(Bloomberg) — The AFL-CIO will sue if the Department of Labor tries to water down a boost in overtime eligibility put in place by the Obama administration, the chief of the labor federation said in an interview.
“Anything that dilutes it is bad,” AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka said in his Washington office. Taking Obama’s overtime expansion away from even one worker could have devastating consequences, he said. "Think about the effect that it’d have on that person’s family, their lives.”
Millions of additional white-collar workers were poised to gain overtime eligibility last December under Obama’s change until it was blocked by a federal judge in Texas. If allowed to take effect, the change would double, to $913 per week, the threshold beneath which employees must be paid time-and-a-half even if designated as managers.
At his confirmation hearing Wednesday, Trump’s nominee to be Labor secretary, Alexander Acosta, deflected repeated attempts by senators to ascertain whether the government would continue to defend that rule in court.
Acosta did tell senators that it was unfortunate the threshold had languished at the same rate for over a decade, though doubling it creates “a stress on the system,” and might exceed the department’s legal authority. Those comments seemed to signal an interest in moving the threshold to some level in between the one currently in effect, which was set by George W. Bush in 2004, and the one chosen by Obama.
Trumka said the AFL-CIO was prepared to bring legal challenges to any such attempt to set a new rule lower than Obama’s, along with its current efforts to defend Obama’s standard in court, where the federation’s Texas branch has petitioned to join the litigation. Overtime was one of several issues on which the labor chief criticized the new president, who drew a larger share of the union vote than any Republican since Ronald Reagan, and has made a point of courting union leaders since taking office.
“We’ve been disappointed in a number of areas,” said Trumka, who since the election has met repeatedly with Trump and praised some of his moves, such as exiting the Trans-Pacific Partnership. “The fact that he has more Goldman Sachs people over there than Goldman Sachs now has is a disappointment. And it’s going to make it difficult for him to live up to the promises of helping workers.”
Trumka described Trump’s executive action requiring two old regulations be ditched for every new one being created as “a particularly odious thing” for workplace safety, said his proposed 21% budget cut for the Labor Department would leave it “debilitated,” and said his new office highlighting crimes by immigrants helps distort reality.
Trumka criticized Trump fiercely during the campaign, calling him a “con artist” who was “making racist, sexist statements fashionable” and sowing “fear and division” in a manner “sort of like” Adolf Hitler. Asked about those statements, Trumka said, “I think he’s probably doing less of that now,” but is still causing fear among groups like immigrant workers and senior citizens who rely on Medicare.
"We’re not going to flush our values,” said Trumka. “We’ll work with him when it’s consistent with our values and helps workers.”
He named trade and infrastructure as areas where he saw a good chance of accomplishing progress with Trump, while warning that the White House’s “Wall Street wing” could hijack the trade agenda and that the AFL-CIO’s support on infrastructure would depend on inclusion of labor protections and investment of significant public dollars.
Trump’s election worsened what was already a crisis moment for the AFL-CIO as well as the broader labor movement. Union membership fell in 2016 to 10.7% of the workforce, a record low that follows a decade-long decline.
From his first days in office, Trump has sought to enlist union support even as he’s maintained his commitment to anti-union policies like right-to-work laws banning mandatory fees. The AFL-CIO’s unions, which have long held conflicting views on how to defend and deploy their clout, have taken divergent approaches to the new reality.
Labor leaders expect Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch will provide the fifth vote necessary to ban mandatory union fees throughout the public sector, where about half of union members now work. Trumka said the AFL-CIO has developed contingency plans for the potential loss of funds from an adverse Supreme Court ruling, and takes the threat of a private sector right-to-work bill seriously as well.
The AFL-CIO has already moved to cut costs, dismissing several dozen staff last month as part of a restructuring that Trumka said includes dropping some activities like recruiting and training political candidates, and dissolving standalone departments like the federation’s safety department, with some functions shifted elsewhere.
Trumka said the labor leaders on the federation’s 53-member executive council, who met in Texas this month, coalesced behind plans to emphasize their focus on good jobs and to work together on priority campaigns. Among the first are resisting Mondelez International shift of jobs from a unionized Chicago bakery to Mexico, and fighting state and national right-to-work laws -- including an effort to identify states where existing right-to-work laws could be repealed, something that hasn’t been accomplished successfully in the past fifty years.
The consensus, said Trumka, was that "unless we really change, and focus on our priorities, we’re not going to be able to ultimately drill our way back."