Congress should oppose Acosta’s confirmation and demand a pro-worker secretary of labor

Alexander Acosta will not be the secretary of labor that working people need, and for that reason, senators should oppose his confirmation. As Senator Elizabeth Warren said, the test is not whether Acosta is better than Andrew Puzder, a truly abysmal, insulting choice to lead the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL). The test must be whether he will be a strong advocate for working Americans, someone who will use the power of his department to improve their lives. The evidence from Acosta’s confirmation hearings and his past service in the government shows that he will not. The best we might hope for is that he will not politicize the agency and will be a caretaker until an administration that believes in the Labor Department’s mission is elected. That is not enough.

It isn’t even clear that Acosta will be a good caretaker of the agency whose mission is to foster and promote the welfare of the nation’s job seekers, wage earners, and retirees. At Acosta’s confirmation hearing, Senator Maggie Hassan (D-NH) asked whether Acosta would defend the DOL against the draconian 21 percent budget cut called for in President Trump’s preliminary budget. Acosta refused to say he would, despite professing concern about reducing the already tiny number of OSHA compliance officers in New Hampshire. Even Scott Pruitt, who spent years in state government attacking and suing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) before his appointment as EPA administrator, cared enough about his mission to publicly oppose the EPA budget sent to Congress by Trump’s Office of Management and Budget. DOL’s Wage and Hour Division has fewer than 1000 inspectors for 7.3 million workplaces, and wage theft is a nationwide epidemic costing workers tens of billions of dollars a year. Yet Acosta would not commit to work to preserve the meager resources devoted to protecting workers from abuse.

Another prime example of Acosta’s lack of enthusiasm for the department’s mission are his views on the Obama administration’s rule expanding overtime protections to millions of salaried workers. The rule only partly restored overtime coverage to the levels that prevailed in the 1960s and 1970s, yet a court in Texas issued an injunction blocking enforcement of the rule in a confused decision that said either: 1. the Department of Labor has no authority to set a salary threshold for exemption from overtime protections, even though it has done so from the first day the law took effect in 1938, or 2. the department set the threshold so high that it exceeded its authority. Both of these conclusions are wrong, and a lawyer who wants to be the secretary of labor should care enough to know that there is controlling precedent in the 5th Circuit, directly on point, that affirms the secretary of labor’s authority.

Nevertheless, Acosta approaches the issue as a neutral observer without a stake in the outcome, unwilling to defend the secretary of labor’s authority to fully protect the overtime rights of salaried workers that has been exercised by Republican and Democratic secretaries for almost 80 years. It is one thing to fail to exercise the department’s authority; it is another, and a worse thing, to be unwilling to assert that the authority even exists.

Acosta’s caretaker attitude can be seen in his views on the minimum wage, which Congress has not increased in eight years, and whose value is now less than 75 percent of its value in 1968. The tipped subminimum wage of $2.13 an hour has not been raised since 1991—26 years ago. Yet Acosta refused to say he supports any minimum wage increase and fell back on a pledge only to enforce whatever rate Congress chooses. That is not the advocacy for working families we should expect from a secretary of labor.

The Labor Department has an important mission overseeing the rights of union members to fair elections and corruption-free leadership, and enormous power to enforce these rights. But such power can also be used destructively, and misuse of the government’s power over unions is more likely if the secretary of labor is unsympathetic to the important role unions play in our economy and society. Despite having served on the National Labor Relations Board, Acosta refused several opportunities to affirm the value of unions to our democracy and to a healthy economy, and would only say that people have the right to join unions or refuse to join if they prefer. Here’s a sample of his views, from questions and answers submitted for the record following Acosta’s confirmation hearing:

Do you agree that labor unions are important to achieving and maintaining fairness and balance in our economy?

ANSWER: “The right to collectively bargain is clearly established in law, as is the right of workers to decide whether to join a union or to refrain from joining a union. This reflects a congressional judgement [sic] that providing this right can help maintain balance in our economy.”

Unions promote wage equality, help achieve safer workplaces, help workers win a bigger share of corporate income, and provide a democratically elected voice for the views of working Americans before local, state, and national governments. They are immensely valuable institutions encouraged by federal law, and yet Acosta could not find one good thing to say about them other than that Congress (not Acosta) judged the right to collective bargaining helpful in maintaining balance in the economy.

Alex Acosta is not, like Andy Puzder, a caricature of an over-entitled, sketchy, ill-informed, and exploitative boss. Members of EPI’s board of directors affirm that he believes in the rule of law. But there is no evidence that Acosta will be a strong advocate for workers. And his unwillingness to answer basic questions on his views of important labor policies at his confirmation hearing leaves no evidence that he will stand up to those in the Trump White House whose priorities are weakening government and unions alike or “deconstructing” the administrative system that regulates business and protects workers and consumers from abuse. Acosta will not be a counterweight to those in Trump’s administration or in Congress who are happy to see wages continue to stagnate and the safety net continue to fray.

The Department of Labor exists to help ensure that every working person has a good, safe job with fair pay and retirement security. But Acosta has not shown working people that he can be counted on to protect their retirement investments by enforcing the Labor Department’s fiduciary rule, to ensure their health and safety by enforcing OSHA’s Silica standard, or to protect their overtime pay by defending or enforcing the updated overtime rule.

We urge the Senate to reject Mr. Acosta’s confirmation and tell the president that America needs a strong, pro-worker secretary of labor.