Alexander Acosta seems well on his way to confirmation as secretary of labor, with a Senate vote likely to occur in the coming weeks. Although he’s less cartoonishly ill-suited for the position than many of Trump’s cabinet picks, it’s nearly inconceivable that Acosta will emerge as a strong advocate for working people, given his history and confirmation hearing testimony. He showed little discomfort with Trump’s pro-business, antiregulatory agenda, dodged a number of key questions, and stated, “We all work for the president and we all will ultimately follow his direction.”
Frances Perkins, he’s not.
With flaccid and ineffectual enforcement at the federal level, it will fall increasingly to state and city agencies to be the primary enforcers of the labor laws. Filling the federal vacuum will be difficult enough, but the Trump administration has not merely exited the stage. Instead, Trump’s actions in what may seem to be another arena—specifically, his attacks on immigrants—have made it infinitely harder for states and localities to protect workers’ rights.
I’ve spent many years in state labor-law enforcement, and frankly, it’s always a challenge to get workers to talk to the government. I started in 1999 on a street corner uptown late at night; in a midtown McDonald’s before dawn; huddled under a Queens elevated subway long after dark, meeting with workers wherever I could, just before or after their 12-hour shifts. I was what we called a “baby lawyer” at the New York State Attorney General’s Office, investigating grossly subminimum wages paid by greengrocers to their mostly Mexican workers. I’ll avoid misty heroic clichés about the hope in the workers’ eyes or their weather-beaten hands, and just say that uniformly, they were tired.
I pinballed all over the city to build my case. I had to: Workers were scared to report violations. This is true of all employees: Even handsomely paid professionals and managers don’t want to risk losing their jobs by complaining. But low-wage workers with limited job-market skills face additional hurdles. Many don’t know their rights or where to seek help, and they work long shifts that often fall outside of the hours when government offices are open. And immigrant workers, who represent 17 percent of the nation’s workforce, are even more vulnerable. A 2009 study of labor-law violations found that foreign-born workers experienced minimum-wage violations nearly twice as often as their US-born counterparts. Immigrants may also face language barriers when seeking help, and undocumented workers, probably the most vulnerable and exploited in the country, often fear that filing a labor complaint could lead to contact with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and ultimately deportation.
Over the years, finding witnesses for our cases became less difficult, as we developed relationships with community organizations, unions, and other local groups that bridged the gap between our government offices and the people we were trying to reach.