The Trump smokescreen gets thicker and thicker
Left to right: Gorsuch, McConnell, Trump. | AP

WASHINGTON—Forget Steve Bannon. Forget the White House merry-go-round. Forget the scandals over high spending on government planes for private travel – including millions for taking the presidential party to Mar-a-Lago or Manhattan. Forget even Donald Trump’s tweets.

We’d say forget the Russia investigation, too, until the special counsel’s mass indictments on Feb. 15 covering three years of interference in the U.S. election system blew that mess wide open.

All of that is a smokescreen. By design or not, coverage and concentration on those issues have let the Republican president skillfully divert attention, at least among the chattering classes and the so-called mainstream media, away from what his government in general and Trump, in particular, are pulling off.

As the late John Mitchell, former GOP President Richard Nixon’s attorney general, said near the end of Nixon’s first year in office: “Watch what we do, not what we say.”

So let’s do that. Trump and his troops — his Cabinet, his agency appointees and his Republican enablers from Capitol Hill to City Hall – are, or should be, better known for what they’re doing to the people, not “of… by… and for the people,” to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln.

The list is long and getting longer. From letting restaurant bosses steal servers’ tips to letting shady for-profit private colleges steal students’ tuition – and the federal aid that makes it possible for the students to go to school – before closing up shop, the abuses are rife.

And that’s even before the Trump-GOP tax cut for the rich and corporations kicks in. Not to mention the Republicans’ administrative attacks on the Affordable Care Act along with their sabotage of both its finances and the health exchanges the act established. Not to mention undermining teachers’ unions by giving parents a $10,000 tax break for sending kids to private schools.

Union presidents Lee Saunders of AFSCME and Randi Weingarten of the Teachers are among those who realize what the president and his zealots are doing.

“Trump is a master marketer and a master of diversion and deflection,” Weingarten said in an interview. “The Russian” election interference “investigation is very Washington-centric and it’s easy to cover” for national media, just like “law and order and Watergate.”

“But what is really happening is that Trump ran as a populist but is governing as an elitist. We are seeing that things people need as part of the social contract – such as health care and public education – are being ignored.”

Saunders agreed. The Russian election interference and the scandal “tend to deflect attention from what’s really happening” to people nationwide from Trump-GOP policies, Saunders said in an interview. “If you ask somebody who’s suffering every day” about the Russian election interference or the Trump scandals, “it’s not their #1 priority.”

And while the Trump-GOP tax cut enriches the rich and corporations, here’s just a partial list of what the Republican president, his appointees and his congressional puppets are doing to the rest of us. Just in major issues involving workers, the record can be summed up in one word: Horrifying.

Attacking workers’ rights and unions

  • In the biggest workers’ rights case to hit the Supreme Court in decades, the Trump Justice Department sided with the rabid and vicious anti-labor National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, in Janus v AFSCME, which the justices will ponder on Jan. 26. An anti-worker decision in that case would make every state and local government worker in the U.S. a “free rider,” able to use union services without paying for them, robbing unions of tens of thousands of members and millions of dollars in revenue to use for basic things such as bargaining and grievances.

The non-unionists whom the unions represent in state and local government worksites pay “agency fees,” where the law allows, to cover only costs of collective bargaining and grievances. Echoing the RTW crowd, the Trump Justice Department says those fees – which do not cover politics or other activities – “are coerced payments” and violate the workers’ 1st Amendment free speech rights.

  • The arguments over Janus wouldn’t matter, except Trump virtually ensured workers and unions will lose. Aided and abetted by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ken., Trump elevated federal judge Neil Gorsuch to the High Court, filling the year-long vacancy there. McConnell refused to even hold hearings on Democratic President Barack Obama’s nominee, appellate judge Merrick Garland.

Gorsuch, son of a right-wing Reagan Republican official, showed persistent anti-worker bias in his lower court rulings and writings. Unions expect he’ll be the guaranteed fifth Republican vote on the court to throw out a 43-year-old precedent which lets unions – in non-right-to-work states – collect “agency fees” from non-unionists whom contracts cover, to pay only for bargaining and grievances.

GOP NLRB majority kills pro-worker policies

  • In the few months in 2017 the three GOP appointees to the National Labor Relations Board enjoyed a majority – before holdover Philip Miscimarra retired, producing a 2-2 tie – they rolled back several major labor protections.

Among those to fall by the wayside were the right to organize parts of plants, rather than full factories; and holding joint employers – both local franchises and corporate headquarters of the same firm, such as McDonald’s – responsible for obeying or breaking labor law.

  • The board’s Trump-named nominees also want to roll back Obama-era NLRB rules that demolished some of the roadblocks companies erect, such as endless appeals to the courts over who can vote, to prevent union representation elections.

And in Miscimarra’s last ruling, the board said companies can unilaterally change “terms and conditions of employment,” the subjects firms and unions must bargain about, during the talks.

  • Trump also nominated and the GOP Senate majority installed new NLRB General Counsel Peter Robb. As a young federal lawyer, Robb wrote the legal memo that let Ronald Reagan fire the Air Traffic Controllers who struck on safety grounds. Robb, in a memo to field offices, says he wants to roll back virtually every pro-worker ruling of the eight Obama years.

In that memo, Robb also said he wants to allow discrimination against union workers during bargaining and let firms ban unions from using company e-mail systems to announce meetings, among other things. And companies would be able to impose restrictive handbook rules and monitor – and fire workers for – their social media postings, Robb’s memo says.

  • And forget #MeToo at the NLRB. Robb wants to overturn an Obama-era ruling protecting single workers who complain about labor law-breaking. The case that extended such protections involved a woman worker who protested sexual harassment.

“Robb has spent his career trying to strip workers of their rights, defending corporations accused of mistreating workers and trying to undermine the watchdog agency he’s now seeking to join. Someone who views unions and collective bargaining as a threat to be dealt with, rather than essential rights to be protected, has no business serving as the top lawyer for the Labor Relations Board,” Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said as almost all Senate Democrats opposed Robb for the post.

Trump labor department dumps pro-worker rules

  • Not to be outdone, the Republican management at the Labor Department dumped the Obama administration rule expanding eligibility for overtime pay and trashed or delayed almost all recent basic worker safety and health rules. Its latest brainstorm is to roll back Obama’s rule that prevented bosses from stealing workers’ tips.
  • DOL’s also making things easier for “persuaders,” the so-called law firms whom unions and workers know as “union busters.” From 1959 until late in the Obama administration, the union busters didn’t have to report their spending unless it was directly used against organizing drives. Obama’s DOL changed that to require the union busters to report their spending – just like unions must – even if they indirectly stopped organizing. Trump’s DOL yanked that.
  • In their zeal to justify letting bosses grab workers’ tips, top Trump Labor Department brass suppressed a study showing the tipped workers would lose millions of dollars to such theft. The Economic Policy Institute calculated the losses, suffered by some of the lowest-paid workers in the country, would be between $5.8 billion and $13 billion yearly.
  • Both Trump’s Labor Department and the Republican-run Congress have trashed DOL’s “fiduciary rule.” The rule, yet another from the Obama administration, would have helped workers by ordering financial advisors for both individuals and pension funds to put clients’ interests first, instead of their own, and banning self-serving advice.
  • Trump’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, a key DOL agency, also decided to ban workers – and especially union members – from joining OSHA inspectors’ walkarounds at workplace disaster sites, even though the Occupational Safety and Health Act specifically says worker reps can join the inspections.
  • OSHA, at White House orders prompted by industry demands, delayed implementation of new rules governing worker exposure to two extremely hazardous substances, beryllium and silica. Some 62,000 workers yearly suffer high exposure to beryllium, which causes lung cancer, The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) reports. And Trump’s DOL has talked about dumping Obama’s extended protections for 11,500 seafarers and construction workers against beryllium exposure, it adds.
  • Also gone: An OSHA rule requiring firms to keep job injury and illness records, as incomplete as those are, for five years, not just six months. “If an employee is cut or burned, or suffers an amputation, contracts a job-related illness, or is killed in an accident on the job, then it is the employer’s duty to record the incident and work with OSHA to investigate what happened,” EPI says.

“Failure to keep injury/illness records means that employers, OSHA, and workers cannot learn from past mistakes and makes it harder to prevent the same tragedies from happening to others. By signing the resolution to block this rule, Trump gave employers a get-out-of-jail-free card.” The GOP-run Congress later ratified that decision, banning OSHA from ever tackling the issue again.

“An examination of the regulations repealed or rescinded reveals many of the rules that were eliminated provided important protections to our nation’s workers,” EPI says. “Trump and congressional Republicans have blocked regulations that protect workers’ pay, safety, and rights to organize and join a union. By blocking these rules, the president and Congress are raising the risks for workers while rewarding companies that put their employees’ health, safety, and paychecks at risk.”

Other Trump agencies attack workers

  • DOL isn’t the only Trump Cabinet agency trampling workers. While Trump officially pulled the plug on the jobs-losing Trans-Pacific Partnership “free trade” pact – after Obama shelved it due to labor and congressional Democratic opposition – his trade rep went ahead with negotiations for a “new NAFTA.”

Trump would write worker rights into the new NAFTA text, but he’s vague on how strong they would be, or how they would be enforced. And while Trump brays about Mexican worker rights violations and low wages, which cost U.S. jobs as U.S. firms decamp south of the border, he’s silent on a demand from the third NAFTA nation, Canada, to strengthen worker rights in the U.S. by outlawing so-called state “right to work” laws.

  • Trump’s Agriculture Department is considering a proposal from big chicken producers, and their Republican congressional advocates, to eliminate limits on poultry line speeds at processing plants. The Obama USDA allowed one speedup, over the protests, and actual picketing, of USDA poultry inspectors and their union, the Government Employees. They argued a faster production line would decrease consumer safety – by allowing more sick chickens to speed through – and cause more worker injuries.
  • On Feb. 16, the Commerce Department finally recommended that Trump curb steel and aluminum imports that threaten national security. The dumped metals from China and elsewhere cause domestic plants to close, workers to lose their jobs and make the U.S. dependent on foreign metal for its guns, tanks and aircraft. Commerce gave Trump several options, including tariffs of up to 53 percent, and import quotas. His deadline is in mid-April.

“Aluminum and steel workers are still waiting to see if Trump will be a different kind of politician or whether he will do nothing about unfairly traded aluminum and steel imports,” Steelworkers President Leo Gerard said earlier in February.

GOP-run Congress piles on

  • Trump’s Republican troops on Capitol Hill got into the act, too. Using a Gingrich-era law, the Congressional Review Act (CRA), they obliterated federal rules, not only repealing them now but banning the agencies involved – including the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau – from ever tackling those topics again. Before the recent slew of CRA laws, the act was invoked only once its preceding 21 years: To eliminate OSHA’s rule designed to end ergonomic (repetitive-motion) injuries on the job.

Trump crowed about using the CRA. He held a press conference, flanked by right-wing Republican governors and mayors, to sign four repeals. One “rolls back the so-called blacklisting rule,” he said.

That was an Obama-era Labor Department rule telling federal contracting officers to take into account a corporation’s record in obeying – or disobeying – labor laws, environmental laws, civil rights laws and paying its taxes when considering whether to award it federal contracts. Manufacturers “said this blacklisting rule was one of the greatest threats to growing American business and hiring more American workers,” Trump claimed. He presented no evidence of the “threat.”

“Congressional Republicans have been instrumental in supporting this deregulatory effort,” EPI reported. “In the first 90 days of the (2017) congressional session, the House and Senate used CRA resolutions — which provide for a quick process to overrule recent regulations — to overturn 14 Obama-era rules.”

And the tax cut law gives more aid to parents of private-school kids, at the expense of public schools and their teachers. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, inserted that provision, pushed by Trump Education Secretary Elizabeth “Betsy” DeVos. It lets those parents use “529 savings accounts” to withdraw up to $10,000 a year tax-free to use for “public, private or religious elementary or secondary school expenses.” Until now, the parents could pull out the money only to pay for kids to go to college. The law “ensures each child receives an education that meets their individual needs, instead of being forced into a one-size-fits-all approach to education, or limited to their zip code,” Cruz claimed.


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 a holy terror when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners. El galardonado periodista Mark Gruenberg es el director de la oficina de People's World en Washington, D.C. También es editor del servicio de noticias sindicales Press Associates Inc. (PAI).