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Opinion Donald Trump’s war on workers

(J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

It’s Labor Day, and the president wants American workers to know he’s coming through for them:

If you can find anyone not directly employed by President Trump who thinks that is remotely true, I’d be shocked. It’s certainly the case that unemployment is extremely low. But what is the state of the American worker, and what is the Trump administration doing for them? Or rather, what is the administration doing to them?

Before we get to that rather lengthy list, let’s give ourselves some context. Republicans and Democrats offer two competing theories of how to improve life for working people. The Republican theory is that it can be accomplished only indirectly. The government’s job is to make life as easy and free of restrictions for business owners, shareholders and others at the top of society’s ladder, and then those people will in turn hire more workers and pay them more, thus improving the workers’ lot. So for instance, the GOP’s highest priority upon taking complete control of Washington in 2017 was to pass a large tax cut, the centerpiece of which was slashing the corporate tax rate.

The Democratic theory, on the other hand, is that the way to help workers is to do it directly. Capitalism has inequalities of wealth and power built into it, and without government action to mitigate those inequalities, exploitation of workers will be the norm. So Democrats want to establish a minimum wage allowing people to live in something other than abject poverty, set rules on worker safety, promote collective bargaining to give workers power on the job and so on. They also want to have a strong safety net so that workers can feel secure about things such as health care, which further gives them the ability to act in the marketplace out of something other than fear — for instance, by changing jobs when they don’t like how they’re being treated, or starting a business if they have a good idea.

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In order for Republicans to truly make life for business owners as unencumbered as possible, freeing them from the oppression of regulations or things like workers being represented by unions, it requires concerted and aggressive government action. So let’s look at some of the things Trump has done since taking office:

  • Canceled a modest 2.1 percent pay increase for federal government workers.
  • Abandoned an Obama administration effort to increase overtime pay for workers.
  • Revoked an Obama-era order requiring companies with large federal contracts to disclose past labor-law violations.
  • Killed a rule requiring companies to keep multiyear records of workplace injuries.
  • Rolled back the “fiduciary rule,” which required investment advisers to do what is in their clients’ best interests, potentially threatening workers’ retirement savings.
  • Appointed anti-labor representatives to the National Labor Relations Board.
  • Supported so-called right-to-work laws that make it harder for unions to organize.
  • Tried (and failed) to change “tip pooling” rules to allow employers to seize a portion of workers’ tips.
  • Took a sledgehammer to a spate of rules protecting workers from exposure to dangerous chemicals.
  • Urged the Supreme Court to allow employers to bar employees from banding together to sue over mistreatment.
  • Appointed a long list of judges eager to enhance the privileges of corporations and restrict the rights of workers.
  • Removed oversight of for-profit “universities,” making it easier for them to scam students into accumulating huge debt with empty promises of employment.
  • Supported lawsuits whose goal is to destroy public employee unions.
  • Tried to take health coverage away from millions of Americans.
While signing an executive order Aug. 31 to extend retirement savings benefits, President Trump said he'll look at potential pay increases for federal workers. (Video: The Washington Post)

That’s not all, and there will absolutely be more to come. The unifying principles are that corporations should be free to treat workers however they like, and workers should be prevented from doing anything that enhances their own power vis-a-vis their bosses.

So we should ask ourselves: Does the Republican theory work? Is it producing the best outcomes for workers? Despite some efforts to implement the Democratic theory during the Obama and Clinton administrations, the Republican theory is the one that has prevailed in America since the 1980s. The result has been a drastic decline in union representation, stagnant wages, dramatic increases in inequality and workers who have never felt more powerless on the job.

Trump benefited greatly from the dissatisfaction all those trends produce when in 2016 he told workers the system was rigged against them. He was right, but what they didn’t understand was that when he got into office he’d work to rig the system even more starkly in favor of the wealthy and powerful. To anyone with open eyes, it was clear that he would do exactly that — the fact that Trump refused to pay contractors who did work for him, owned a modeling company that reportedly had foreign models lie to customs officials so they could work illegally, reportedly used undocumented foreign construction workers and paid them a pittance, and hires foreign workers at Mar-a-Lago, which claims it can’t find Americans (whom it would likely have to pay more) to do the job, might have clued you in to where he was coming from. And he’s far from done.

Happy Labor Day.