Politics of Poverty

“Low pay! No way! Andy Puzder went away!”

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Oxfam joined workers and advocates on the streets and on Capitol Hill in the effort to urge the Senate to reject the nomination of Andrew Puzder as Secretary of Labor. The day before the hearing was scheduled, Puzder withdrew from consideration. Here, Leah Varsano attends a rally in Boston, MA, in January 2017. (Photo: Mary Babic / Oxfam America)

Andrew Puzder would’ve been terrible for workers as Secretary of Labor. As a nominee, though, he galvanized a broad coalition into concerted, effective action. And workers led the way.

The puzzling saga of Andrew Puzder’s brief and turbulent stint as nominee for Labor Secretary ended last week with a quick fade to black: he withdrew from consideration the day before the hearings in the Senate HELP Committee (Health, Education, Labor & Pensions).

A flood of analysis quickly followed. Pundits from all sides scrambled to determine why it ended this way, and what it means. Pick your headline, from “Puzder’s withdrawal is no victory for progressives” to “Puzder withdrawal is a victory for American workers.”

To be sure, the nomination of Puzder was a shock, and a slap in the face of people who value the Department of Labor (DOL)–from workers to unions to advocates. Here was a man with a record that flashed with warning lights. It was clear that he had little respect for low-wage workers or women—and even more clear that he had no business taking the helm of an agency that was established precisely to protect workers from unscrupulous business people –like Puzder himself.

As the days ticked by, the charges and revelations mounted: his business (CKE Restaurants) has a notorious record of mistreating employees; its commercials are so salacious that they’ve been called soft-core porn; he opposes an increase in the federal minimum wage (stuck at $7.25 an hour since 2009).

It all became too ugly, and apparently, stressful. As the pressure mounted, Puzder dragged his feet on filing his paperwork, and blocked various organizations from his Twitter feed. Eventually, a few Republican Senators began to voice doubts about his record and his integrity (and, in some cases, his more lenient history on immigration policy). The end finally came less than 24 hours before the hearing.

The truth is, we may never know what the final straw was for those Republicans, or for Puzder himself. Moreover, we may not end up with a confirmed Secretary of Labor who is substantially more concerned with the health and welfare of workers.

Whatever does happen, though, there’s some fundamental good to celebrate. As soon as this (outrageous) nomination was announced, the effort to oppose it was launched. And as the weeks went on, it became stronger, more unified, and clearer in its outrage.

Over 200 organizations came together to build and run the machine behind the effort. People gathered on conference calls, mounted the evidence, wrote the op eds, created the websites, arranged the shadow hearings, called for protests. And thousands of people responded: they called their Senators, visited offices, signed petitions. The smart strategy was focused on the wobbly Republicans on the HELP Committee (Sen. Collins of Maine and Sen. Murkowski of Alaska), and people focused energy on them.

Oxfam fiercely opposed Puzder’s nomination. As Ray Offenheiser, Oxfam’s president, noted, Puzder is “an extraordinarily ill-suited candidate for advancing the cause of working people, or building the 21st Century workforce that will enable the US to thrive in an increasingly globalized economy.” We were proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with low-wage workers and their allies in vocally opposing this nomination. We invested time and energy in strategic and, we hope, effective ways.

We had our share of celebrating last Wednesday when we got the word that Puzder would not be our next Secretary of Labor. Many of us have seen firsthand what good the DOL does, in our work with poultry workers and farm workers and other low-wage workers.

In fact, the department is absolutely vital to some 125 million workers in the US, many of whom are hurting more than ever. Since the recession, the minimum wage has been stuck at a poverty level, wages have declined in real value, job growth has been concentrated in low-wage sectors, and the recent change in the overtime rule has been blocked. The DOL also houses OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration), which plays a critical role in making sure employers take measures to protect the health and safety of their workers. Every day, we hear horror stories from workers: exposure to ammonia leaks, amputations from unprotected machines, frostbite—and more. Imagine if OSHA had even fewer resources to enforce the law.

The President ran on the promise of jobs. Not just any jobs, but good jobs: living wages, safe conditions, opportunities to advance. A strong DOL is the basic foundation on which is build an economy that offers these kinds of jobs.

You can see this in the workers who came forward to advocate for a Secretary of Labor who is pulling for them. At the end of the day, this effort rested on them more than anything else. Workers who do arduous jobs for low pay – but showed up to say ‘No’. They are the ones who showed real grit and real courage in standing up and speaking out.

Thousands of workers (many active in the Fight for $15) took time off from work to attend rallies. Many who worked for one of Puzder’s restaurants were willing to testify at the shadow hearing about the grim realities of life inside his businesses.

These are the people he callously characterizes as “the bottom of the pool,” but who show, time and again, that they have more integrity, passion, and hope than Puzder himself. These are people who show up early at his restaurants to work off the clock to get ready for the breakfast rush. Who risk their lives at drive-through windows, when they’re held up at gunpoint. Who are willing to show their faces and tell their difficult stories – because they care deeply about the next generation of people who will be compelled to work in places like Hardee’s, enduring these conditions that sap the hope and ambition out of their lives.

“Not only was this a victory for fast-food workers, but this was a victory for all workers,” said Bridget Hughes, a Burger King employee who currently makes $9 an hour.

These are the heroes of this story.

We hope that this administration keeps its promises to workers, and ensures that the nominee to run the DOL understands, respects, and honors their labor, and their humanity. President Trump’s new choice for the role, R. Alexander Acosta, differs from Puzder on several counts; he is an attorney with a long record of government service under President George W. Bush. His record deserves what you might call “extreme” vetting, but vetting with an open mind.

We already know of issues that deserve additional scrutiny, such as his role as lead of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division when the division reportedly weakened its enforcement of workplace anti-discrimination laws. We can only hope that members of the Senate ask him questions about this issue, and the many other critical issues facing American workers.

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