By BOB BUSSEL, U of O Labor Education and Research Center professor emeritus
A sobering loss for the union movement occurred last month in the U. S. Senate—the derailing of President Biden’s nomination of David Weil to be administrator of the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division. The 53-47 vote included three Democrats (Joe Manchin of West Virginia, and Kyrsten Sinema and Mark Kelly of Arizona) who crossed party lines to torpedo Weil’s nomination. The vote tells us some important things about the state of labor politics, the emerging counterattack against worker organizing, and intensifying opposition to the Biden administration’s pro-worker and pro-union policies.
A respected scholar and administrator, David Weil had previously held the Wage and Hour post under the Obama administration. During his tenure, he expanded overtime coverage by raising the wage ceiling for eligibility, cracked down on wage theft, and took a special interest in the misclassification of workers as independent contractors.
As Weil outlined in his important 2014 book The Fissured Workplace, employers have systematically outsourced work to contractors, franchises, and outside vendors over the past three decades. Although this approach has fattened the corporate bottom line and given some workers greater flexibility, it has also led to rampant misclassification and a serious erosion of protections for workers.
Not surprisingly, Weil’s nomination provoked a firestorm of protest from business interests, right-wing think tanks, and their political allies. They portrayed him as a “radical academic” who, in the words of George W. Bush’s wage and hour administrator, “spent his time using the power of federal investigations attempting to prove his theories.” Asked to explain their opposition to Weil, the Democratic defectors offered several justifications. Manchin described Weil as “too much of a risk to take.” A Sinema spokesperson expressed her “concerns with his ability to faithfully execute and uphold the law.” “I heard from a lot of business owners,” Kelly told Politico. “There were concerns about how he’d interpret things.”
Beyond caving to business interests, the unwillingness of Manchin, Sinema, and Kelly to support strong enforcement of labor law runs counter to the Biden administration’s forthright backing of workers and the union movement. It also willfully ignores the spirit of our time, when we are witnessing workers taking collective action, organizing unions, and demanding they be treated with dignity and respect.
We can see what’s been lost in the refusal to support David Weil. In a 2016 interview with Huffpost, Weil explained the deeper meaning of the Labor Department taking on wage theft although the amounts of back pay recovered were often small. “It translates into groceries, a month of rent or the ability to keep up a car. That’s huge. Beyond that, people are talking about the restoration of their dignity. They know they’re being underpaid unlawfully. There’s a notion of justice that comes with it.”
We are already witnessing the fierce opposition that companies like Amazon and Starbucks are mounting against their workers. This opposition will surely be accompanied by more aggressive action from their right-wing allies. When politicians like Senators Manchin, Sinema, and Kelly cannot stand up for the “restoration of dignity” or uphold a “notion of justice,” and support decent public servants like David Weil, we must demand (and continue to demand) that they answer the classic labor question: “Which side are you on?