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Trump's new labor chief alarms Democrats, unions
President Trump's pick to take over as acting secretary of the Labor Department is expected to shake up the agency, alarming union groups and Democrats.
Critics worry Patrick Pizzella will push through new rules that target organized labor and step up the rollback of Obama-era worker protections.
"Pizzella has a long history of hostility to workers' rights and to unions. We are concerned by his appointment as acting secretary and hope his tenure is very brief," said Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, in a statement.
Pizzella was elevated to acting secretary last week after former Secretary Alexander Acosta resigned amid questions over the plea deal he brokered more than a decade ago as a U.S. attorney for sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, who was arrested recently on new charges.
Acosta reportedly had a rocky relationship with White House acting chief of staff and budget director Mick Mulvaney and conservatives, who worried the former secretary was slow-walking changes.
Pizzella is now taking over the reins at Labor with important decisions for business and unions looming, including for an overtime pay rule proposal and guidance on joint employers. Critics worry Pizzella could also revive an office that audited international labor union finances, amid other proposals that unions fear are intended to target their work.
Democratic lawmakers on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee have expressed alarm.
"The Secretary of Labor is responsible for protecting workers' rights and wellbeing - yet Acting Secretary Pizzella has spent his career undermining those very efforts," Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), told The Hill.
"I have serious concerns about Acting Secretary Pizzella. The Trump Administration has an anti-worker agenda and this new acting Secretary has the potential to further stack the decks against workers," Sen. Bob Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) said.
The HELP Committee's top Democrat, Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.), says Trump needs to pick again.
"Patrick Pizzella's extreme anti-worker record-including lobbying for sweatshops on the Northern Mariana Islands-is why I opposed his nomination in the first place, and that's why President Trump needs to quickly nominate someone with a clear record of standing up for workers," she said.
Murray was referencing Pizzella's work as a lobbyist in the 1990s, when he lobbied on behalf of a client against bills to extend minimum wage laws and worker protections to the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. commonwealth.
That incident has become a flashpoint for critics, who also raise questions about his past ties to disgraced former lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Pizzella worked on his team at the same firm, including on the Northern Mariana Islands issue.
At his 2017 confirmation to be deputy secretary, Pizzella distanced himself from Abramoff, who served 43 months in prison for fraud-related crimes.
"Twenty-one other Abramoff associates were convicted in connection with Abramoff scandals. You were a key member of Jack Abramoff's lobbying team from about 1996 to 2001," then-Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) said at the hearing.
"I did not know, I just learned, that 21 of Mr. Abramoff's colleagues were also convicted of wrongdoings. I was not one of them," Pizzella responded.
"Deputy Secretary Pizzella last was a colleague of Mr. Abramoff nearly 20 years ago. In the interim, he has been nominated to serve in positions by three presidents and confirmed by the Senate three times," a Labor Department spokesperson told The Hill.
Since then, Pizzella has a record of government service. He was assistant secretary of Labor under President George W. Bush. In 2013, President Obama appointed him to the Federal Labor Relations Board. And he has been deputy Labor secretary since April 2018, confirmed in a narrow 50-48 party-line vote.
But Pizzella will likely face new scrutiny about those earlier controversies.
"Patrick Pizzella has a disturbing history of actively working against the best interests of working people," a spokeswoman for the Communications Workers of America said, "most notably lobbying for policies on the Northern Mariana Islands that essentially allowed the 'Made in the U.S.A.' label on goods and clothing performed under slave labor conditions."
"Under Pizzella, we can expect more of the same from President Trump's Department of Labor - more weakening of employment and health and safety protections for workers in order to further enrich already wealthy CEOs and large shareholders," the group added.
Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), who sits on the HELP Committee, voted against Pizzella for deputy secretary. Her office told The Hill if Pizzella is nominated, she will not support him.
For now, it is unclear whether Trump will nominate Pizzella to be the permanent Labor chief, a move that would require Senate confirmation.
The post has proved troublesome for the president. Trump's first pick for Labor chief, former fast food CEO Andy Puzder, withdrew amid controversy even before a vote. And Acosta left under a cloud over Epstein.
But even if Pizzella does not have to face senators for another confirmation, his actions will be under the spotlight.
Trump has courted labor groups, and Democrats are certain to highlight any decisions Pizzella takes that they believe will hurt workers and unions in the run-up to 2020.
But even if Pizzella only retains the acting title, labor groups are worried he will still be able to push ahead on policies backed by business groups.
Business groups were quick to praise his selection. The nation's biggest business lobby, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, touted Pizzella's experience.
"He understands the importance of the Department to workers and the business community and we look forward to working with him on a range of issues that will advance our economy and America's competitiveness," Glenn Spencer, the Chamber's senior vice president for employment policy, said in a statement.
"Someone with his kind of résumé generally would be looked at pretty favorably by businesses," Troy Keller, counsel at Dorsey & Whitney, acknowledged.
Kris Meade, who represents employers as chair of Crowell & Moring's labor and employment practice, said Pizzella has inherited some big-ticket items, many of which are controversial in labor circles.
He pointed to the forthcoming overtime rules and a proposal to narrow the definition of joint employers in cases where more than one employer is responsible for an employee's wages.
"I would suspect that those will move forward and probably at a faster pace now than previously," Meade said.
"He has such a large menu of issues he could try to tackle," he continued. "And he would be doing so as we move into a highly political election year."