Donald Trump has painted himself a champion of workers. But the record tells a different story
Few parts of the American body politic have been analysed as thoroughly as the love affair between a certain section of America’s working class and Donald Trump. And as the president prepares to give his first State of the Union speech on Tuesday, American workers are likely to hear once again how well they have fared under his presidency.
An analysis of the record tells a different story.
If you take the view from the White House or Republicans in Capitol Hill, America is great again. The US added 2.1m jobs in 2017 as the unemployment level fell to an 18-year low. Stock markets have boomed, pushed up in part by Trump’s promised tax cuts.
For Trump’s supporters, the figures prove he is making good on his promises. Massive corporations have shared (small) portions of their share of Trump’s $1.5tn tax windfall to their employees. America should be sick of winning!
Yet the recovery in the jobs market is slowing after one of the longest growth streaks in history and problems remain. And the record-busting rise in share prices has also been fueled by an unprecedented era of low interest rates, an era that is also coming to an end.
Shareholders and CEOs may have done very well out of Trump’s first year in office. But workers’ rights, says lobby group Good Jobs Nation in a new analysis, have been systematically attacked in a way that will affect labour for decades to come.
Indeed Trump’s most significant accomplishment, according to director Joseph Geevarghese, has been to “eviscerate” all the gains the labour movement made under the Obama administration.
If your vision of the future is one where teenagers can work in logging or with pesticides and restaurant owners can grab their staff’s tips, America is great again. But many working Americans have ended the year with less security than they started with.
It’s become a truism to argue that Trump has achieved little in office. Like many truisms, it’s not true. Trump’s tax plan, the largest overhaul of the tax system since Ronald Reagan, may be his only major policy move so far. But he has also made significant moves to end or roll back legislation aimed at protecting American workers – and 90 more pieces of legislation are in the works.
Last March, Trump revoked Barack Obama’s 2014 Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces executive order, which barred companies from federal contracts if they had a history of violating safety, workplace harassment or wage theft laws.
This year Republicans plan to push ahead with the repeal of other rules they believe will free business from burdensome legislation meant to protect workers, including:
- The Outdoor Recreation Enhancement Act, which would block requirements that federal government contractors at national parks pay workers $10.10 an hour, overtime and sick pay.
- The Future Logging Careers Act, which will expand the use of child labour in the forestry industry so that 16- and 17 year-olds can work in logging under adult supervision.
- The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is considering a rollback of a 2015 rule that banned children under 18 from working with toxic pesticides.
- The Department of Labor (DoL) has proposed repealing an Obama-era rule that workers who earn tips should keep them and that they could only be shared with other employees who received tips. The Trump administration argues the new rule is fairer because it means that tips can now be shared with “back of the house” employees who don’t get tipped. Critics point out that the establishment’s owner will now collect the tips and is not obligated to share them. In fact the rule specifically states that pooled money can be used for structural improvements or to lower prices.
All these moves have been cheered by the Heritage Foundation, the rightwing thinktank that gambled on ignoring Trump’s less than impeccable conservative credentials during the election in the hope of influencing his policies if he won. His efforts to “rein in the regulatory state already are showing promise, but more work needs to be done”, Alden Abbott, deputy director of Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at The Heritage Foundation, recently wrote.
This year could be a disaster for US unions. The Trump administration has filed an amicus brief in support of a supreme court case that could spell financial calamity for them.
The case, Janus v American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, is financed in large part by the conservative Bradley Foundation. It argues that non-union members who are forced to pay an “agency fee” to cover the expense of representing them in wage negotiations etc should be exempted because they should not be forced to subsidise a union’s political spending.
A similar case, Friedrichs v California Teachers Association, ended in deadlock at the supreme court. Now that Trump has put conservative justice Neil Gorsuch on the court, unions expect to lose. Some are preparing to lose a third of their income.
Department of Labor
The DoL provided the Trump administration with one of its earliest defeats – its failure to appoint former fast-food boss Andy Puzder as its head after a massive backlash from workers and unions. But that hiccup has not prevented similarly controversial nominations.
Patrick Pizzella, nominee for deputy labour secretary, lobbied in support of a programme that imported indentured labourers to the Marianas Islands to work in sweatshops where there were reports of forced abortions and beatings. Cheryl Stanton, his pick for wage and hour administrator, the top enforcer of minimum wage and overtime protections, has been sued for failing to pay her house cleaners.
On the subject of minimum wage it is also worth noting that the president has distanced himself from campaign promises to raise the federal minimum wage. He now thinks that this is an issue for states to decide, in line with his Republican colleagues.
National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)
The agency – which oversees the rights of private-sector workers to organise into unions, bargain collectively and engage in workplace protest – has been remade under Trump. Under Obama the NLRB made franchise companies, notably McDonald’s, liable as “joint employers” for unfair labour practices at the businesses that they effectively control. That rule is being rolled back.
“Trump ran as being the workers’ champion,” said Geevarghese. “He has done exactly the opposite.” Instead of being an agent of change, Geevarghese said the Trump administration had mirrored the orthodoxy of the rightwing arm of the Republican party. He said the only answer was for people to “hit the streets in greater numbers than ever before”.
“The worst, worst thing you can do is let a liar get away with his lies,” he said.
So when Trump outlines his achievements next Tuesday it is worth remembering that after discounting CEOs and shareholders, the man who promised change for working Americans has, for many, made life more uncertain.
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