The Workers’ President Unmasked

In the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump ran and posed as a populist, inveighing against Wall Street, Washington swamp creatures, and the corruption of the elites. He championed and rode the wave of angst experienced by ordinary working Americans, while also feeding their darkest recesses of fear. As a majority of Americans continue to bemoan and mourn the Trump presidency on its third anniversary, it is a good time to take stock of how American workers have fared under its strain.

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The low hanging fruit of his deception include the deficit busting tax cuts that mostly favored corporations and those dreaded elites, while doing so little if anything for working Americans that Republicans refused to campaign on it during their disastrous midterms. While failing to repeal Obamacare, he has tried, and succeeded to a large degree, in sabotaging health care and raising premiums on those Americans who can least afford it. More recently, Trump has shown a Scrooge’s compassion for working Americans during the holiday season by creating a spiteful and narcissistic government shutdown affecting more than 800,000 federal workers. During the shutdown, among the lies he spewed was that furloughed workers, or those working but not getting paid, are his biggest fans and that he can “relate to them.” His Chief Economic Advisor recently claimed that the shutdown was “good” for the workers, and compared it to a vacation. Let them eat cake.

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Not so obvious is how Trump’s other, less notorious, policies have affected American workers. In Dying to Work: Death and Injury in the American Workplace, I told the stories of ordinary workers felled by injury or death in their workplaces, caused not by accidents but by the intentional actions of their employers and the disgraceful disregard for worker safety by our politicians. And this was all before the 2016 election. Nonetheless, while writing I was heartened by the new rules and regulations promulgated at the end of the Obama administration designed to regulate workplace hazards that had been known for many years. Hope turned to dread immediately after the 2016 election, and dread to a new reality solidly imbedded after two years of a Trump presidency. How bad is it?

To date, key positions in the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Mine Safety Health Administration (MSHA) remain vacant reflecting the administration’s dislike for regulatory agencies, preferring they wither from lack of leadership, low morale and an exodus of career staff. Being leaderless hasn’t stopped the anti-regulatory zeal most infamously expressed by Steve Bannon around the time of the inauguration when he promised the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” Wasting no time, immediately after the inauguration Trump signed dozens of Executive Orders rolling back health and safety standards enacted at the end of the Obama administration, as well as many more regulations adversely affecting all Americans in and out of the workplace. Since January 2017, the Trump administration has taken or proposed many actions that jeopardized the health and safety of every American worker.  What follows is only a small sampling of Trump’s betrayal.

  • Issued Executive Order 13771 that requires two existing safeguards be repealed for every new regulatory protection issued.
  • Repealed OSHA’s rule clarifying an employer’s obligation to keep accurate injury and illness records.
  • Weakened MSHA’s mine examination rule for metal and nonmetal mines.
  • Suspended work on new OSHA standards on workplace violence, infectious diseases and process safety management, and MSHA’s standard on silica in construction.

Other anti-worker actions include the Trump administration’s proposed regulations allowing 16-year olds to operate dangerous patient lifts in hospitals and nursing homes endangering child workers and patients alike. Deadly black lung has returned with a vengeance for coal miners while Trump’s MSHA has weakened dust exposure rules. Inspection and enforcement regimes at OSHA and MSHA have been undermined with budget cutbacks at agencies that already mightily struggle to inspect unsafe work conditions at America’s job sites. The drop off in inspections and enforcement together with the roll back of rules requiring employers to electronically report injury and illness information, create a dangerous lack of information and accountability for workers and agencies to take steps to make the workplace safer and healthier.

Outside of the OSHA/MSHA regime, there were many more actions taken by the Trump administration that harm workers and their families. The NLRB, EEOC and EPA have been infested with anti-regulatory and anti-worker agendas and administrators resulting in rules and laws that belie Trump’s populist pose as the Workers’ President. The federal courts will have a distinct anti-worker tilt for years to come. The confirmations of Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, both authors in the Courts of Appeals of significant anti-worker opinions, have already affected the lives of ordinary workers. This past summer Justice Gorsuch authored the majority opinion in a deeply divide Court allowing employers to require that workers arbitrate their employment disputes rather access the federal courts where corporations freely vindicate their rights. The radically conservative movement of Trump appointed judges is creating a system of legal apartheid where corporations have access to the federal courts, but workers are relegated to ineffective and jury-free arbitrations. Justice for workers has been impaled by Trump.

In the end, far from being their champion, Trump has been an unmitigated disaster for American workers and their families. But workers can resist and reject at the ballot box the faux populism of Trump and his acolytes.

Jonathan Karmel is author of Dying to Work: Death and Injury in the American Workplace. He has practiced labor and employment law in Chicago for 35 years representing unions and their employee benefit funds, and is the owner of Karmel Law Firm.

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The Workers’ President Unmasked