The following piece originally appeared in The Week.
A union staff member told veteran labor reporter Harold Meyerson late last month that Donald Trump’s victory was “an extinction-level event for American labor.” The president-elect’s latest decision to tap franchise fast-food CEO Andy Puzder for secretary of labor makes that assessment look prescient. It’s a fine example of the crude-but-ingenious political hybrid Trump represents — one that makes him a singularly unique threat to American workers.
Trump ran his campaign on a set of reactionary populist promises to restore jobs, “make America great again,” and lift up “the forgotten men and women” — i.e. the white working class. Now he’s staffing the economic positions in his Cabinet with Wall Street financiers and corporate plutocrats: Former Goldman Sachs trader Steven Mnuchin for treasury secretary, billionaire investor and “king of bankruptcy” Wilbur Ross for commerce secretary, Goldman Sachs President Gary Cohn for head of the National Economic Council, and World Wrestling Entertainment co-founder Linda McMahon to head the Small Business Administration.
These people are either policy know-nothings, whose main qualification seems to be political and financial loyalty to Trump’s campaign, or, in Puzder’s case, they’re basically the walking incarnation of the American right’s most vicious anti-worker impulses.
Puzder is a hardcore opponent of any hike in the minimum wage; he opposed the National Labor Relations Board’s decision to treat McDonald’s as a joint employer of its franchises’ workers; he opposed the Obama administration’s extension of overtime benefits to millions of more workers; he has argued that safety net programs like food stamps and Medicaid simply discourage people from working; and, needless to say, he’s a fan of cutting regulations and high-end taxes in order to free up business. One Labor Department investigation found about 60 percent of Puzder’s own restaurants were violating labor laws in one way or anther.
“Puzder as labor secretary is like putting Bernie Madoff in charge of the treasury,” one organizing director for the Fight for 15 movement, which seeks a $15-an-hour minimum wage, told The American Prospect.
Indeed, Trump and his Cabinet can probably be relied upon to enact more or less the full sweep of the GOP’s anti-worker agenda: Gut the safety net and public investment; cut pay, hiring, and benefits for federal employees; repeal Obama’s executive orders on overtime pay, and more. A national right-to-work law may well be in the offing, which would further cripplethe national labor movement. And replacing deceased Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia with another right-winger will also give the Court the 5-to-4 majority it needs to effectively impose right-to-work logic on all public employee unions.
To understand how brazen this sellout of his supposedly pro-worker bonafides is, it’s instructive to look at how Trump treated unions in his much-ballyhooed deal with Carrier. Trump unilaterally persuaded the manufacturer to keep several hundred jobs in the U.S., rather than move them to Mexico. But shortly thereafter, Chuck Jones, the president of United Steelworkers 1999 — the union that represents Carrier’s workers — pointed out the inconvenient fact that Trump inflated the number of jobs he prevented from being offshored by about 300, while 500 to 600 jobs are still going to Mexico. Trump “halfway delivered” and “lied his ass off,” as the union president bluntly put it.
Trump responded in familiar fashion, firing off a series off blusteringtweets that claimed Jones did a “terrible job representing workers,” and that “if United Steelworkers 1999 was any good, they would have kept those jobs in Indiana. Spend more time working — less time talking. Reduce dues.” A president-elect calling out and insulting a regular citizen by name is largely unprecedented in American politics, and Jones apparently received threats as a result.
But what’s telling here is Trump’s dismissal of United Steelworkers 1999’s work, and his essentially right-wing insinuation that unions encourage sclerosis.
Trump is an authoritarian. And like all authoritarians, he wants the adulation of the masses. So he’s happy to ditch GOP ideological orthodoxy to throw voters the occasional scrap of economic populism. But being an authoritarian, he also wants zero democratic accountability. And unions are one of the most powerful and effective institutions Western society has yet devised for making both the economic and political powers-that-be answerable to working people. Trump wants nothing to do with that. His combination of reactionary populist rhetoric with a Cabinet and agenda that looks set to smash the American labor movement to smithereens is not some mistake or oversight. It’s a perfectly logical outgrowth of Trump’s specific worldview.
That worldview, of course, has little to nothing to do with the free-market principles one usually associates with the GOP and devout conservatives. What Trump is committed to is the idea of the business kingpin — with Trump himself as the kingpin par excellence, and his loyal tribe of kingpin supporters and donors staffing his cabinet.
This brings us back to Puzder. He once waxed rhapsodic about how much more preferable machines are to human workers: “They’re 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 told Business Insider. Puzder’s guiding philosophy seems to be that human workers should be made more similar to machines: In Trump-world, the purpose of workers is to be as cheap, compliant, disposable, and conveniently fitted to the needs of their overlords as possible. They are most certainly not to organize, make demands upon, criticize, or oppose the kingpin. But if they are good, the kingpin may reward them with a largely theatrical display of rescued jobs.
Trump’s goal is neither a coherent set of pro-worker social values and policies, nor a coherent set of free-market social values and policies. Rather, his goal is the obedience of both realms to a central strongman — namely, himself.
“I am your voice,” Trump told Americans at the Republican convention. Him and no one else.