Trump's failed labour secretary pick reveals a fast-food industry at war

On Wednesday, fast-food CEO Andy Puzder
 withdrew his name
 from consideration for the position of secretary of labour just a day before his confirmation hearing.
Puzder’s personal life likely played a role in his decision to withdraw, as the Senate examined allegations that he abused his ex-wife (which she later retracted). 

However, the first and biggest strike against Puzder was identical to the top reason that Trump nominated him for the job: the fact that he is a fast-food CEO. 

While the Trump considered Puzder’s role as a “job creator” to be a major plus for the secretary of labour, Puzder’s position as CEO of CKE Restaurants, the parent company of Carl’s Jr and Hardee’s, dragged the White House into a raging labour battle. Ultimately, neither Puzder nor the White House was prepared to defeat the fast-food labour movement, which tore apart the nominee on the same restaurant industry battlegrounds they’d been fighting for years. 

Prime among these is the issue of minimum wage. Raising the minimum wage has become the most prominent issue in the movement for fast-food workers’ rights, and the one that organisers have found the most success, as states and cities across the US have grown closer to the goal of a $US15 per hour wage. The movement to raise the minimum wage has become increasingly popular, with 
76% of registered American voters (including the majority of people who voted for Trump) supporting raising the minimum wage to at least $US10 an hour, according to a survey by Public Policy Polling.

While Puzder told CNBC in May that increasing minimum wage to $US9 per hour would have a “minimal impact” on companies’ bottom lines, the CEO has a history of opposing laws that would raise workers’ pay. Puzder’s critics — including groups that have years of experience working to raise minimum wages across the US — cited this history again and again in argument as to why Puzder wasn’t fit for the role of labour secretary. 

Puzder, meanwhile, argues regulation that would increase minimum wage would simply result in workers being replaced with automation.

“They’re always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex, or race discrimination case,” Puzder told Business Insider in March, on the potential upside of swapping employees for machines.

Puzder’s interest in automation — an issue that most fast-food companies are at least considering in 2017 — became a major argument against his confirmation, as protestors used his own words against him. 

“Andy Puzder is against unions, calls the minimum wage and overtime ‘restrictions’ and employees ‘extra cost,’ and even said he wants to fire workers like us and replace us with machines that can’t take vacation or sue their employers when they break the law,” the nonprofit Interfaith Worker Justice quoted Rogelio Hernandez, a Carl’s Jr. cook, as saying.

Puzder also spoke out against Obamacare and overtime pay. In essence, as CKE’s CEO, he had already gone on the record opposing regulation that groups like the Fight for $US15 and the National Employment Law Project (NELP) have fought to pass and protect.

With his nomination, organisations fighting for fast-food workers’ rights went from seeing Puzder as the opponent as an employer, to seeing him as the enemy as a potential Secretary of Labour — the person tasked with protecting workers’ rights. 

Fast food workers protestScott Olson / Getty ImagesDemonstrators gather in front of a McDonald’s restaurant to call for an increase in minimum wage

As labour organisations and Democrats rallied against Puzder, they moved beyond his own statements as a fast-food CEO and began to look at Carl’s Jr and Hardee’s business practices for evidence that he was unfit for the role. There, they found reports of sexual harassment, wage theft, and sexualized advertising  — all things that are common problems in the industry. 

The New York Times reported that CKE Restaurants has been found guilty of wage theft in dozens of cases and the Labour Department has forced the company to pay employees who had been underpaid in more than one instance. Still, an examination of Labour Department data by BNA Bloomberg found that CKE Restaurants has one of the highest rates of compliance in the industry. 

The chains’ relatively positive placement didn’t prevent labour organisers using the cases as evidence that Puzder was unfit for the position of secretary of labour. Fast-food workers protested at restaurants, carrying signs with slogans such as “Andy Puzder: Worst of the Worst CEOs” and “Puzder: I Pay My Taxes, Why Don’t You Pay Yours?”

Ultimately, opponents framed Puzder as the embodiment of all that needs to be fixed in the fast-food industry. And, it worked —  on Wednesday, prior to Puzder’s withdrawal, CNN reported that top Senate Republicans encouraged the White House to withdraw Puzder’s nomination because of concerns that the fast-food CEO would not receive the necessary number of votes to be confirmed.

Groups like Fight for $US15 and the NELP’s organised opposition to Puzder since the day he was nominated wasn’t a fluke. It was a result of years of effort and working with fast-food employees, the press, and politicians. Following news of Puzder’s defeat, fast-food workers and organisations were happy to claim the victory. 

“We rallied outside Puzder’s stores nationwide and showed America how his burger empire was built on low pay, wage theft, sexual harassment and intimidation. And today, we are on the right side of history,” Darin Brooks, a Hardee’s worker and a member of a Fight for $US15 chapter in Durham, North Carolina, said in a statement. “This is a major victory for the Fight for $US15, but we can’t and won’t back down until the Trump Administration gives us a real labour secretary who will put working people over corporate profits.”

Trump’s new nomination for labour secretary, Alexander Acosta, will likely face opposition from the left as he awaits his confirmation hearing. However, the passion, organisation, and vitriol Puzder inspired as a symbol of the fast-food industry will be lacking when it comes to actually fighting the attorney’s nomination.  

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