Donald Trump’s campaign often attempted to recall bygone American eras, and with his selection of Andrew Puzder, Trump is reaching all the way back to the late 19th century—the time of the robber barons. Puzder’s words and deeds reveal a belief that workers are useful only insofar as they serve capital’s interests. And he might soon be in charge of protecting workers’ rights nationwide.
Puzder is the chief executive of CKE restaurants, which franchises Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. restaurants. In an interview with Business Insider last year, Puzder explained the potential benefits of automating his business: machines are “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,” he said. (Upselling is a retail term for steering customers to more expensive products.)
He opposes the expanded overtime protections put into motion by Obama’s Labor Department, which would double the overtime threshold for salaried workers to $47,476. (The rule was recently halted, perhaps temporarily, by a federal court.) Puzder—who makes more in one day than his minimum-wage workers make in a year—said he would be forced to deny hourly workers any salaried management positions, and that the rule giving workers more money would be a “barrier to the middle class rather than a springboard.”
Puzder is against minimum-wage increases. (He does claim to be in favor of “rational” increases, but doesn’t explain what that would be; he opposed Obama’s efforts to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10, so presumably less than that is “rational.”) He’s against paid sick leave. He’s against the Affordable Care Act. He’s heaped scorn on labor unions. He’s even against Medicaid and food stamps, which many of his poverty-wage workers rely on, because of a backward belief that “these programs have the unintended consequence of discouraging work rather than encouraging independence, self-reliance, and pride.”
As Justin Miller points out in an excellent profile for The American Prospect, Puzder doesn’t mind all forms of welfare—he is in favor of an Earned Income Tax Credit for low-wage workers that would allow him to continue paying them paltry hourly sums.
His actions mirror his hostile rhetoric towards low-wage workers. In California alone, Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. restaurants have been fined $20 million for wage and labor violations. Many of these violations are about meal and rest breaks, and Puzder has complained that California gives workers too many of those. (The state requires a 30-minute break every five hours.)
Puzder is also an open sexist, as his Carl’s Jr. ads featuring women in bikinis demonstrate. One ad proclaimed, “We believe in putting hot models in our commercials, because ugly ones don’t sell burgers.” Puzder told a reporter, “I like our ads. I like beautiful women eating burgers in bikinis. I think it’s very American.”
“He has objectified and undermined women in an effort to sell hamburgers,” said Vicki Shabo of the National Partnership for Women and Families on Thursday.
The reaction from Democrats and organized labor has been swift and furious. “His nomination represents the greatest assault on workers that we have seen in a generation,” said Representative Rosa DeLauro. “President-elect Trump has chosen an enemy of working people to be in charge of the very department tasked to protect them,” Representative Tim Ryan said in a statement. Senator Elizabeth Warren said, “Appointing Puzder to run the federal agency responsible for protecting workers is a slap in the face for every hard working American family.” And the AFL-CIO blasted Puzder as a man “defined by fighting against working people.”
Beyond his disdain for many particular pro-labor policies, Puzder’s nomination carries significant symbolic heft. The largest labor movement of the Obama era has been the Fight for $15, where low-wage service-sector workers, many of whom work in fast-food restaurants, have agitated across the country for higher wages.
By appointing the CEO of a fast-food mega-conglomerate—a man who once said that “a $15 minimum wage is something you should be protesting against”—Trump has told that movement to go fuck itself. This symbolic assault on the new heart of the labor movement came on the same 24-hour period that he feuded on Twitter with a local labor leader in Indiana, which quickly led to death threats at the man’s home.
The Fight for $15 is a critical burgeoning movement because more and more workers are being forced into involuntary part-time work—and not just because of the recession. Structural changes in the economy are creating a workforce that is increasingly part-time, and thus reliant on a higher minimum wage, paid sick leave and retirement policies, and other measures to protect them from exploitation.
According to a new study from the Economic Policy Institute, there are 6.4 million workers who want to work full-time but are instead working part-time. This represents a 1.3 percent increase in the number of involuntary workers prior to the Great Recession. And the trend is accelerating—according to the study, “involuntary part-time work is increasing almost five times faster than part-time work and about 18 times faster than all work.”
Most of these workers are concentrated in the retail, hospitality, and leisure industries, and the EPI study found that “structural factors were at least as important as cyclical factors.” In other words, those industries are choosing to employ more and more people as part-time workers, and that trend isn’t likely to reverse even as the economy improves.
These are the workers that need the most protection from the Labor Department, and Puzder is not likely to provide it. “An approach such as I think we will see, will do nothing for part-time workers in terms of their ability to get more hours of work, fair pay, or the kind of scheduling reforms that allow people to balance work and family,” said Larry Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute.
In many ways, Puzder’s nomination represents an assault on the economic populism Trump pretended to believe in on the campaign trail, with his focus on jobs and the “forgotten worker.”
Trump doesn’t appear to be paying a political price for violating his campaign promises in that way—in normal circumstances, Republicans appear eager to go along with Trump’s picks and can deliver him the simple majority in the Senate that he needs.
But ironically, another vein of Trump’s populism might yet derail Puzder—the xenophobic nationalism that also defined his campaign. Puzder favors a liberal immigration policy, which he puts primarily in terms of cheap labor, particularly for his industry.
This has led to a full-on revolt from important parts of Trump’s base. Breitbart is ripping the selection with front-page articles. FAIR, a prominent hard-line anti-immigrant group, said it has “questions and concerns” about Puzder’s nomination. Mark Krikorian, the head of the right-wing Center for Immigration Studies, has declared himself part of the #NeverPuzder movement.
Puzder’s confirmation is not assured—even if Trump brushes these groups off and sticks with Puzder, it will take only a small handful of Republicans to join Democrats in blocking confirmation. But it’s important to understand what a giant middle finger to the labor movement and low-wage workers his very nomination represents.