Trump’s New Labor Sec Pick Eugene Scalia Is an Enemy of Working People

Meagan Day July 25, 2019

President Trump's record on labor secretary picks is not good. (Photo By Tom Williams/Roll Call/Getty Images)

The first sec­re­tary of labor in Amer­i­can his­to­ry was William Bau­chop Wil­son, who assumed the posi­tion in 1913. Wil­son was born in Blan­tyre, Scot­land, the son of a coal min­er who was black­list­ed for strik­ing when Wil­son was four years old.

The fam­i­ly immi­grat­ed to Penn­syl­va­nia, where Wil­son began work­ing in the mines at the age of nine. By age four­teen, Wil­son was sec­re­tary of a local work­ers’ orga­ni­za­tion. He went on to lead strikes along­side labor fire­brands like Moth­er Jones, and was lat­er named sec­re­tary-trea­sur­er of the Unit­ed Mine Work­ers of Amer­i­ca. His appoint­ment was a sop to the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Labor (AFL), which had sup­port­ed Wilson’s bid for the presidency.

From a social­ist per­spec­tive, Wilson’s record as US sec­re­tary of labor was mixed. He rep­re­sent­ed the right wing of the labor movement. 

His rad­i­cal­ism had been tem­pered by a stint in Con­gress as a mem­ber of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, and he sought labor peace and com­pro­mise at the same time that he pushed for pro-work­er reforms.

Still, Wil­son came to the post from the world of labor strug­gle. He was known by indus­tri­al­ists as a friend of cap­i­tal as well as of labor,” but he ran­kled the busi­ness class when he addressed the AFL con­ven­tion as fel­low trade union­ists.” He saw it as his duty to set­tle strikes, but he also once foiled a plot to hang two union rad­i­cals in San Francisco.

Fast for­ward a cen­tu­ry. A bil­lion­aire busi­ness­man is pres­i­dent, and his sec­re­tary of labor picks can­not be said to rep­re­sent the right wing, or any wing, of the labor move­ment. They’re noth­ing but capital’s henchmen.

Trump’s first pick in 2016, Andy Puzder, was a fast-food exec­u­tive and an ardent crit­ic of the min­i­mum wage. When Puzder with­drew after pub­lic rev­e­la­tions of his domes­tic vio­lence record, he was replaced by Alex Acos­ta, a for­mer bank chair­man and state pros­e­cu­tor. Acos­ta spent two years pur­su­ing Trump’s pro-busi­ness agen­da as sec­re­tary of labor until rev­e­la­tions about his pre­vi­ous han­dling of a plea deal for bil­lion­aire sex-traf­fick­er Jef­frey Epstein result­ed in his ouster.

It’s worth not­ing that Trump him­self is an old friend of Epstein’s, and not par­tic­u­lar­ly sen­si­tive to issues of sex­u­al assault, hav­ing racked up many such alle­ga­tions him­self. Some have spec­u­lat­ed that the pres­sure on Acos­ta to resign is not sole­ly attrib­ut­able to the Epstein affair, but instead to whether he [was] doing enough to imple­ment Pres­i­dent Trump’s dereg­u­la­to­ry agen­da.” Sim­ply put, Acos­ta wasn’t pro-busi­ness enough. Trump want­ed a bulldog.

Enter Eugene Scalia, son of late Supreme Court Jus­tice Antonin Scalia. The elder Scalia was so pro-busi­ness that Dow Chem­i­cal set­tled a law­suit for $835 mil­lion with­in two weeks of his death — with­out Scalia on the court, they were cer­tain they’d lose. The apple hasn’t fall­en far from the tree. A long-time lawyer for large cor­po­ra­tions, the younger Scalia has a proven track record of fight­ing on behalf of employ­ers against workers.

Scalia was the top lawyer for the Depart­ment of Labor under George W. Bush. But most of his career has been spent in pri­vate prac­tice, pri­mar­i­ly at the law firm Gib­son, Dunn & Crutch­er, where he is cur­rent­ly a part­ner. The firm’s clients include Apple, Mark Zucker­berg, Intel, Chevron, Kraft, Dole, Heineken, Hewlett-Packard, Via­com, and Sau­di Ara­bi­an oil inter­ests.

Scalia has spent his career fight­ing for the inter­ests of finan­cial firms, cor­po­rate exec­u­tives, and share­hold­ers rather than the inter­ests of work­ing peo­ple,” says Hei­di Shier­holz of the Eco­nom­ic Pol­i­cy Institute.

In 2006, for exam­ple, he rep­re­sent­ed Wal­mart, help­ing the com­pa­ny defeat a Mary­land law that would have required the com­pa­ny to either spend 8 per­cent of their pay­roll costs on health care or pay into Med­ic­aid. He helped Las Vegas casi­nos weasel out of a rule that would reserve tips for casi­no employ­ees. When Sea­World was sued after the death of a whale train­er, Scalia defend­ed the com­pa­ny, argu­ing that it bore no respon­si­bil­i­ty for work­er safe­ty on the job.

Scalia’s advo­ca­cy of employ­ers against work­ers knows no bounds. He fought against the Occu­pa­tion­al Safe­ty and Health Admin­is­tra­tion when, in 2000, it sought to impose a rule on busi­ness­es intend­ed to make work­places safer. The rule would require com­pa­nies to iden­ti­fy and take respon­si­bil­i­ty for ergonom­ic haz­ards to decrease the like­li­hood of repet­i­tive stress injuries; Scalia argued that ergonom­ics is quack­ery.” The rule was over­turned by Con­gress in 2001.

Scalia’s appoint­ment is a ways off. In the mean­time, the sec­re­tary of labor post is being filled tem­porar­i­ly by Patrick Pizzel­la, Acosta’s deputy, who — to give one exam­ple of his polit­i­cal incli­na­tions — once worked along­side dis­graced lob­by­ist Jack Abramoff to pre­vent the North­ern Mari­na Islands from being pro­tect­ed by fed­er­al labor laws in the 1990s, deny­ing the work­ers there the cov­er­age enshrined in US law.” Trans­la­tion: he was an active pro­po­nent of sweatshops.

Pro-busi­ness groups are enthu­si­as­tic about Scalia, who they expect will con­tin­ue the impor­tant prac­tice of solic­it­ing busi­ness and employ­er per­spec­tives and those of oth­er stake­hold­ers.” They are heart­ened by his expe­ri­ence as a man­age­ment-side attor­ney” and espe­cial­ly thrilled by his big-busi­ness con­nec­tions. Scalia is a mem­ber of the far-right Fed­er­al­ist Soci­ety, shoring up his anti-work­er bona fides. He’s a cap­i­tal­ist true believer.

Unions and pro-work­er politi­cians will push back against a Scalia appoint­ment, but con­fir­ma­tion pow­er ulti­mate­ly rests with the Sen­ate, which is con­trolled by Repub­li­cans. Scalia is like­ly to make the cut, cement­ing the Depart­ment of Labor under Pres­i­dent Trump as the most anti-work­er in US history.

Gone are the days when social­ists and rad­i­cal union­ists on the left wing of the labor move­ment faced down a Labor Depart­ment helmed by the movement’s right wing, with its dual alle­giances and pen­chant for com­pro­mise. Ours is instead an era marked by out­right assault on work­ers’ rights, direct­ly ini­ti­at­ed from the very top. The bla­tant col­lab­o­ra­tion between the state and the cap­i­tal­ist class is laid bare for all to see. And as Scalia pur­sues a free mar­ket dereg­u­la­tion agen­da, mil­lions of work­ing peo­ple will suf­fer the consequences.

But we have a choice. We can either long for the ear­ly days of the Depart­ment of Labor, or we can do exact­ly what that era called for, and what ours requires as well: proac­tive mass orga­ni­za­tion of work­ers them­selves, from the bot­tom up.

This post first appeared at Jacobin.

Mea­gan Day is a free­lance writer who focus­es on pol­i­tics, social move­ments, labor, law and history.
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