President Donald Trump likes to tout his affinity for the American worker. He’s climbed into an American-made big rig in the White House driveway. He’s donned a hard hat while addressing West Virginia coal miners. And he’s boasted about hiring “thousands and thousands and thousands” of union workers.
But on Trump’s first Labor Day as president, it’s clear that his Labor Department is mostly focused on rolling back regulations that protect the blue-collar workers Trump celebrates. The department has delayed several rules that would limit workers’ exposure to carcinogens and has begun to undo the Obama administration’s signature labor achievements. And its policy and regulation team is now led by a man who has made a career out of fighting unions.
Nathan Mehrens became the department’s head of policy in June, leading an office that Sharon Block, who headed it under President Barack Obama, says served as the Labor Department’s think tank. Bloomberg reported last month that Mehrens is also running the department’s regulatory reform office. In that role, he will work with a still-unformed task force to identify regulations that should be eliminated. (The Labor Department did not respond to requests to confirm Mehrens’ role.)
Since getting his law degree from a conservative Christian correspondence school that emphasizes “the centrality of Scripture,” Mehrens has spent his professional life rooting out union corruption. That work appears to have begun with a stint at Stop Union Political Abuse (SUPA), a now-defunct group started by Linda Chavez after unions helped sink her nomination to be President George W. Bush’s secretary of labor. Chavez would go on to write that donating to SUPA would “cripple liberal politics” by helping pass a right-to-work law that makes it harder to form a union. “If we stop now,” she added in the fundraising appeal, “the terrorists win.”
After leaving SUPA, Mehrens joined the Bush Labor Department, where he worked to increase disclosure requirements for unions. Before joining the Trump administration, Mehrens was the president of Americans for Limited Government, an advocacy group that focuses much of its attention on unions. One of its main projects, SEIU Monitor, catalogues fraud within the Service Employees International Union “empire.” The alleged abuses include a strike by school bus drivers and payments for “medically unnecessary“ gender reassignment surgery. Another of the group’s projects, NetRightDaily, frequently attacks “big labor” corruption.
Mehrens’ record aligns with what Block sees as the Labor Department’s current effort to “put first and foremost what corporations believe is in their best interest.” In June, Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta moved to rescind a rule, targeted by Mehrens, that would have required employers to report the hiring of consultants who campaign against unionization.
Some of Mehrens’ targets are more forward-looking. As union membership has declined, labor advocates have turned to nonprofit worker centers that seek to help non-union workers by campaigning for things like a $15 minimum wage. In a 2015 article headlined “Big Labor’s tax-deductible organizing scam,” Mehrens called for reclassifying worker centers as labor organizations, which would block them from receiving donations from foundations and allow the Labor Department to audit their finances.
Mehrens has also criticized Davis-Bacon, a 1931 law that guarantees federal construction contractors the prevailing wage. That opposition could become relevant if the Labor Department follows the precedent set by the Bush administration after Hurricane Katrina by suspending Davis-Bacon for recovery work in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.
Mehrens and Acosta’s views reflect decades of Republican thinking about the role of organized labor. What’s notable is that they’ve found a home in an administration that some unions hoped might be a populist champion for workers. In January, after criticizing Trump during the campaign, Richard Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO, which represents 12.5 million workers, said he had a “very productive” conversation with the president-elect at Trump Tower. At a White House meeting with union leaders in January, Trump received a round of applause after announcing that he had terminated the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Douglas McCarron, the head of the carpenters’ union, told Trump that his inaugural address was a “great moment for working men and women of the United States.”
From the start, the Acosta Labor Department has rolled back worker protections. In April, it delayed a rule that would limit construction workers’ exposure to crystalline silica, a workplace carcinogen that causes a potentially fatal lung condition. The next month, it delayed a rule to increase mine safety by requiring inspections before workers start their shifts. In June, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which oversees workplace safety, announced that it plans to weaken a rule that would save an estimated 90 lives per year by decreasing workers’ exposure to beryllium, an industrial mineral. Last month, Politico reported that OSHA had scrubbed workplace deaths from its home page.
The two biggest achievements of the Labor Department under Obama have not been spared either. In July, the Labor Department said it will rewrite, and likely roll back, a rule that would make 4.2 million additional workers eligible for overtime. On Thursday, the Labor Department announced an 18-month delay for a rule that requires financial advisers to act in the best interest of clients who are saving for retirement. It also said that it will allow retirement advisers to block their clients from filing class-action lawsuits.
Trump’s budget proposed cutting the Labor Department’s funding by about 20 percent while boosting funding for the department’s union watchdog by 22 percent, despite the fact that union membership is at a record low. Most of the proposed cuts targeted workforce training programs that enjoy bipartisan support.
Outside of targeting unions, Trump’s Labor Department is mostly focused on getting out of the way of employers. “Overwhelmingly, I would define their mission as a negative one,” says Block, who is now director of Harvard’s Labor and Worklife program. “It’s to roll back protections for workers. It’s to slash support for worker training.”
On Wednesday, Trumka made clear that he no longer thinks there is much chance of a productive relationship with the Trump administration. “You had two factions in the White House,” he said at a roundtable discussion. “You had one faction that actually had some of the policies that we would have supported on trade and infrastructure, but they turned out to be racist. And on the other hand, you had people who weren’t racist, but they were Wall Streeters.” The Wall Street faction, he said, had won.