On Wednesday, foes of President Donald Trump and his Cabinet selections finally claimed a win: Andrew Puzder, nominee for Secretary of Labor, officially withdrew himself from consideration less than 24 hours before his scheduled hearing.
Puzder, the CEO of the company that owns fast food chains Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr., faced mounting pressure to withdraw, for numerous reasons — chiefly, his hiring of an undocumented immigrant as a housekeeper and his ex-wife’s past allegations of domestic abuse, captured in an appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show in the 1990s.
But he’s out of a job in Washington for another big reason: over the course of his career, Puzder made a fierce enemy out of organized labor.
During the months that Puzder was up for the Labor post, unions in Minnesota and around the country organized an impressive campaign to stop someone they viewed as the most dangerous Labor Secretary nominee in generations. They can now say that campaign worked.
But Trump will nominate someone else. Can the labor movement sustain this momentum for a grueling four — or eight — years of Trump?
Not-so-fast food tycoon
No one in organized labor expected Trump to select a workers’ rights champion to head his Labor Department.
Still, to them, Puzder was an abysmal pick even considering their low expectations.
For one, past labor secretaries have had backgrounds in public service, either as lawmakers or state and federal government officials. Puzder is as an attorney who rose through the ranks of CKE Restaurants, the corporate parent of Hardee’s, becoming CEO in 1997.
Not since Ronald Reagan has a president selected someone with such a prominent corporate background to run the Department of Labor — an institution often seen as a bulwark protecting workers from corporate abuses.
Investigations into Puzder revealed that his company routinely violated federal labor law, with 60 percent of CKE restaurant locations having some violation, according to Bloomberg.
Under Puzder’s leadership, CKE was sued several times — and as recently as last week — for violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act, particularly over allegations of “wage theft,” or not paying employees for overtime. (Several of these cases were settled out of court.)
Puzder also has a long record of publicly opposing policies like an increased minimum wage, expanded overtime pay, and mandated employee breaks, on the grounds they are burdensome for business.
As workers in fast food and other industries took to the streets in 2015 to demand a $15 minimum wage, Puzder argued some jobs don’t create enough economic value to justify that rate. “How do you pay somebody $15 an hour to scoop ice cream?” he once asked.
He has also spoken of his desire to replace most fast food workers with machines. “They never show up late,” he said in 2016. “There’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex, or race discrimination case.” In another instance, he explained that his restaurants hire “the best of the worst.”
How labor fought him
The White House and Puzder’s backers in the business world claimed that he would bring a fresh sensibility to the Department of Labor they saw as responsible for business-stifling rules and regulations.
Labor, meanwhile, saw in Puzder an almost cartoonish villain. Leaders in several unions told MinnPost they couldn’t think of a time when a cabinet appointee provoked as much outrage and unified opposition as Puzder’s did.
The fast food multi-millionaire is, after all, a leading figure in an industry that has steadfastly resisted unionization for decades — a detail that added significant symbolic juice to labor’s campaign to derail him.
Bob Ryan, of the Steelworkers’ Union, said picking Puzder was like “putting the fox in charge of the henhouse” and said his confirmation would set the labor movement “back 70 years.”
Their outrage translated into action: Minnesota labor leaders involved in organizing against Puzder described a passionate campaign in which lots of people, including first-time activists, got involved, both in person and on the phone.
On January 26, a group of protesters demonstrated at a Hardee’s restaurant in St. Paul to protest Puzder, a scene that was replicated at Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. locations nationwide.
According to Julie Blaha, secretary-treasurer of the Minnesota AFL-CIO, organized labor launched a phone call campaign to secure the opposition of Sens. Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar to Puzder. (Both eventually announced their intent to oppose him.)
Eliot Seide, with the Minnesota chapter of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees union, said a coalition of unions “worked diligently to get ahold of every senator on the [Labor] committee and every senator who might vote.”
The push to block Puzder dovetailed with another big effort from organized labor: denying the confirmation of Betsy DeVos, the Secretary of Education.
DeVos’ nomination was intensely opposed by teachers’ unions, which contributed to the most aggressive campaign to block a nominee thus far, with hundreds of thousands of people calling senators’ offices to urge a no vote.
Though DeVos squeaked through thanks to a tiebreaking vote from Vice President Mike Pence, labor leaders believe some of that energy spilled over into putting pressure on senators to oppose Puzder ahead of his confirmation hearing, which was scheduled for February 16.
‘This is a win for working people’
The release of the Oprah tape, obtained by Politico, appeared to be the final straw for Puzder. Hours after that story broke, GOP leadership in the Senate told the White House that their nominee simply didn’t have enough votes. At least 12 Republican senators were reportedly on the fence or leaning no — Puzder could only afford to lose two.
The post-mortem was easy to write: Puzder simply had too much baggage. Beyond his personal scandals, his record on labor issues was too far right for some moderate Republicans, while his stances on trade and immigration were too centrist for some hard-liners — including some in the White House, like top adviser Stephen Bannon.
If labor may not have swayed most Republicans, it at least ran a strong campaign to keep pressure on Democrats to stay in line. Puzder likely would have been the only Trump nominee besides DeVos to receive unanimous Democratic opposition. (A Republican lawyer told Bloomberg that he didn’t recall a coordinated labor push as successful as this one.)
To labor leaders in Minnesota, Puzder’s defeat is an unmitigated victory.
“This is a win for working people,” AFL-CIO’s Blaha said. “I think his withdrawal shows collective action works… We’re showing signs of reaching a tipping point. Action has been building and building.”
Bernie Hesse, with the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1189, wasn’t surprised. “I don’t think they could have moved forward with him with a straight face,” he said. “We knew there was momentum.”
To Hesse, the success in blocking Puzder underscored the need for labor — perhaps the single most powerful political bloc in the U.S. at one point — to build coalitions: he cited immigrant advocates, faith groups, and worker justice groups as partners in protesting Puzder.
Though they hope Puzder’s defeat will force Trump to nominate a more agreeable pick, opponents of Trump’s administration know that may not be the case.
“We shouldn’t rest on our laurels,” said Franken in a statement after Puzder’s withdrawal, “because another potentially dangerous nominee could be right around the corner.”
Indeed, on Thursday afternoon, Trump announced at the White House his nomination of Alexander Acosta as Secretary of Labor. Acosta is a former member of the National Labor Relations Board, and served as Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights in the George W. Bush administration.
Bloomberg reported that Acosta’s Bush administration colleagues believe his views on key policies aren’t far from Puzder’s, though he is more quiet about it.
Though Acosta shares a similar resume with Barack Obama’s labor secretary, Tom Perez — Harvard law, assistant attorney general for civil rights — labor leaders weren’t anticipating another Perez in any Trump pick.
“This is something we can build off of. People power does work,” Hesse said. He’s looking ahead to when, as he expects, Trump’s eventual Labor chief begins dismantling key programs — occupational health regulations and labor dispute enforcement — by denying them funds.
“We can learn from this. This is victory, but now we gotta set the table for more of them.”