Despite Some Union Support, Trump’s New Labor Pick Would Be Terrible for Workers

Bruce Vail

The nomination of R. Alexander Acosta was announced by Trump less than 24 hours after the president’s first choice for the job dropped out of consideration. (Scott Fisher/Sun Sentinel/TNS via Getty Images)

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s new pick to head the Labor Depart­ment is get­ting an ear­ly boost from a divide-and-con­quer” strat­e­gy against labor unions and their allies, even before his qual­i­fi­ca­tions and back­ground as a civ­il ser­vant are scru­ti­nized in a Sen­ate con­fir­ma­tion hearing.

The nom­i­na­tion of R. Alexan­der Acos­ta was announced by Trump less than 24 hours after the president’s first choice for the job, ham­burg­er-chain exec­u­tive Andrew Puzder, dropped out of con­sid­er­a­tion. Puzder faced mount­ing Sen­ate oppo­si­tion, even from some con­ser­v­a­tive Repub­li­cans, because of dis­clo­sures that he had per­son­al­ly bro­ken labor law by hir­ing an undoc­u­ment­ed house­hold ser­vant, and also that he had been accused of spousal abuse many years ago.

Labor unions and Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty lead­ers in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., had main­tained a uni­fied front against the Puzder nom­i­na­tion but that uni­ty dis­solved almost imme­di­ate­ly with the announce­ment of Acosta’s nom­i­na­tion Feb­ru­ary 16. His first con­fir­ma­tion hear­ing, which was sched­uled for this week, has been moved to March 22.

The first endorse­ment came from the Inter­na­tion­al Union of Oper­at­ing Engi­neers, fol­lowed by one from the Inter­na­tion­al Asso­ci­a­tion of Fire Fight­ers and then the Labor­ers Inter­na­tion­al Union of North Amer­i­ca (LIU­NA) got on board. AFL-CIO Pres­i­dent Richard Trum­ka even offered luke­warm praise, telling MSNBC News: Well, we’re going to vet him, but he does have a his­to­ry of enforc­ing the laws that pro­tect work­ers, which is a real plus, where­as Puzder had a his­to­ry of vio­lat­ing the rules.”

Acos­ta, 48, is cur­rent­ly dean at the Flori­da Inter­na­tion­al University’s law school, a posi­tion he has held since 2009. A Har­vard-trained lawyer, he held sev­er­al appoint­ed posi­tions in the admin­is­tra­tion of George W. Bush. Before that, he was a labor lawyer at the giant law firm Kirk­land & Ellis LLP, known for rep­re­sent­ing large multi­na­tion­al corporations. 

Pro-labor Democ­rats in the Sen­ate have been con­spic­u­ous­ly qui­et on Acosta’s nom­i­na­tion — at least thus far. Sen. Eliz­a­beth War­ren, a Demo­c­rat from Mass­a­chu­setts, for exam­ple, was an out­spo­ken oppo­nent of Puzder but spokes­woman Alex­is Krieg tells In These Times that the sen­a­tor has no com­ment on Acosta.

Not so shy is Erik Loomis, assis­tant pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Rhode Island and a labor com­men­ta­tor at the pro­gres­sive blog Lawyers, Guns & Mon­ey. He said:

The selec­tion of Alexan­der Acos­ta should pro­vide no com­fort for those who worked to reject Andy Puzder. Acos­ta has a life­time of anti-union and anti-work­er posi­tions. Appoint­ed to the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board by George W. Bush, Acos­ta con­sis­tent­ly decid­ed with employ­ers dur­ing his term. His sup­port of Ohio’s attempt to sup­press black vot­ing in 2004 is deeply dis­turb­ing. That the AFL-CIO seems to think Acos­ta is as good as they are going to get under Trump is depress­ing, but per­haps realistic.”

William B. Gould IV, a law pro­fes­sor at Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty, agrees with Loomis’ analy­sis of Acosta’s tenure at the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board (NLRB). He says Acos­ta had a short, and for the most part unin­spir­ing record” at the NLRB. Acos­ta served at the board for just eight months in 2003, a time when anti-union Repub­li­cans were in control.

Gould, a for­mer NLRB chair­man dur­ing the Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton admin­is­tra­tion, cites sev­er­al cas­es as exam­ples of Acosta’s anti-work­er positions:

  • Alexan­dria Clin­ic, P.A., 339 NLRB No. 162 (2003). Acos­ta vot­ed that hos­pi­tal strik­ers could be legal­ly fired because they delayed the begin­ning of an oth­er­wise legal job action by sev­er­al hours. 
  • Cur­wood Inc., a divi­sion of Bemis Com­pa­ny Inc., 339 NLRB No. 148 (2003). Acos­ta vot­ed to ignore oth­er­wise ille­gal threats made by the employ­er against work­ers try­ing to form a union. He also sanc­tioned oth­er­wise ille­gal promis­es of new ben­e­fits to work­ers who would vote against the union.
  • Bev­er­ly Health, 339 NLRB No.161 (2003). Acos­ta vot­ed against a cor­po­rate rem­e­dy in spite of the fact that the com­pa­ny had been found guilty of exten­sive mis­con­duct on oth­er occa­sions. His vote was in the minority.

Curi­ous­ly, one opin­ion of Acosta’s, while laud­able and appro­pri­ate, will give him prob­lems with the anti-immi­grants,” among con­ser­v­a­tive Repub­li­cans, Gould adds.

In the case of Dou­ble D Con­struc­tion, 339 NLRB No.48 (2003), Acos­ta stat­ed that a work­er who used a false social secu­ri­ty num­ber should not be con­sid­ered guilty of com­mit­ting a crime. Such mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tions are just part of the work­day real­i­ty for undoc­u­ment­ed work­ers, Acos­ta argued. This was the cor­rect deci­sion, accord­ing to Gould, but will like­ly be viewed dif­fer­ent­ly by Repub­li­cans favor­ing a hard line against immigrants.

Equal­ly prob­lem­at­ic for work­er rights advo­cates is Acosta’s tenure at the Depart­ment of Jus­tice, where Acos­ta held appoint­ed posi­tions start­ing in 2003, says Saru Jayara­man, co-direc­tor of the pro-work­er Restau­rant Oppor­tu­ni­ties Cen­ter United.

There are at least two trou­bling” episodes in Acosta’s Depart­ment of Jus­tice career, Jayara­man says. First, Acos­ta is on record sup­port­ing efforts to restrict vot­ing rights for African Amer­i­cans in Ohio in 2004. In that case, Acos­ta was accused of exert­ing polit­i­cal pres­sure to help sup­press vot­er turnout. Vot­ing rights are essen­tial to labor rights, so I see this as impor­tant,” Jayara­man says.

So does the Lawyers’ Com­mit­tee for Civ­il Rights Under Law, an advo­ca­cy group that has been fight­ing attempts to restrict vot­ing laws. Com­mit­tee Pres­i­dent Kris­ten Clarke stated:

Mr. Acos­ta led the Civ­il Rights Divi­sion at a time that was marked by stark politi­ciza­tion, and oth­er improp­er hir­ing and per­son­nel deci­sions that were ful­ly laid to bare in a 2008 report issued by the Office of Inspec­tor Gen­er­al (OIG). The OIG found that actions tak­en dur­ing Mr. Acosta’s tenure vio­lat­ed Jus­tice Depart­ment pol­i­cy and fed­er­al law. Polit­i­cal and ide­o­log­i­cal affil­i­a­tions were used as a lit­mus test to eval­u­ate job can­di­dates and career attor­neys, wreak­ing hav­oc on the work of the Divi­sion. This egre­gious con­duct played out under Mr. Acosta’s watch and under­mined the integri­ty of the Civ­il Rights Divi­sion. It is hard to believe that Mr. Acos­ta would now be nom­i­nat­ed to lead a fed­er­al agency tasked with pro­mot­ing law­ful hir­ing prac­tices and safe workplaces.

A sec­ond trou­bling inci­dent was a plea deal that Acos­ta nego­ti­at­ed while he was the U.S. Attor­ney for the South­ern Dis­trict of Flori­da in 2005, Jayara­man says. In that case, a man accused of hav­ing sex with under­age girls and solic­it­ing pros­ti­tu­tion received a light sen­tence, appar­ent­ly because the man was a wealthy busi­ness­man who could afford expen­sive lawyers, she claims.

This was a sex­u­al preda­tor. This is very rel­e­vant to work­ers in the restau­rant sec­tor because sex­u­al harass­ment and sex­u­al abuse in the restau­rant indus­try is just ram­pant,” Jayara­man tells In These Times. Acos­ta does not take the issue seriously.”

But in the final analy­sis, it doesn’t mat­ter whether it’s Puzder or this guy (Acos­ta). The agen­da is the same … The sec­re­tary of labor doesn’t set the pol­i­cy, the pres­i­dent does,” says Jayaraman.

Loomis con­curs.

He says: Trump’s selec­tions, both Puzder and Acos­ta, are inher­ent­ly anti-work­er. But so is Don­ald Trump, despite the unusu­al lev­el of sup­port he received from union members.”

Bruce Vail is a Bal­ti­more-based free­lance writer with decades of expe­ri­ence cov­er­ing labor and busi­ness sto­ries for news­pa­pers, mag­a­zines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Dai­ly Labor Report, cov­er­ing col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing issues in a wide range of indus­tries, and a mar­itime indus­try reporter and edi­tor for the Jour­nal of Com­merce, serv­ing both in the newspaper’s New York City head­quar­ters and in the Wash­ing­ton, D.C. bureau.
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