Why Trump's labor secretary is an extreme contradiction

Andrew Puzder surrounded by controversy
Andrew Puzder surrounded by controversy

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Story highlights

  • Christine Owens: Trump continues to pick Cabinet members who contradict what their prospective jobs stand for
  • Senate's vote on nominations can still prevent choice of Andrew Puzder as labor secretary, writes Owens

Christine Owens is the executive director at the National Employment Law Project. The views expressed here are her own.

(CNN)Apparently, lightning does strike twice: President-elect Donald Trump once again has named someone to his Cabinet who stands in almost comic opposition to the work they would be tasked with leading -- and to the promises Mr. Trump made to the American people.

This time, Trump has tapped fast-food magnate and conservative commentator Andrew Puzder to head the Department of Labor, the federal agency responsible for ensuring workplace safety, wage and hour standards, unemployment insurance benefits and other core rights
It's hard to think of anyone less suited for the job of lifting up forgotten workers than Puzder, a billionaire CEO who vocally opposes any meaningful increase in the minimum wage, who talks glibly about replacing workers with machines, and who consistently attacks rules that protect both workers and law-abiding employers.
     Christine Owens
    President-elect Trump campaigned as the champion of workers, but giving the fox the keys to the hen house -- as the expected Puzder nomination does -- is hardly the way uphold the Labor Department's stated mission "to foster, promote, and develop the welfare of the wage earners of the United States, to improve their working conditions, and to advance their opportunities for profitable employment."
    The contradiction is extreme: Opposition to workers' rights is bread and butter for Puzder. In his new role, Puzder would lead a team tasked with ensuring that employers adhere to basic labor standards. Meanwhile, Puzder's company, CKE Restaurants, parent company of the fast-food chains Carl's Jr. and Hardee's, among others, has been the target of class-action lawsuits alleging failure to fairly compensate managers for overtime.
    And those suits may be the tip of the iceberg: When the current Labor Department conducted 4,000 investigations into the 20 largest fast-food brands, over half of Carl's Jr. and Hardee's restaurants had at least one wage-and-hour violation.
    Both in his work for CKE and in his public commentary, Puzder consistently shows that he considers government protections for working people to be nothing more than an intrusive nuisance. He has been outspoken in his opposition to the Obama administration's updated overtime rules, for example, which would help as many as 12.5 million workers making less than $47,500 annually.
    Puzder suggests that the "stature" and "sense of accomplishment" his restaurant managers and other workers feel make up for long hours with no extra pay -- an extreme view wildly out of step with most Americans, two-thirds of whom support the overtime reform.
    A powerful business executive, paid more in one day ($17,192) than a minimum-wage worker makes in a year, Puzder also opposes broad raises to the minimum wage, again reflecting how out of step he is with mainstream America. Unsurprisingly, he leans heavily on the myth that raising the minimum wage leads to job loss -- despite rigorous research findings to the contrary.
    Puzder is quick to blame the government for any problem facing workers, including job loss due to automation—despite the fact that, by his own admission, he and other restaurant industry leaders are the very people choosing to invest in automation. As he told Business Insider earlier this year in describing the allure of automation, "[Machines are] 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."
    The statement hints at another issue with his nomination: his company's troubling record of sexist advertising.
    Carl's Jr. and Hardee's are famous for their racy television ads featuring bikini-clad models, which many Americans see as offensive and degrading to women, with one study finding that 52% of viewers surveyed found a particular Carl's Jr. ad offensive.
    But to Puzder, marketing ethics is apparently secondary to profit: "If you don't complain, I go to the head of marketing and say, 'What's wrong with our ads?'... Those complaints aren't necessarily bad for us. What you look at is, you look at sales. And, our sales go up."
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    Such comments are concerning when you consider that the Labor Department is charged with enforcing discrimination laws for federal contractors, as well as the fact that the labor secretary oversees the Women's Bureau, which was established to represent the needs of working women in the creation and implementation of public policy.
    The record isn't complete, of course, and it's up to the Senate to do its job in examining it closely before voting to confirm Mr. Puzder. But the evidence so far indicates that neither working women nor any of America's workers will be his priority as labor secretary. Rather than upholding the Labor Department's crucial responsibility to protect workers, Puzder's comments and conduct suggest he will be focused, first and foremost, on Americans whose interests match his own.