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Trump Can Always Find Someone Worse

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The Trump administration is so scandal plagued that the outrages have to be grouped into genres. There are personal scandals, involving individual misconduct of a sort that transcends the partisan divide, such as Donald Trump’s alleged payout to his one-time amour Stormy Daniels. But there are also ideological offenses involving an extremist right-wing agenda, as with the family separation policy on the border.

The turmoil at the Department of Labor shows how the two types of scandals can feed into each other. On Friday, Alexander Acosta resigned as Secretary of Labor, felled by the fallout of the arrest of Jeffrey Epstein, the convicted child molester who received a sweetheart deal in 2008 from Acosta, then a United States attorney. Given the sordidness of the deal, a slap on the wrist for vile acts of sexual violence, Acosta’s resignation was welcome news.

But, true to form, Trump managed to name a replacement who might turn out, at least in policy terms, to be even worse: Patrick Pizzella, the Deputy Secretary of Labor, is set to be elevated to acting Secretary. Compared with the plodding and conflict-shy Acosta, who by the standards of the Trump administration was a moderate cabinet secretary, Pizzella is likely to be an eager henchman for big business in their efforts to throttle labor unions and discard Obama-era regulations.

Remarkably for a man about to run the Labor Department, Pizzella is a former sweatshop lobbyist. As Judy Conti of the National Employment Law Project noted in 2018, “He has a lengthy and well-documented history as a highly-paid lobbyist who advocated to perpetuate conditions for workers in the Northern Mariana Islands that were nothing short of indentured servitude.”

Conti is referring to Pizzella’s employment from 1996 until 2001 at law firm Preston Gates. During those years Pizzella worked extensively with the now disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff to push against attempts to regulate wages and immigration on the Northern Mariana Islands, a group of 14 islands that enjoyed an anomalous legal status as American territories. They were allowed to set their own wages and immigration law—a loophole which the local government used to promote industries like construction and garment manufacturing by promising cheap labor to big business.

Recruiting tens of thousands of workers from China, the Philippines and Bangladesh, companies operating in the Northern Mariana Islands made clothes that said “Made in America” but were in fact created in a legal netherworld where employees enjoyed few of the rights of Americans. They were guest workers who in their home countries often had to pay for the privilege of getting the job and so started in debt to their employers. Their contracts frequently stipulated that they couldn’t unionize, take part in politics, have boyfriends or children. There were reports of forced abortions conducted in back-alleys. Risking deportation if they complained about their conditions, the workers lived in veritable prisons surrounded by barbed wire fences.

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