In 1989, during the transition from Presidents Reagan to George H.W. Bush, the rightwing Heritage Foundation expressed dismay that "free market" reforms were not moving fast enough. The group weighed in with a burly 900-plus page "Mandate for Leadership," urging Reagan Revolutionaries to more aggressively dismantle government regulations.
Along with breaking the 1981 air traffic controllers strike and stacking the National Labor Relations Board with anti-union judges who helped decimate union organizing and membership, Reagan had cut nearly one-fourth of Labor Department staff and hacked its budget by about 20 percent. But for many on the right, this radical rollback wasn't enough: Heritage recommended repealing the minimum wage, resisting employer-based health insurance and child care, and gutting job training programs, among other priorities.
Fast forward to 2017: After decades of dwindling union membership and worker power, and regulatory diminishment under both parties' administrations, President Donald Trump and congressional Republicans are pushing a radical Heritage-style agenda that could deliver immediate and long-term harm to workers and unions across the United States--including millions of those who helped elect Trump.
The blue-collar and middle-class workers who backed Trump in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, and elsewhere are in for a shock. Trump's Labor Secretary pick, fast-food mogul Andrew Puzder, has strenuously opposed worker overtime pay and employee break time, and his restaurant chains, including Hardee's and Carl's Jr., have repeatedly violated minimum wage, civil rights, and other laws.
President Trump and the Paul Ryan-led Congress could soon unravel an array of worker safety and wage protections, gut labor regulations and enforcement, and undermine workers' ability to organize, according to high-ranking former Obama Administration officials and others.
This inventory of harm--courtesy of a Heritage Foundation "Blueprint for a New Administration" and other rightwing think tank plans--is expansive. It includes national and state "right-to-work" measures to debilitate unions; fewer protections from toxic chemicals and other workplace hazards; less enforcement of minimum wage and wage theft laws; repeal of new overtime rules covering millions of middle-class workers; and weakened protections for whistleblowers who report workplace hazards and abuses.
According to David Weil, who served as administrator for the Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division from 2014 to January 2017, Obama-era progress on overtime pay, wage theft, homecare workers' wages, paid sick leave, and other initiatives could quickly be scrapped--inflicting immediate harm on millions of low-and middle-income workers, many of them Trump voters.
"He seems to be, in his nominations and his pronouncements, talking about policies that will absolutely hurt those very same people," Weil says in an interview.
In his view, the Obama Administration helped workers whom the economy had left behind by broadening the overtime rule and its "small steps" toward paid sick leave and a sensible minimum wage policy. "You step away from that and in my view, you are stepping away from the people you are professing to help," he says.