Proposed cuts to federal agency budgets and changes to employment law benefit only the US president and his cronies.
As Donald Trump celebrates Labor Day by proposing to slash taxes for CEOs such as himself, it may come as a shock that a president who was previously best known for firing people on TV might not have been completely sincere in his promise to put “American workers first”.
And like most things he says, it’s hard to tell what that’s supposed to mean. This is the same man who, as a candidate, said US workers’ salaries were “too high”, something even the most reactionary politician knows not to say out loud.
So when he proclaims that “lower taxes on American business means higher wages for American workers”, the fact that this statement is demonstrably false is beside the point: as a new report from the Institute for Policy Studies shows, the job growth rate for corporations that paid the least amount in taxes over the past eight years was negative 1%, compared to 6% for the private sector as a whole; businesses for the most part spent tax breaks not on job creation but on stock buybacks and executive pay.
It’s also beside the point whether Trump actually believes corporate tax cuts benefit workers. They benefit him, and the people he goes golfing with, and that’s all that matters. This is a president who embodies rent-seeking at its purest.
Consider the Department of Labor, an otherwise low-profile department targeted in Trump’s budget proposal for a 21% funding cut, the largest of any federal agency after the Environmental Protection Agency and State Department.
The Department of Labor is known mostly for enforcing overtime and minimum wage rules under the Fair Labor Standards Act, and probably wouldn’t be on Trump’s radar were it not for the fact that it has hit his businesses with 24 violations for failing to pay workers.
Trump’s original pick to run the department, Carl’s Jr CEO Andy Puzder, shared with Trump a long list of FLSA violations; his fast food business is one of the worst offenders in an industry well known for ripping off workers.
Under Puzder’s replacement, Alex Acosta, the Department of Labor has taken measures to ensure deadbeat employers will go unpunished. These include ending a policy holding businesses responsible for violations committed by subcontractors, rescinding disclosure requirements for law firms engaging in union busting, overturning rules to prevent companies from misclassifying employees as independent contractors (making them ineligible for overtime, unemployment insurance and workers compensation), and excluding many workers from overtime by lowering the disqualifying income threshold former president Barack Obama had raised from just over $23,000 to $47,000.
The Trump Department of Labor has also taken steps to hobble the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), an agency established by Richard Nixon whose workplace safety mission isn’t normally an area of partisan contestation.
Nevertheless, under Trump, the Department of Labor has delayed rules protecting workers from lung disease caused by exposure to silica and beryllium, barred union representatives from certain health and safety inspections and, in a petty but symbolic move, erased a tally of deaths from workplace accidents from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration website.
The Department of Labor isn’t the only arena for Trump’s assault on workers. He has overturned Obama-era executive orders requiring federal contractors to disclose labour and safety violations, and companies to disclose race and gender pay gaps; equal pay for women had been one of Ivanka Trump’s personal causes until it suddenly wasn’t.
And at the Supreme Court, Trump’s solicitor general made the highly unusual move of switching sides in a case on whether companies could force workers to sign mandatory arbitration agreements and thereby lose their right to file class action lawsuits; the Trump administration chose to argue against its own agency, which had found this to be a violation of workers’ rights.
Trump’s most lasting legacy for workers is likely to be his Supreme Court pick, Neil Gorsuch, who is poised to be the deciding vote in a case that will financially cripple public sector unions and speed the slow death of organised labour in the US.
It’s hard to imagine a more anti-worker agenda from any president, much less one claiming the mantle of champion of the American worker. Yet despite this record, Trump continues to show up at factories wearing a hardhat and taking credit for saving jobs that have already been shipped overseas.
To say he’s done nothing wouldn’t be a fair assessment. It’s just nothing he promised workers, who were sold a president who would repeal the North American Free Trade Agreement and stand up to China, and instead got their overtime and workers comp taken away.
The business term for this is bait and switch. It’s a practice Trump knows well. As a businessman, he promised to pay his workers, contractors and creditors, and frequently didn’t. He isn’t the first president to get elected pledging to run Washington like he runs his business. But at least, in this regard, he was the most honest.
- Michael Paarlberg is an assistant professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University
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