DOL nominee Scalia promises to enforce labor law, but ducks policy
Eugene Scalia, Trump's pick to head the Department of Labor. | AP

WASHINGTON—When it comes to enforcing the nation’s labor laws, Eugene Scalia promises to do so. But when it comes to policy recommendations, or to increasing the troops – federal job safety and health inspectors, for example — needed for such enforcement, GOP President Donald Trump’s nominee for Labor Secretary sang quite a different tune.

It was, frequently, answering questions from Democratic senators on Sept. 19, a variation of “let me look at that” or “I’ll get back to you” or “I need to consult” stakeholders or “I want to look at the case” or “it needs to be a top priority for policymakers” in the future.

He even used that last phrase when tackling one of the most-urgent current issues: The fate of approximately 100 financially imperiled multi-employer pension plans, whose assets and payouts were sunk by the financier-caused Great Recession a decade ago. A million workers and retirees are in peril.

On that issue and others, Scalia pledged to enforce the law. He never pledged to change it or to lobby Trump for policies, people, and money needed to enforce it.

Despite the ducking, bobbing, and weaving, Scalia is on a fast track to sit in the Labor Secretary’s corner office. The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, scene of his confirmation hearing that day, will vote on the nomination on Sept. 24. None of its GOP members voiced any qualms about the management-side labor lawyer.

And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kent., has abolished the filibuster for Cabinet nominees, meaning unless all 45 Senate Democrats and two Democratic-leaning independents can coax four Republicans to join them, 55-year-old lawyer-lobbyist Scalia will head DOL.

“I’ll get back to you” or “let me look at that” ran through Scalia’s answers on issue after issue, from raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour to extending eligibility for overtime pay to ending the subminimum wage for disabled workers to sexual harassment or worse on the job.

“You represented Ford Motor Company against 30 women at its Chicago assembly plant” who formally complained of suffering everything there from unwanted sexual touching to rape, said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the GOP-run panel’s top Democrat. “Are the laws today too weak?” asked Murray, who’s introduced legislation to strengthen them.

“We do have strong protections in place, but education is needed. I would follow the law,“ Scalia replied.  “In my experience, the current system is very ineffective,” Murray shot back. “The (Labor) Secretary needs to lead.”

Ditto on other issues. “Something needs to be done and everybody recognizes the need,” Scalia told Sen. Tina Smith, DFL-Minn., who raised the pension plan issue after hearing the fears of Teamsters during a meeting in Duluth. But what? Scalia didn’t say.

The Democrats back long-term low-interest, mandatorily repayable federal loans to the affected pension plans – while barring benefit cuts for current retirees and their survivors. But when Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., pointed out even the Chamber of Commerce backs the loans, Scalia replied: “Just because the Chamber of Commerce says it doesn’t mean it’s right.”

Though McConnell set the Senate up to quickly seat Scalia in the DOL chief’s chair, management-side lawyer-lobbyist Scalia won’t get it without a fight from the nation’s unions, workers and their supporters in the Senate.

The AFL-CIO, the Communications Workers, the Steelworkers, and other unions actively oppose letting Scalia succeed Trump’s prior Labor Secretary, scandal-scarred Alex Acosta.

“Eugene Scalia has spent his entire career making life more difficult and dangerous for working people,” which is why the fed opposes him, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said.

Scalia has made his fortune over decades by fighting to ensure that the big guys – corporations – don’t, in fact, have to abide by regulations intended to foster, promote and develop the welfare of the little guys – wage earners, job seekers and retirees,” new Steelworkers President Tom Conway blogged, in part after Trump nominated Scalia.

“That is who Trump chose to protect wage earners: A corporatist so egregious that when former President George W. Bush wanted Scalia as Labor Department solicitor, Bush had to give him a recess appointment because Republicans in the Senate balked at approving him,” Conway added. The recess appointment ran out after several months.

“The nomination of Scalia raises major red flags due to his staunch anti-labor positions as well as his advocacy for multi-billion dollar CEOs,” the California Labor Federation said of Scalia’s anti-labor lobbying and legal cases for the pro-business law firm of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher.

“None of his work” there “actually benefited working people. While at his firm, Scalia made a name for himself by fighting labor regulations and lobbying on behalf of  Goldman Sachs, Koch Industries and other corporate giants.

“He lobbied on behalf of the Chamber of Commerce in 2010 to oppose financial industry regulations under the Dodd-Frank Act, and shut down campaign finance transparency rules proposed by the Disclose Act.”

“Unfortunately, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Scalia’s career also involved stealing pensions from retirees, as well as challenging OSHA programs in order to shield Walmart from spending more money on employee health care plans.”

The most that Labor Committee Democrats got from Scalia was that in a few instances – notably lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender rights – he’s changed his mind personally from past right-wing views.

But when the lawmakers pushed him to extend those changes to policy, such as advocating for raising the minimum wage, enforcing job safety and health law, endorsing equal pay for equal work legislation,  or dropping the Trump DOL’s plan to let employers discriminate against workers on the basis of sexual preference, religion, or both, Scalia ducked.

“I opposed Mr. Scalia’s nomination to the Department of Labor back in 2001 and 18 years later his record defending corporations as they trample workers’ rights has only gotten longer,” Murray said.

“Meanwhile, the need for someone who will stand up for workers and families, and stand up to President Trump on their behalf, has only become more urgent. Because we have seen, time and time again, that President Trump won’t hesitate to throw working families under the bus to help corporations, billionaires and the powerfully connected to get even further ahead.”


CONTRIBUTOR

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.

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