Business & Lobbying

Trump pick Scalia becomes 2020 target for labor unions

Greg Nash

Democrats and organized labor aim to make Eugene Scalia, the pick to lead the Labor Department, a target in 2020 in hopes of testing President Trump’s support among rank-and-file union voters.

Trump is nominating Scalia, the son of the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, to replace former Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta. Acting chief Patrick Pizzella and Eugene Scalia, if confirmed, are expected to push through controversial rules opposed by Democrats and unions. Trump has yet to formally nominate Scalia but critics are already vowing to put a spotlight on that agenda and Scalia’s work as a lawyer for businesses in high-profile labor fights.

{mosads}“Scalia is not going to help folks at all and that’s why it’s so important that we have a group of candidates that are pushing and supporting issues that have impact on working families,” American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees President Lee Saunders told The Hill.

Kermit Kaleba, managing director of policy at National Skills Coalition, said the administration had failed to keep their promises on “making workers a priority.”

“This nomination doesn’t send a signal that that’s changing,” Kaleba said.

Union leaders supported Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016, but she only won labor households by 8 points over Trump — the narrowest margin since 1984. Those voters helped deliver Midwestern states that will be crucial to Trump’s reelection.

Union leaders say keeping those voters could be a challenge for Trump if Scalia pushes a conservative agenda at the Labor Department.

As a lawyer, Scalia fought unions in many important cases. Among the most notable was his defense of Boeing in 2011 after the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) accused the company of trying to open a factory in South Carolina as retaliation against striking workers in Washington state. The Obama NLRB later dropped the case. 

Scalia’s track record has 2020 Democrats who are highlighting labor issues strongly opposing his nomination. 

“The rich and powerful have teamed up with the Republican party to push for measures at all levels of government designed to decimate unions and collective bargaining. Eugene Scalia is the latest example,” the campaign of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) told The Hill. “He’s opposed implementing financial reforms at every turn and has spent his entire career representing giant corporations and Wall Street over American workers.”

A campaign aide for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), also a 2020 presidential contender, said Trump’s Department of Labor (DOL) and NLRB have “overturned labor protections and collective bargaining rights at every turn.”

“In Bernie’s view, there is really no way the middle class in this country is going to grow unless we build the trade union movement,” the aide added.

Pro-labor advocates said Acosta was slow to implement many controversial proposals backed by conservatives. They worry that will change under Pizzella and Scalia.

“The concerns with respect to the direction that the DOL is going to go are severe,” said Obama-appointed former NLRB Chairman Mark Pearce, now head of the Workers’ Rights Institute.

Pearce said on matters involving “wages, employee classification, health and safety … Acosta showed reluctance to make radical deregulatory changes.”

“I don’t get the impression that Scalia has that kind of sensitivity or commitment to the mission of the DOL,” he continued.

If confirmed, Scalia will have a number of important issues to decide, including rules on overtime pay, calls to ease safety regulations and a proposal to narrow the definition of joint employers in cases where more than one employer is responsible for an employee’s wages.

Experts also say Scalia could move on initiatives like auditing international labor group finances, which unions see as intended to weaken their power.

The contest for rank-and-file labor voters in battleground states will be fierce, and union advocates and Democrats are looking for any edge to sway those voters.

“If they relax [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] standards and they effect wage and hour standards and workers start feeling it … then I think that it’s going to start to sting and have a negative effect on their support,” Pearce said.

“We expect that they’re going to continue to be anti-labor and anti-worker,” Saunders said of Scalia and Pizzella’s agenda. “I think what we’ve got to do is … educate our members and organize and mobilize them.”

Progressives like Warren and Sanders have vowed to defend unions and push tougher rules on employers. Warren in April accused Democratic leaders of not doing enough to protect labor groups. She has called for beefing up enforcement of wage rules and has backed proposals that would make it easier for unions to organize workers.

Sanders has called for legislation to protect union workers and give them more powers to challenge employer practices.

{mossecondads}Whether Democrats and unions can successfully make the case against Scalia is an open question. Scalia has strong support among Republicans and business groups and has been a fixture in conservative circles.

“Gene Scalia is a great choice to serve as secretary of Labor at a time when the department continues to work on defining issues,” said Patrick Hedren, vice president of labor, legal and regulatory policy at the National Association of Manufacturers.

“[Scalia] is whip smart and knows the department’s mission and operations well,” said Glenn Spencer, senior vice president for employment policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “Together with Pat Pizzella, DOL is in good hands.” 

And Republicans are dismissing the idea that the Labor pick or any policies he implements could hurt Trump’s standing with union voters.

“President Trump continues to enjoy widespread support of union workers around the country thanks to his America First policies that have brought manufacturing jobs and investment back to America,” Republican National Committee spokesman Michael Joyce said. “Union workers know that they have a President who fights for them every single day whether he’s combatting unfair trade practices of other countries or putting more money back in your paychecks through tax reform.”

Others also question if the issues on Scalia’s docket will actually hurt Trump’s support among rank-and-file union workers. They point to Trump’s revised North American trade deal, which could keep union voters in the fold.

George Washington University law professor Charles Craver said Trump’s base also strongly backs him on border security and social issues that are likely to have more prominence in 2020 than labor issues.

Still, union leaders hope to capitalize on Trump’s labor policies and say they will be watching Scalia closely.

“Our members understand and realize that this is a rigged economy right now and folks are trying to take that seat away from the table,” Saunders said.

Tags Alexander Acosta Bernie Sanders Donald Trump Elizabeth Warren Hillary Clinton
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