President Donald Trump ran for office as a champion of American workers and a friend of labor unions, but his administration has systematically favored employers at the expense of workers.
In recent months, the administration has moved to tighten qualifications for who must be paid the minimum wage and who must be paid overtime. It is asking the Supreme Court to rule that companies can fire workers on the basis of sexual orientation. The number of workplace safety inspectors employed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has fallen to the lowest level in the agency’s half-century of operation.
And as the administration has pulled back from protecting the rights, safety and economic welfare of workers, it has sought to undermine state regulators and to prevent workers from protecting their own interest through collective bargaining.
Trump said during the 2016 campaign that he supported a $10 federal minimum hourly wage, but since taking office he hasn’t sought any increase in the minimum wage, currently $7.25 an hour. Instead, his administration has tried to limit worker pay. In April, the Labor Department ruled that workers for an unidentified cleaning company, and for similar businesses, were contractors rather than employees and therefore not entitled to be paid a minimum wage or overtime, or to have the company pay a portion of their Social Security taxes.
The administration has retreated from an Obama-era effort to expand eligibility for overtime pay. Most full-time, salaried workers who earn less than a federally defined ceiling are eligible for overtime. In the 1970s, more than 60% of workers qualified. But because Congress failed to adjust the threshold for inflation, the share of eligible workers fell to 7% by 2016. The Obama administration rehabilitated the rule by raising the salary line to roughly $47,500 and by mandating inflation adjustments. But a federal judge in Texas blocked implementation, and the Trump administration declined to defend the rule. Instead, in March it proposed a new threshold of $35,300. The administration estimates that the increase from the current ceiling of about $23,700 would benefit about 1 million workers, while the Obama rule would have benefited more than 4 million. And the proposed rule does not include automatic inflation adjustments — so the benefits of the increase once again would gradually fade away, in effect delivering a windfall to employers.
And the administration is siding with employers in a set of cases that the Supreme Court has agreed to hear regarding the rights of gay and transgender workers. Though the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has said that federal law bars discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, the administration has taken the opposite view, arguing that existing protections on the basis of sex do not extend to sexual orientation.
Trump has demonstrated his support for such discrimination by barring transgender individuals from military service.
The federal government has displaced unions as the primary protector of the rights and safety of American workers. But Trump is also moving to limit the power of unions — which still serve millions of workers — and to limit opportunities for workers to join or create them.
In May, the National Labor Relations Board decided that it did not have jurisdiction over labor complaints by Uber drivers, because those workers are contractors rather than employees. That decision means the government will not enforce standard protections for unionization drives at Uber or other companies with similar business models.
Trump’s first Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, provided the deciding vote in 2018 in a case that hobbled public-sector unions by barring the mandatory collection of fees from workers who decline to join. The ruling allows workers to enjoy the benefits of unions without contributing to the cost — and, over time, will make it more difficult for unions to provide those benefits. The confirmation of Trump’s second nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, has solidified a pro-business majority on the court.
The administration is also falling short in its obligation to enforce existing laws. It has sharply reduced the ranks of OSHA inspectors. As of January, there were just 875 on the beat, a 14% decline since 2010 and the lowest number in the agency’s history, according to the National Employment Law Project. The slow pace of new hiring is the primary reason for the decline. Indeed, during the first full budget year of the Trump administration, the National Employment Law Project found that the agency did not hire any inspectors.
On Sept. 15, a worker at a Peco Foods chicken processing plant in Pocahontas, Arkansas, lost his left ring finger in an industrial bagging machine. OSHA did not send an inspector to the plant after the accident. The next month, the government gave the plant permission to increase the speed at which chickens are processed. On Dec. 27, another employee lost a finger — this time, his right index finger.
Once again, OSHA did not send an inspector.
The decision, and the administration’s broader pattern of actions and inaction, is sending a clear message to American workers: You’re on your own.