Unions React Cautiously to Trump’s New Labor Pick

February 17, 2017 
By Steven Wishnia

Washington, DC - American labor unions are reacting cautiously to President Donald Trump’s nomination of Florida law-school dean R. Alexander Acosta to be Secretary of Labor Feb. 16, calling for a careful examination of his record.

“Unlike Andy Puzder, Alexander Acosta’s nomination deserves serious consideration. In one day, we’ve gone from a fast-food CEO who routinely violates labor law to a public servant with experience enforcing it,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in a statement. “We will of course review Mr. Acosta’s record as thoroughly as we did the previous nominee’s. Mr. Acosta will have to answer tough questions and explain how he will enforce and uphold labor laws to benefit working people and not further tilt the balance of power toward corporate CEOs.”

Acosta, 48, who served briefly on the National Labor Relations Board under George W. Bush and began his law career as a management-side attorney, appears to have a solidly right-wing record, but quieter than Trump’s now-withdrawn first choice, fast-food executive Andrew Puzder. Puzder provoked fierce union opposition by fulminating against the minimum wage; Acosta is the author of a 2012 article in the Florida International University Law Review arguing that the NLRB should make rules in a quasi-legislative manner rather than a quasi-judicial one, to prevent “flip-flops” when it rules on different cases.

Still, his career has passed through several far-right institutions. He clerked for Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito. From 1995 to 1997, he specialized in employment and labor issues at Kirkland and Ellis, a law firm that offers employers services that include “union avoidance, decertification, union election campaigns, contract negotiations, unfair labor practices, lockouts, strike contingency planning and injunctions, [and] damage suits for illegal strikes.”

In the late 1990s, he was a senior fellow for the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a faith-based think tank that recently vehemently criticized the Catholic Church for supporting public-sector unions. More recently, he has participated in several events organized by the Federalist Society lawyers’ group.

Acosta stayed on the NLRB for less than a year, from 2002-2003. Wilma Liebman, a Democrat who served on the board with him, told Politico that while unions may not “be thrilled with every decision he’ll make… they’ll get a good hearing.” “I would say he’s very smart and he’s an independent thinker,” she added.

He left the NLRB to become assistant attorney general for the civil-rights division under President George W. Bush, and then served as a federal prosecutor in South Florida and an appeals-court judge. He became dean of Florida International University’s law school in 2009.

In 2008, a Justice Department internal investigation said that Acosta “did not take sufficient action” after he was informed that one of his subordinates in the civil-rights division was hiring unqualified attorneys. The probe found that the subordinate had boasted about hiring lawyers who’d been in the Federalist Society or volunteered for the Bush campaign, even if they had no experience in civil-rights litigation, while screening out attorneys experienced in the field who’d been members of “some crazy liberal organization.”

“We look forward to learning more about Mr. Acosta’s record as the confirmation process unfolds,” Aiesha Meadows McLaurin, a Burger King worker from Chicago,” said in a statement released by the Fight for $15 campaign.

“In the coming days and weeks, workers will find out more about how Alexander Acosta will ensure working people have pathways to good jobs on which they can raise their families; and a real voice impacting the decisions that affect them,” SEIU International President Mary Kay Henry said in a statement. “We will hold Mr. Acosta to the same high standards the American public rightfully expects of our nation's labor secretary: to advance the interests and needs of wage earners in our economy.”


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