Will Puzder Be the First to Fall?


AP/Jack Plunkett

CKE Restaurants CEO Andy Puzder speaks at a news conference on Wednesday, August 6, 2014 in Austin, Texas. 

On December 8, news broke that Trump would nominate Andy Puzder, the CEO of the company that owns the Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s burger chains, to lead the Department of Labor. Since then, revelations about his controversial track record of comments and actions have painted a picture of a man whose every breath runs counter to the labor department’s mission: “To foster, promote, and develop the welfare of the wage earners, job seekers, and retirees of the United States; improve working conditions; advance opportunities for profitable employment; and assure work-related benefits and rights.”

Puzder’s Senate confirmation hearing has been delayed four times—allowing his opponents to build up a long dossier and prompting rumors that he was getting cold feet. He has denied those rumors, and after finally filing his financial paperwork with the Office of Government Ethics, his hearing is scheduled for this Thursday. As one of the last—and most controversial—cabinet nominees to go before the Senate, Puzder’s may become the first Trump nomination to go down.

Puzder is trickle-down economics ideologue who disdains the very idea of government regulations—including the minimum wage, Obamacare, and the overtime rule. Puzder co-wrote a deregulatory manifesto entitled “Job Creation: How It Really Works and Why Government Doesn’t Understand It.” He also doesn’t think much of his workers. In a memo, he told Hardee’s managers, “No more people behind the counter unless they have all their teeth.” He has said that he employs the “best of the worst” of the labor market and thinks that his workers refuse promotions because they don’t want to lose eligibility for government assistance programs.

On top of that, CKE franchisee restaurants have been plagued with wage and hour and workplace safety violations, sexual harassment and racial discrimination suits. CKE itself has been accused of colluding with its franchisees to suppress wages by refusing to let managers transfer to other locations. As The New York Times reported, CKE has paid millions of dollars to settle class-action lawsuits over allegations of misclassifying managers to avoid paying overtime. It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that Puzder once quipped that he’d prefer to replace human workers with robots: “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," Puzder told Business Insider.

The last person to head the department, Tom Perez, who as Obama’s second-term labor secretary helped implement many of the regulations that Puzder has criticized, doesn’t think too highly of the nominee. When asked in an interview with The American Prospect whether there was anything Puzder could say in his upcoming hearing that would convince him that he’s fit to lead the department, Perez didn’t mince words: “I have a one- and a two-word answer to that question. My one-word answer would be ‘no.’ My two-word answer would be ‘hell no.’”

“You judge people by their words and their actions. And I think his actions have demonstrated that he’s unfit for the job,” Perez added. “You ought to be the moral authority when you’re the Labor Department head and he’s already demonstrated a fairly callous disregard for the law in his own practices. That used to be disqualifying, until the efforts of this administration to normalize ethical lapses, to normalize alternative facts, and we can’t allow that to happen.”

Naturally, organized labor has been leading the attack on Puzder. On Monday, hundreds of fast-food workers involved with the Fight for 15 descended upon Hardee’s headquarters in St. Louis, CKE’s corporate offices in Anaheim, and dozens of other cities across the country, loudly demanding that Puzder withdraw from consideration and that the U.S. Senate block his nomination. When Puzder’s name was first floated as a labor candidate, the Fight for 15’s organizing director Kendall Fells told the Prospect that putting him in charge of the labor department “is like putting Bernie Madoff in charge of the Treasury.”

His nomination “was a slap in the face to hardworking wage-earners in this country. The Fight for 15 felt like they were in the [new] administration’s bullseye,” says Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, which funds the Fight for 15. While Puzder’s allies in the business trade associations and conservative economics sphere have dismissed attacks on the CKE CEO as smear tactics from “Big Labor,” opponents contend that it’s a broad-based coalition of state and national advocacy organizations—including not just labor, but women’s rights, civil rights, anti-poverty, and immigration groups—that has come together to oppose Puzder’s nomination.

Puzder’s confirmation hearing comes in the wake of a hotly contested confirmation battle over Education Secretary nominee Betsy DeVos, whose lackluster confirmation hearing performance displayed a lack of policy knowledge, sparking a massive constituent call-in campaign that reportedly jammed Senate switchboards and pressured Republican Senators Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska to oppose her nomination. In an unprecedented move, Vice President Mike Pence was required to break the tie to get DeVos approved. Still, progressives claimed the tie-but-for-the-veep vote to be an organizing success that will be the foundation for intense scrutiny of her stewardship of the Education Department.

The campaign against DeVos provides a playbook for Puzder’s opponents who hope to mount a similar campaign that homes in on one basic message. “The opposition to DeVos wasn’t so much about the nuances of policy; it was about her utter lack of qualifications for the job,” says Judy Conti, who, as the federal advocacy coordinator for the National Employment Law Project, is helping direct the opposition campaign against Puzder. “Similar to that, Puzder is somebody who through so many actions and words has made it clear that he has a real disdain for workers—especially low-wage workers. They are a necessary nuisance, at best.”

“We can debate the policies of overtime and the minimum wage and how strong regulations should be,” Conti continues, “but at his core, this is a guy who doesn’t respect and value workers. And that is the single most important thing to focus on.”  

Conti doesn’t expect that Puzder will stumble like DeVos. “From everything I understand, he’s quite articulate, slick, and affable. Nobody’s waiting for him to say something so remarkably off or be completely unaware of the most fundamental aspects of labor law,” Conti says. “I don’t think we’re going to see the grizzly bear moment,” she adds, referring to DeVos’s citation of grizzly bear attacks as a justification for allowing guns in schools, which was relentlessly mocked on the internet.

Conti says that immediately following Puzder’s hearing, NELP and other allied organizations will launch a constituent call-in campaign aimed at GOP senators who could be on the fence. In addition to moderates like Collins and Murkowski, Georgia Senator Johnny Isakson and South Carolina Senator Tim Scott have also declined to say how they will vote. This has reportedly prompted Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to ramp up his campaign to whip the vote, while trade associations from the retail, restaurant, and home-building industries roll out a PR campaign to improve his image.

Senate Democrats have blasted Puzder from the get-go, going so far as to demand Trump rescind his nomination. In early January, just days before Puzder’s original hearing was slated, they organized a shadow hearing in which former and current workers at Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. restaurants discussed their experiences. They took testimony from Lupe Guzman, a 47-year-old mother of six who works the overnight shift at a Carl’s Jr. in Las Vegas, who testified that she wasn’t given mandatory breaks, saw hours shaved off her paycheck, and had a gun pointed in her face as her store was robbed. “People like Puzder don't see how regular Americans are living day by day," she said. “People are hurting. People like me. Families like mine—struggling to survive on minimum wage."

As Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley put it, “This is a portrait of grinding workers into the ground and extracting every last dollar.”

Expect Senate Democrats on the HELP committee to question Puzder on his views about labor regulations like the minimum wage and Obama’s overtime rule, his comments about low-wage workers. They will mount a cross-examination that seeks to establish that Puzder’s CKE has more control over franchisee working conditions than the company has let on.

“Your company’s record of prolific labor law abuses and discrimination suits—the most of any major burger chain—gives me great pause given that as Labor Secretary you’d be charged with enforcing these very laws,” Senator Elizabeth Warren stated in a letter to Puzder sent Monday, in which she included a list of 83 questions for the nominee. “In addition to your role as CEO at CKE, your long record of public comments reveals a sneering contempt for the workers in your stores, and a vehement opposition to the laws you will be charged with enforcing.”   

It remains to be seen whether Puzder’s confirmation hearing and subsequent public pressure will convince more than two GOP senators to defect, but opponents say they have as good a chance to defeat him as they do any Trump nominee. “It’s an extraordinary thing to actually block [a nominee]. We’ve been realistic from the beginning. [Puzder] is going to come as close as anybody did. Whether the vote count is the same or not, a lot of Republican senators will be voting yes with caution and a bit of a heavy heart,” NELP’s Conti says. “I think the worst-case scenario is that Puzder will go into the department with a very damaged reputation, and with everyone watching him very closely.”


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