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The Rejection of Andy Puzder ⋆ Epeak . Independent news and blogs

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The emptiness of President Trump’s campaign promises to lift up the forgotten American worker has been nowhere more starkly exposed than in his nomination of Andy Puzder, a fast-food executive, as his Secretary of Labor—a nomination that fell apart on Wednesday, as Puzder, facing almost certain failure in a confirmation vote, withdrew his name. Puzder did not fail because he was just a rich Republican donor being rewarded with a Cabinet position. That was the case with Betsy DeVos, who was barely confirmed as Secretary of Education. The reasons were richer than that.

For one thing, Puzder’s progress toward confirmation was slow—his financial-disclosure paperwork was reportedly complex—giving his opponents time to fill in his record. As the chief executive officer of CKE Restaurants, the parent company of the Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s burger chains, Puzder has been a fierce opponent of significant raises to the minimum wage, new rules for overtime, paid sick leave, unions, workplace regulations, and nearly all work-related benefits and rights—the entire mission, basically, of the Department of Labor. The fast-food industry is not known as a respecter of labor laws. And yet Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s, in a recent study by the news site Capital & Main, together ranked first among major U.S. burger chains in the rate of federal employment-discrimination lawsuits brought against them per billion dollars in sales. Trump, announcing Puzder’s nomination, in December, said that his “extensive record fighting for workers makes him the ideal candidate to lead the Department of Labor.” It was hard to tell if Trump was bleakly joking or simply working from an invisible set of alternative facts.

Puzder made some astonishing statements of his own. Like Trump, he deeply distrusts government, and, again like the President, he doesn’t believe in the official unemployment rate, as calculated, painstakingly, by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (part of the Department of Labor). The most striking aspect of Puzder’s world view, though, as revealed in his public statements, is his utter contempt for his employees.

In 2011, speaking to students at California State University, Puzder said, “In fast food, you sort of compete for the best of the worst. In other words, you’re not getting the Microsoft guys. At Hardee’s, we were getting the worst of the worst.” He made similar remarks to another group of college students. In an interview with Business Insider, he talked about the advantages of replacing employees with machines. “They’re always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex, or race discrimination case.”

The long wait for a confirmation hearing also gave Puzder a chance to cough up the fact, which emerged only last week, that he had personally employed an undocumented immigrant. “My wife and I employed a housekeeper for a few years, during which I was unaware that she was not legally permitted to work in the U.S.,” he said, in a written statement released by a company spokesman. “When I learned of her status, we immediately ended her employment and offered her assistance in getting legal status. We have fully paid back taxes to the IRS and the state of California.” The offer of assistance, which was reportedly declined, was a nice touch. But the back taxes were only paid in December, after the announcement of Puzder’s nomination. By then, the taxes were five years overdue. Had the C.E.O. of a large corporation really not known about employer taxes? At first, Republican leaders seemed to stand by him. Senator Lamar Alexander, the Republican of Tennessee and chairman of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, said, with a huff, that Puzder should be given a pass. He had come forward, after all. Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, solemnly agreed.

It seemed all too obvious that a galling double standard was at work, since at least three earlier Cabinet nominations were scuttled by similar revelations. In 1993, Zoe Baird, nominated by President Bill Clinton as Attorney General, was forced to withdraw because she had employed two undocumented Peruvians, one as a babysitter, the other as a chauffeur. Clinton’s next choice, Kimba Wood, a federal judge, was also hounded off the stage for having once employed an undocumented nanny, even though doing so had been legal at the time and all taxes had been paid. Then, in 2001, Linda Chavez, nominated by President George W. Bush to be Secretary of Labor, was abruptly disqualified for having, a decade earlier, given money to an illegal immigrant from Guatemala who lived in her home and did some cleaning. These miscreants, of course, were all women, and thus more directly responsible for child care (“Nannygate”) and all things domestic. Mark Shields, the pundit, notes that none of these women “ever invoked her husband in explaining any of the questionable actions that doomed her nomination. But not Trump’s Puzder, who attempted to hide behind his spouse’s skirts with his ‘my wife and I’ construction.” Shields called Puzder’s response “unmanly.”

Still, that particular problem might not have been fatal. Wilbur Ross, Trump’s pick for Commerce Secretary, and a private-equity billionaire, had also admitted, at his confirmation hearing, having recently fired an undocumented member of his household staff. No problem, the senators said. But with Puzder, there was more: harrowing accusations by his first wife of domestic violence, some of them contained in Missouri court documents unsealed on Tuesday, others she made anonymously on the “Oprah Winfrey Show,” in 1990. Puzder has strongly denied the allegations; his former wife has since recanted, and has said that she supports Puzder. But senators reportedly studied tapes of the Winfrey show.

Puzder’s corporate brand, for that matter, is not exactly woman-friendly. TV commercials for the burger chains feature young women in bikinis lasciviously eating, washing expensive cars, or riding a mechanical bull. In 2011, the company issued a press release explaining its marketing strategy: “We believe in putting hot models in our commercials, because ugly ones don’t sell burgers.”

There was more. Puzder’s company, like Trump’s companies, does not always practice what Trump preaches when it comes to keeping jobs in the United States. It has outsourced its information-technology division to the Philippines. More embarrassingly for Trump, protesters in at least two dozen cities have been rallying this week, carrying signs with Puzder’s face and the epithets “Wage Thief” and “Tax Cheat.” The Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division has conducted ninety-four investigations of Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s since 2004, and found more than a thousand violations, including paying below minimum wage, withholding pay, altering time cards, and not paying overtime. When Puzder was asked about this record, his spokesman pointed out that the individual restaurants where these abuses occur are nearly all franchises, which are legally responsible for the treatment of employees, including pay. That is technically true, but the standard franchise contract throughout the fast-food industry binds the franchisee tightly to a low-pay, cost-cutting business model that leads to abuses.

After a career spent inveighing against government interference in his industry, and testing, protesting, and violating the laws and regulations the Labor Department helps to enforce, Puzder would have made an unlikely watchdog. His many other flaws made him an absurd and, ultimately, unconfirmable one. It was always unlikely that Puzder would receive any confirming votes from Democratic senators. As of Tuesday, there were four Republicans still uncommitted, including Susan Collins, of Maine, and Lisa Murkowski, of Alaska, both of whom voted against DeVos. There were reports on Wednesday that the number of no votes was growing, even among Republicans who had previously voiced their support.

The rejection of Andy Puzder gives President Trump a chance to immediately reconsider his plutocratic impulses on labor relations. He says that he wants to make the Republican Party the workers’ party, the people’s party. Trump met with leaders of the building-trade unions shortly after his Inauguration—carpenters, plumbers, sheet-metal workers. He wooed them with talk of big infrastructure projects. These are among the most conservative unions in the country. They are still predominantly white and male, and within the broader union movement their numbers are small compared to service workers, teachers, women, and people of color. But the hard-hat unions are still significant, and many of their members voted for Trump. Organized labor as a whole, while much diminished from its heyday, is still important, particularly to the Democratic Party. Andy Puzder represented predatory, unbridled capitalism, a zero-sum game. If Trump is even a tiny bit serious about helping the forgotten worker, he needs to do better with his next nominee. Even Republicans seem to have realized that.



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