Biden appointees moving fast to reverse Trump’s anti-worker moves
Real inspectors, thanks to Biden's rapid reversal of Trump policies, are on their way to high-hazard workplaces like meat and poultry processing plants. | Nati Harnik/AP

WASHINGTON—With few exceptions, the federal Labor Department, other agencies, and even the GOP-dominated National Labor Relations Board seem to be rushing to reverse Trump-era anti-worker rules and edicts.

DOL’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration will send real inspectors to high-hazard workplaces—especially hospitals, nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and meat and poultry processing plants—to ferret out and slam hard on violations of anti-coronavirus protections. No more phony inspections by phone, as happened under former GOP Oval Office occupant Donald Trump.

The NLRB dropped the Trumpite General Counsel’s challenge to neutrality agreements during union organizing drives, in a case involving Unite Here and a Seattle hotel.

DOL “has suspended enforcement” of Trump rules to curb or even end unions’ and shareholder activists’ use of proxy votes to force firms to disclose and—in the glare of publicity–change corporate anti-worker, anti-consumer politics and policies.

“Those rules were motivated by corporate lobbying in the previous administration,” says Brendon Rees, the AFL-CIO specialist in monitoring corporate and capital markets—a statement that could just as easily apply to all the Trump rules Biden’s officials are dumping.

Miguel Cardona, a former school administrator, and now Biden’s Education secretary has reversed Trump-era edicts that made it almost impossible for students at shady for-profit colleges to have loans forgiven. | Susan Walsh/AP

Biden’s new Education Secretary, Miguel Cardona, a past member of the School Administrators, reversed an edict from Trump’s anti-teacher, anti-student of color Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. She made it virtually impossible for past students of shady for-profit “colleges” to have loans forgiven after their schools went broke. Many students stuck with five-and six-figure bills are women and students of color. DeVos forgave only 3% of the loans.

Cardona’s also taking a hard look at the private accreditation agency whose decisions OKd those colleges’ eligibility to take loan-dependent students in the first place.

And even Trump’s NLRB majority dumped its prior proposed rule, which would have been written in stone like other federal rules, to ban private university research assistants and teaching assistants from unionizing and collective bargaining.

And that’s just for starters.

The actions, many following Biden’s executive orders, show he was prepared to hit the ground running once he entered the Oval Office.

Biden isn’t waiting

And though Biden is a veteran of the Senate, he isn’t waiting for lawmakers to move, either. He knows full well that Senate GOP filibusterers would hamstring a lot of his plans.

DOL led off by dumping two late Trump edicts that sharply curbed workers’ rights:

  • One Trump scheme would write DOL’s “joint employer” rule into the stone of federal regulations. In plain English, Trump wanted to leave workers between a rock and a hard place, unsure of which of their bosses—a local McDonald’s or McDonald’s corporate headquarters, for example—was responsible for obeying or breaking labor law.

The Obama-era DOL and its National Labor Relations Board’s General Counsel ruled both the local boss and HQ are responsible for following the law, be it bargaining orders (the NLRB) or the minimum wage and overtime pay law (DOL). Before that, suffering workers, who lost wages, benefits, and even the right to organize, were being bounced from pillar to post.

High-hazard food establishments like McDonald’s can, under new Biden rules, expect more real inspections – no phony phone calls as was the case during the Trump years. | Richard Vogel/AP

Trump’s DOL actually wrote into federal rules, which are tough to repeal, the split responsibility, which leaves workers at sea, unsure who’s responsible for not paying them or for breaking labor law.

But last November, a federal judge in New York, responding to lawsuits by workers’ rights groups and state attorneys general, called a halt to enforcing that split responsibility workers must face. The judge said the Trumpites broke the law which demands considering public comments on its scheme. Trump’s DOL planned to appeal the judge’s decision to higher courts. Biden’s DOL dropped the appeal and withdrew the rule.

  • The other was Trump’s plan, again to be a federal rule, to make more workers “independent contractors,” by favoring bosses’ declarations that they were.

Unlike “employees” under labor law, “independent contractors” can’t organize, and must pay for their and the company’s share of Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes. They can’t get jobless benefits or workers’ comp. They also aren’t covered by the minimum wage and overtime pay laws. They’re “independent, Trump said, because they’re their own bosses.

Except the workers really aren’t. In the real world of construction contractors, port truckers, adjunct professors, franchise restaurants, and the gig economy, real bosses control practically everything the worker does, from uniforms she wears to his hours behind the tractor-trailer’s wheel. Biden’s DOL, specifically its Wage and Hour Division, recognized that.

Mission is to protect

“The division’s mission is to protect and respect the rights of workers. Rescinding these rules would strengthen protections for workers, including the essential front-line workers who have done so much during these challenging times,” Principal Deputy Administrator Jessica Looman, its current top official, said in a statement.

“Misclassification of employees as independent contractors denies workers access to critical benefits and protections the law provides. Additionally, removing a standard for joint employment that may be unduly narrow would protect more workers’ wages and improve their well-being and economic security.”

  • Biden’s Mine Safety and Health Administration followed OSHA’s lead in planning more enforcement in the nation’s mines against worker exposure to the coronavirus. The United Mine Workers welcomes that, but wants strong bans on worker exposure to diseases through the air, like the virus, written into law. That’s what National Nurses United and other unions demand of OSHA, too.

“MSHA needs to build on this guidance and quickly issue an enforceable standard that applies to all mines and miners, union members or not. The agency also needs to keep accurate statistics on the incidence of COVID-19 in America’s mines, so a clear picture of the disease in our workplaces can be seen and acted upon,” Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts said, using the official name for the virus.

And Roberts makes a key point about Biden’s executive orders: “Regulatory standards issued by one administration can be reversed by another.”

“That is why it is critical for Congress to pass bipartisan legislation, the COVID-19 Mine Workers Protection Act, which will cement standards for this and any future infectious disease epidemic that may arise into the law.”

  • Even the NLRB got into the act. New Biden-named Acting General Counsel Peter Sung Ohr—who’s holding the spot until the Senate OKs Biden’s permanent nominee—trashed a plan by his fired GOP predecessor, Peter Robb, to really curb unions’ ability to communicate with workers. The GC is the NLRB’s top enforcement officer.

Other media reported “Robb told regional NLRB staffers in September he wanted to tee up” court cases to do more than just ban neutrality agreements, as the venal, vicious National Right to Work Committee—which challenged the neutrality pact at the Seattle hotel—sought.

Cecil Roberts, president of the Mine Workers, wants to see many of the Biden orders protecting workers become permanent law that will last even after the Biden presidency ends. | Carolyn Kaster/AP

Robb also solicited right-wingers and corporate interests to bring cases to ban any access to plants by union organizers, even to break rooms and during lunch hours, to let firms refuse to give unions required contact information, and to ban organizers from advocating for a specific union when talking with workers. Ohr banned those bans.

But the GOP majority at the NLRB isn’t dead yet, proving it by deciding another case against workers. The two Republicans, over objections of sole Democrat Lauren McFadden, said a company could come down hard on workers’ “inappropriate communications” on social media postings, whatever that means—and get away with it.

The firm could ban discussing pay and benefits, ban the use of company logos to promote the firm (or not) and ban “disparagement” of the firm. “Legitimate justifications for the respondent’s [the employer’s] nondisparagement rule are substantial, and we find they outweigh any potential adverse impact of the respondent’s facially neutral rule on protected rights” of workers, the NLRB’s Republican majority wrote.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.