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What Can We Expect from Alex Acosta, Our New Labor Secretary?

Photo by US Department of Labor | CC BY 2.0

Without doubt, the greatest Secretary of Labor in U.S. history was Frances Perkins.  She was not only the first woman to serve in that office, and not only served longer than any Labor Secretary in history (1933-1945), she was a leading force in the implementation of FDR’s New Deal program, including passage of the landmark 1935 National Labor Relations Act (Wagner Act).

After witnessing firsthand, as a young woman in New York City, the tragic 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, in which 146 workers (123 women, 23 men, mostly immigrants) died after being trapped inside their burning workplace by greedy factory owners who routinely kept the doors locked, Perkins became a “labor zealot,” a true crusader.

It was she who, as Labor Secretary, established the first minimum wage and overtime pay for the American worker.   Say what you will about tough-minded, inspirational union leaders like Harry Bridges, Walter Reuther, John L. Lewis, et al, but Perkins outshined them all.  She did more than simply inspire and motivate.

Because she was part of the federal government (back when that wasn’t viewed with the cynicism it is today), she had the authority to actually get things done—the authority to get unapologetically pro-union laws passed, which was exactly what she did.  And which is why Perkins will forever be revered as the patron saint of organized labor.

Now we have Alexander Acosta as our Secretary of Labor.  Born in 1969, in Miami, Florida, to Cuban immigrants, Acosta was serving as law school dean at an obscure college (Florida International University) when Donald Trump chose him to be one of his cabinet flunkies.  Let’s be clear.  Alex Acosta is no friend of labor.  Indeed, if he had shown even a trace of “labor zealotry,” Trump never would have picked him.

Still, in all fairness to him, we must recognize that, “labor-wise,” the milieu in which he’ll be taking his cow to market is exceedingly hostile to unions.  In truth, the social-economic zeitgeist that Acosta inherited differs radically in both substance and presentation from that of the post-New Deal era.

Ever since the toxic Taft-Hartley Act was passed, in 1947, the anti-union, anti-worker forces in this country have been on the ascendancy, using RLC (rat-like cunning) to do everything in their power to erode the influence and scope of America’s unions.  So it won’t be entirely Acosta’s fault when he proves to be the useless bureaucratic ornament we all assumed he would be.

The following account is one real-life example of just how “pro-business” and anti-union the Establishment is.  This incident occurred back in the 1980s, when I was part of a team negotiating a contract for a union affiliated with a Fortune 500 industrial company.

One of the provisions in the contract was a 20-minute lunch period.  Understandably, the union members wanted to get it extended to 30 minutes.  But here’s the kicker.  The state of California’s labor commission had already mandated that employees be given a 30-minute meal period during an 8-hour shift.  In other words, a 30-minute lunch break was already on the books.

The only way a company could get around it was by formally applying for an exemption on the grounds that a 30-minute meal period would adversely affect production.  And even though there was a “tag relief” format in effect (where machinery was never shut down), the company had applied for that exemption in all previous negotiations, and had gotten it every time.  They had never been refused.

But in this negotiation—even before the parties sat down at the table and exchanged agendas—the company decided to throw the union a crumb.  They had chosen not to oppose a 30-minute meal break.  And for that reason (and rightly assuming the item would be on the union’s agenda), they didn’t bother applying for an exemption.

However, the California government took this moment to show just how pro-management it was.  Thinking the company had “forgotten” to apply for the exemption before the deadline, the commissioner’s office notified the HR manager that they had taken it upon themselves to make the application.   So don’t worry about it, guys.  We got you covered.

How did the union learn about this?  The HR manager proudly showed us the labor commission’s letter.  He showed it to us with no trace of embarrassment or guilt.  As far as he was concerned, this act of generosity demonstrated just how—in his own words—“respected” the company was.  And the beat goes on.

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David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com

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