the JBS meatpacking plant in Greeley, Colo. That plant was the site of a COVID-19 outbreak where six workers died.

But not all unions are trying to put Sanders atop Biden’s list.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and Lee Saunders, the president of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, are pushing for Boston Mayor Marty Walsh (D) to lead the Labor Department.

The Communications Workers of America wants Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.), vice chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, in the post.

There’s a recognition in the business community that Biden will almost certainly nominate someone who is decidedly pro-labor compared with current Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia. But they argue that doesn’t mean Biden will swing completely in the opposite direction.

“It would not be surprising for the administration to choose a strongly pro-Labor voice at the Department of Labor,” said David French, senior vice president for government relations at the National Retail Federation.

But whoever is picked, he said, will need to be in charge of managing attempts to impose “radical solutions” on the workforce.

Tags Andy Levin Bernie Sanders business groups Eugene Scalia Joe Biden Labor Department labor groups Mitch McConnell union membership Unions

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