Given the never-ending political tumult within the Washington, D.C., Beltway, it was easy to overlook the Senate confirmation on September 26, 2019, of Eugene Scalia as Secretary of Labor. The party-line confirmation vote irritated workers and their representatives, who pointed out that Scalia’s claims to be a neutral advocate of his clients’ interests helped obscure his long-standing anti-labor politics.
The Department of Labor was established as a Cabinet-level agency on March 4, 1913, the last day of the Taft presidency. The Department’s purpose was to foster the well-being of wage earners by improving their working conditions and protecting their work-related rights. Throughout the remainder of the twentieth century, nobody doubted the Department of Labor’s job was protecting working people.
Eugene Scalia’s career, by contrast, has been devoted to fighting workers and their unions on behalf of big business and the rich. The son of late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, Eugene Scalia was employed for twenty years in the Washington, D.C. office of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. He represented, among others, Boeing, Chevron, SeaWorld, UPS, and Walmart, not to mention assorted Wall Street banks.
Scalia also rose to prominence in the conservative Federalist Society and wrote anti-labor diatribes for the right-wing Cato Institute. In one particularly notorious episode, he argued that typing and other work at a computer could not cause carpel tunnel syndrome. Ergonomic regulation by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, he thought, would require businesses to give workers more rest periods, slow the pace of work, and force the hiring of more staff. For some, he became “the godfather of the anti-ergonomics movement.”
Not surprisingly, union spokesmen and progressive politicians were upset by Scalia’s nomination and confirmation. Richard Trumpka, president of the AFL-CIO, called the confirmation of a man he considered a “union-buster” to be nothing short of “insulting.” Elizabeth Warren called the confirmation a “disgrace,” and, according to Bernie Sanders, the confirmation was “obscene.”
Interesting enough, Scalia defended his nomination by invoking the conventional lawyers’ claim that advocacy is merely neutral representation. A good lawyer can and should represent anyone regardless of the lawyer’s own politics and moral code. A life-long opponent of labor could turn on a dime and be labor’s advocate.
This claim might be appealing in an aspirational sense, but in a case like Scalia’s it disregards his well-established alignment. The latter is not necessarily a matter of shaped partisanship or party affiliation. The designation of somebody’s alignment is simply a recognition that people in specific situations will have predictable views of what should or should not be. Of course, recognition of this sort is crucial when countering a claim that a lawyer will be “neutral” when he joins the Cabinet. Can anybody honestly deny that Eugene Scalia has an anti-labor alignment?
In the end, a foe of labor has arrogantly plunked himself in the Secretary’s seat at the Department of Labor. A fox is guarding the hen house, and he is disguised as a neutral lawyer.