Puzder’s Out, But Acosta Raises Questions

AP/Alan Diaz

Former U.S. Attorney R. Alexander Acosta talks to reporters during a news conference in Miami, in 2008.

Less than 24 hours after celebrating former labor secretary nominee Andy Puzder’s withdrawal, labor advocates are now scrambling to get up to speed on Trump’s new nominee, Alexander Acosta, officially nominated at a press conference Thursday afternoon. President Trump announced that he thinks Acosta will make a “tremendous secretary of labor,” but made no mention of Puzder’s failed nomination.

On the surface, the administration seems to have learned its lesson after putting forward a controversial fast-food executive with a long record of incendiary anti-worker comments and a hostile view of government regulations. Puzder’s nomination was met with broad-based opposition from progressive advocacy and labor groups, who saw him as a nominee directly at odds with the mission of the labor department, and a finger in the eye—rather than a champion—of working people. Acosta, who has held multiple positions in the federal government, is seen as a much more traditional nominee.

“President Trump has fallen in line with patterns of previous Republican Presidents who have nominated experienced public servants with an appreciation of the rule of law to lead the Department of Labor,” says Andrew Stettner, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, who published a report detailing how Puzder’s background made him an outlier among past GOP labor secretaries. Not since Ronald Reagan had a secretary of labor had such prominent experience in the private sector.

Acosta is the dean of the Florida International University College of Law, but built up a strong resume of public service under President George W. Bush. He was a member of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) before going on to lead the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division and, then, most recently, serving as the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida.

At the outset, Acosta appears to be a mild choice compared with Puzder. As a member of the Federalist Society and a former clerk to Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, Acosta is unquestionably a staunch conservative, but he also is well regarded in government circles as a thoughtful colleague with a sharp legal mind. While Acosta only served on the NLRB for nine months, from December of 2002 to August of 2003, he made a good impression on his fellow NLRB member, Wilma Liebman, a Democratic appointee. “He was always willing to talk out things and listen and consider—even if we came out on sides on major policies,” Liebman told the Prospect in an interview. “He’s a student of the law. He really believes in enforcing the law.”

Still, while workers may have dodged a bullet with Puzder, organizers who led the opposition campaign are keeping their powder dry, saying that the failure of Puzder’s nomination doesn’t mean they’re out of the woods just yet. It’s too early, labor advocates say, to know whether Acosta is qualified to lead the department. During his short stint on the NLRB, Acosta is likely to have signed onto rulings that came down in favor of business and against workers and unions. The left is sure to pore over his record in the Bush DOJ and as a U.S. attorney, as well.

“We can’t say for sure that we won’t be as opposed to him as we were Puzder,” until more research is done, says Adam Shah, a senior policy analyst at the labor advocacy group Jobs With Justice.

Even though Acosta is a more mainline conservative than Puzder, labor groups have a lot of policy concerns. Obama’s Labor Department pushed through a number of policies, including executive orders that used the federal government’s contracting power to elevate wages and increase labor protections for federal contract workers, rules that doubled the salary threshold that qualifies workers for overtime pay, and required retirement advisers to act in their clients’ best interests.

The department also sought to address employee misclassification, increase corporate responsibility for franchisees and independent contractors, and aggressively pursue labor law violations in sectors with vulnerable low-wage workers. Republicans and their allies in the business community have been gunning to wipe away that work from the get-go. With Puzder’s nomination, Obama labor alums were concerned that a GOP Labor Department would succeed in doing so. Republicans are hoping that Acosta will be equally dedicated to rolling back Obama’s labor legacy. As Bloomberg BNA reports, conservatives further hope that a Republican DOL will go on offense to scrutinize the legality of labor union affiliates like the Fight for $15 and the Restaurant Opportunities Center United, both of which actively lobbied against Puzder’s nomination.

As more information emerges on Acosta, don’t count on unions and other progressive groups to take his confirmation lying down. They still see the labor secretary confirmation as an important opportunity to hold Trump to his campaign promise to be a president for working Americans. “Together, workers will stay in the streets to demand a labor secretary who is a champion for working people and fights to represent their interests in our economy,” Service Employees International Union President Mary Kay Henry said in a statement. 

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