The ink wasn’t dry on Andrew Puzder’s withdrawal as secretary of labor nominee, but union leaders were celebrating. AFSCME President Lee Saunders said Puzder had “nothing but contempt for everything the Labor Department stands for.” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said “the power of collective action” had taken Puzder down. Thomas Perez, the former secretary of labor now running to lead the Democratic National Committee, hopped on a conference call with reporters to celebrate.
“When you call your workers the ‘the worst of the worst,’ that’s no way to earn or command respect,” Perez said. “He was a frequent flyer defendant. He was someone for whom we had a steady diet of wage and hour cases.”
Public and private sector unions, in decline before President Trump’s surprise victory last year, had started 2017 with more body blows, with three states rushing through right-to-work legislation and the new president trying to widen the gulf between union members and their leadership. That made the fall of Puzder even sweeter.
“Workers across the country made their voices heard, made it clear they want a true champion for them at Labor,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who just hours before the withdrawal had brought women’s law advocates to the Senate to demand Puzder answer questions about sexual harassment at CKE restaurants, the fast food chain where he served as chief executive.
Labor and progressive groups had pummeled Puzder since his nomination was announced, with an unusual level of success. Last weekend, protesters with Fight for $15, a project of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), staged two dozen protests around the country, with the largest outside of CKE’s St. Louis headquarters. Progressives, fretful about Trump’s appeal to blue-collar workers, made Puzder the focus of a campaign to portray Trump as a tool for corporate interests that favored low wages and automation.
“Fast-food workers told the President that if he sided with fast-food CEOs instead of fast-food workers, he’d be on the wrong side of history,” Hardee’s worker and Fight for $15 protester Darin Brooks said in a statement Wednesday afternoon. “We rallied outside Puzder’s stores nationwide and showed America how his burger empire was built on low pay, wage theft, sexual harassment and intimidation. And today, we are on the right side of history.”
What was unclear: Whether Puzder could have weathered that storm had his personal life not careened into view. In interviews with The Washington Post this week, seven Republican senators raised questions about an undocumented immigrant Puzder had employed as a nanny, and a messy divorce that had shown up on an episode of “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”
Senate Democrats, led by Murray, ranking Democrat for the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, had driven that research and then publicized the stories; Politico’s Marianne Levine and Tim Noah published the Oprah tape. By Wednesday, Puzder’s record, which had alienated every Democrat, ran up against the nanny and divorce stories, which shed Republican votes. But progressives took a certain pleasure in one CBS report that had Puzder complaining about the “abuse” he’d suffered since becoming a nominee.
“I’ll tell you who’s tired of the abuse from Mr. Puzder — it’s the American workers,” Perez said. “I’m not optimistic that the next pick will have any more moral authority given that this president has taken so many actions to undermine work.”
“Whomever the nominee for labor secretary is, they must respect the rights of all hard-working men and women,” said Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers. “They must realize that their job is not to protect the interests of irresponsible corporations, but to protect the rights of all workers, including our members, who deserve and have earned a better life.”