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 onetime 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 labor secretary, 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 its 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 the law firm Preston Gates. During those years Pizzella worked extensively with 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 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.
In 1993, The New York Times interviewed a woman born in Shanghai who worked on Saipan, one of the islands. She received $2.15 an hour and lived in a “cramped barracks room that she shares with seven other women, their beds separated only by flimsy cloth sheets. The room also serves as a kitchen.” She told the Times, “We come here because we make more money here than in China, and because the recruiters in China tell us that Saipan is part of America.” She also said, “If we complain, then our bosses would send us back to China and take away all of our money. Our families need the money.”
In 2000, Republican Senator Frank Murkowski offered a similar account of sweatshops he visited in the Northern Mariana Islands. “The living quarters are pretty rough,” Murkowski said. “We went into some of them. There are four to six women in one room. The beds look like little more than an enlarged children’s crib.”
Murkowski also recounted meeting a Bangladeshi security guard who lived in a hovel. “This is behind one of the major hotels, the Hyatt hotel,” Murkowski recalled. “There were a series of shacks…. We found an area where there was no water, no sewer, no electricity. They were heating inside on a kerosene stove. The concern he had is he had not been paid. He had been given checks by his employer, and those checks had been returned for non-sufficient funds.” Wage theft and firings led some guest workers to be stranded in the islands for an extended period since they lacked funds to return home.
Aside from Murkowski, more than a hundred other members of Congress, often accompanied by family and staff, visited the Northern Mariana Islands in the 1990s. Most of these lawmakers were, like Murkowski, Republicans. But Murkowski was one of the few who made the effort to find out what working conditions were like on the island.
The majority of the other lawmakers went on Potemkin tours organized by Abramoff and Pizzella, luxurious junkets during which the guests stayed at the Hyatt but didn’t inspect the shacks behind the hotel. These trips were more about golfing and snorkeling than labor standards.
They also had an ideological component. The pitch Abramoff and Pizzella made was that the Northern Mariana Islands were a libertarian paradise, a utopia that showed how deregulation and the absence of labor laws allowed unbridled capitalism to generate great wealth.
Then–House majority whip Tom DeLay was one of the many Republicans who bought into this line. He referred to the islands as “a perfect petri dish of capitalism.” For DeLay, the capitalist energy on display in the island was revelatory. “It’s like my Galapagos Island,” the lawmaker enthused.
After leaving Preston Gates in 2001, Pizzella served as a Department of Labor official under both George W. Bush and Barrack Obama. This gives him a patina of bipartisanship and managerial competence, but by all reports he remains committed to the same hard-right vision of labor relations he had when he drew a princely salary to whitewash sweatshops.
Bloomberg Law reports that Pizzella is “seen by associates on Capitol Hill as a harder-charging advocate for industry interests and more inclined than the cautious Acosta to rapidly reverse Obama-era policies that favored certain workers and unions.” If this is accurate, Trump has managed to replace a disgraced cabinet secretary with someone far worse.