Congressional Republicans had just passed a bill repealing a federal rule that barred firms from getting government contracts if they had an egregious history of stealing workers’ wages. Trump signed the legislation despite having run a presidential campaign all about lifting up the working class.
It was the first of many Trump actions that benefitted employers at the expense of everyday workers, including those at the very bottom of the economy.
Over his four years in the White House, Trump tried to make it easier for companies to hide workers’ injuries, to avoid paying low-wage employees for their overtime, to take a slice of their tips, to misclassify them as “independent contractors,” and to prevent them from unionizing and bargaining collectively. He nominated a fast-food executive to be the nation’s top workplace regulator, in charge of making sure workers come home safe and get paid what they’re owed.
It was a record anyone could reasonably expect from a hotel mogul who refused to divest his business holdings when he assumed office. Yet as he runs to unseat President Joe Biden and leads the rest of the Republican primary field by double digits, Trump is telling voters once again that he will deliver for the little guy.
“If I had to pick one word, I would say ‘disaster,’” said Sharon Block, director of the Center for Labor and a Just Economy at Harvard Law School, and a former Biden administration official. “Four years were really disastrous for working people.”
The Fast-Food President
The main area where Trump broke with standard GOP policy was trade, pursuing tariffs on solar panels, washing machines, steel and aluminum as part of a nationalist “America First” economic plan. While the U.S. Chamber of Commerce opposed Trump’s protectionism and his immigration crackdown, they found much to cheer in the rest of his deregulatory workplace agenda.
With the backing of powerful business lobbies, Trump took the reins off employers even when it meant stripping basic protections from low-wage workers.
“Trump totally understands the rhetorical appeal of populism but is absolutely opposed to it in any form other than economic nationalism,” said Jeff Hauser, executive director of the Revolving Door Project, which tracks the influence of corporate power on the executive branch.
“Trump totally understands the rhetorical appeal of populism but is absolutely opposed to it in any form other than economic nationalism.”
Less than two weeks after repealing the wage theft measure, Trump signed another bill passed by congressional Republicans, this time making it easier to hide workplace injuries. By unwinding an Obama-era rule, the legislation shortened the amount of time companies in dangerous industries were required to keep accurate safety records.
But his most controversial early move on the workplace front was putting up the longtime CEO of the Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. fast-food chains to run the U.S. Labor Department. Nominee Andy Puzder was certainly familiar with the agency’s duties: Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. franchisees had been fined repeatedly for violating minimum wage and overtime rules, and running afoul of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which is part of the Labor Department.
Puzder’s nomination was a gift to the politically powerful restaurant industry and its leading lobby, the National Restaurant Association, said Hauser. Restaurant owners, he said, would have been especially nervous about union organizing and the outgoing Obama administration’s pro-worker reforms, like expanding overtime protections to more workers, including fast-food managers.
“Restaurant owners had a lot of issues before the Labor Department… That’s why they would get first dibs on a labor secretary,” Hauser said.
Trump’s next pick for labor secretary, former U.S. Attorney Alexander Acosta, got the job but was forced out in 2019 amid a wave of anger over a secret plea deal he had arranged for infamous child trafficker and abuser Jeffrey Epstein in 2008.
Despite the turmoil at the agency, Trump still managed to deliver a Labor Department more friendly to employers. He abandoned Obama’s plan to guarantee time-and-a-half pay to an additional 4 million workers when they work more than 40 hours a week, a proposal that voters loved and employer groups hated. Trump later rolled out a similar version of the same rule but designed to protect vastly fewer workers.
He also proposed a controversial change to labor regulations giving employers more control over their workers’ tips. The proposal went beyond just legalizing more tip “pools,” whereby servers and bartenders share gratuities. Concerned worker advocates said it gave employers the license to do pretty much whatever they wanted with the money.
Bloomberg Law reported at the time that the White House and Labor Department buried an estimate showing businesses could end up snatching as much as $640 million in tips from their workers.
“Proposed rules are supposed to have information about how the policies are going to play out,” said Harvard’s Block, who under Biden headed the White House office that reviews executive branch regulations. “Rulemakings were sloppy [under Trump] not just because they weren’t good at their jobs, but also because they didn’t care.”
Trump later introduced another tip-related rule that would make it easier for restaurants to pay servers a sub-minimum wage for doing non-tipped work, like rolling silverware and setting tables. The Biden administration later crafted a rule reversing it.
The Labor Department wasn’t the only agency where Trump tried to help businesses at the expense of low-wage workers. Through the Agriculture Department, he rolled out a plan to increase line speeds in poultry plants where workers already suffer high rates of repetitive-motion injuries, as well as a plan to freeze pay for many guest workers in the country’s agricultural fields.
“Four years were really disastrous for working people.”
‘Fewer Rights For Fewer Workers’
Although Trump cast himself as the candidate for union workers, he quickly took steps to curtail collective bargaining rights and narrow who was eligible to unionize.
He achieved much of that through his appointments to the National Labor Relations Board, the independent federal agency that referees union matters in the private sector. He installed business-friendly board members and a general counsel who set about reversing pro-union policies, making it harder to bargain collectively, whether it was for fast-food workers, or ride-share and delivery drivers.
At the time, one former board member described the agenda to HuffPost as “fewer rights” for “fewer workers.”
But Trump saved his most aggressive moves for the workforce he oversaw as boss: federal agencies. Shortly after his inauguration, Trump signed executive orders aimed at weakening civil service protections and federal unions. When a judge struck down key portions of those measures, the administration pursued its goals at the bargaining table.
Trump reshaped a federal labor relations agency with anti-union appointments who tried to rewrite union contracts to the benefit of management. One attorney told HuffPost at the time that the administration seemed to be trying to “dismantle federal unions.”
Celine McNicholas, the policy director at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, noted that the administration even tried to start charging federal unions for the use of office space in federal buildings, a move she described as “truly petty.”
“That, to me, revealed what a Trump administration is like more than anything else,” McNicholas said. “Never missing an opportunity to take away from workers the ability to organize.”
The Trump administration cast ordinary civil servants as part of the “swamp” they came to drain. They even tried to force some federal workers to uproot their families and move from Washington to the Kansas City area in hopes they would simply quit. Trump’s budget director bragged about how many workers resigned because of the pending relocation, and an inspector general later said the White House failed to follow the law when it pursued the plan.
“Trump’s labor appointees set about reversing pro-union policies and making it harder to bargain collectively.”
Trump also set a record for the longest government shutdown ever, which left some 800,000 workers temporarily without pay. The financial stress led some federal workers and contractors to apply for unemployment benefits while they were missing paychecks. Trump was demanding that Congress give him $5.7 billion to build a wall on the border with Mexico, leaving about a quarter of government functions unfunded.
Trump’s allies and former administration officials have reportedly laid plans, known as Project 2025, to increase control over federal agencies, purge civil servants seen as disloyal to Trump and replace them with Trump acolytes, should he retake the White House.
A second Trump presidency may be “more dangerous” than the first when it comes to workers’ rights, McNicholas said. She noted that workers and unions have wielded more leverage recently, whether it’s getting pay raises, forming new unions or going out on strike to improve working conditions. The biggest display of that momentum might be the recent historic strike by the United Auto Workers union, which candidate Trump took as an opportunity for a photo-op at a non-union auto parts plant.
McNicholas maintained that the progress workers have made recently is fragile.
“I think it could be very easily undone,” she said.