Corporate lawyer Eugene Scalia received Senate confirmation Thursday to be secretary of Labor in a 53-44 party-line vote.
The vote followed a similar partisan divide in the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee when it voted Tuesday to advance Scalia, the son of late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
Democrats voiced opposition to the Scalia confirmation at a press conference Thursday led by Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer and Sens. Patty Murray of Washington and Sherrod Brown of Ohio. They were joined by AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and Christine Owens, director of the National Employment Law Project.
“This nomination is a real shame. I’d call it a disgrace,” Schumer said. “At a time when the middle class is struggling, to appoint someone like this shows one thing: President [Donald] Trump is no friend of the working people.”
Murray expressed disappointment with Scalia’s performance at his Sept. 19 hearing before the committee.
“We gave Mr. Scalia every opportunity to take a stand for workers,” she said. “Every time he dodged or deferred to President Trump and his anti-worker agenda.”
Tennessee Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander, in prepared remarks, said, “businesses and workers need a secretary of Labor who will steer the department with a steady hand. I believe Mr. Scalia has the skills to help continue to grow our economy and to help workers gain the skills they need to succeed in today’s workplace.”
Scalia succeeds Alex Acosta, who resigned as Labor secretary in July amid a scandal over a plea deal related to billionaire financier Jeffrey Epstein.
Brown took aim at Scalia’s record as a litigator at Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher, challenging regulations on behalf of major corporations and business groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. As a litigator, Scalia represented the corporate side in cases involving the rights of injured workers under disability laws, sexual harassment in factory settings and the so-called fiduciary rule, the Obama administration rule on pension advisers and conflicts of interest.
“Scalia’s whole job is supposed to be fighting for American workers,” Brown said. “He’s spent his career working doing exactly the opposite. Over and over and over, he fought to help the most powerful corporations against workers.”
Trumka focused on Scalia’s work in securing a court decision that blocked the Obama administration’s fiduciary rule, which would have required pension advisers to place a client’s interest ahead of their own incentives to sell particular financial products.
“The Department of Labor is designed to protect the lives and the rights of workers. Yet this president, who campaigned on being a friend to workers, has nominated a lifelong union buster to be the country’s top labor official,” Trumka said. “It’s insulting, it’s dangerous and workers are not going to forget. “
Democratic leadership and labor leaders cited a laundry list of pressing issues facing workers as the key reason for opposing Scalia: a push to raise the minimum wage, a pending regulation affecting workers’ right to organize, the need for retired workers to obtain pension advice free of conflicts, and a proposed rule on tip sharing.
Democrats used the Sept. 19 confirmation hearing to push Scalia on many of the issues.
Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey pushed Scalia on a request from union leaders to impose a stricter limit on silica exposure for miners that would be consistent with a new standard established by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in 2017.
But Scalia declined to be pinned down, offering only that he was aware that some believe the risk has increased with new mining technology and agreeing that the question warrants review.
Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin sought to pin down the nominee on workplace violence, citing the example of a Wisconsin woman forced to give up nursing after a serious injury suffered while trying to subdue a teenager, and asking Scalia to agree that more OSHA inspectors are needed.
Scalia pointed out that the number of fatalities caused by workplace violence has actually declined but agreed that he would look at the issue of whether more inspectors are warranted.
Scalia’s skill at crafting regulations — or challenging them through litigation — will be tested by a number of pending proposals: a rule that would restrict worker organizing against so-called joint employers, a regulation that would allow industry-sponsored apprenticeships, a rule now at the Office of Management and Budget on tip-sharing among workers, and others.