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Puzder's nomination fight is a proxy for bigger battles of the emerging Trump era

Puzder's nomination fight is a proxy for bigger battles of the emerging Trump era

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WASHINGTON • President Donald Trump’s nomination of former St. Louis lawyer and fast-food CEO Andy Puzder as secretary of the Department of Labor is really a proxy fight in the business vs. labor battles that are likely to mark the Trump years.

Barring unforeseen events, Puzder appears headed toward a narrow confirmation in a Republican-controlled Senate. Puzder is scheduled to make his first public defense of a barrage of criticisms thrown at him Tuesday before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Lined up on opposite sides are powerful forces, ironically symbolized by two primary combatants that go by the same “EPI” acronym but come from very different places:

The Employment Policies Institute, a pro-business group funded, in part, by the restaurant industry from which Puzder comes. This EPI has tried to rebut claims that Puzder has been anti-labor as chief executive of the fast food-chain CKE, parent of Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. This group portrays Puzder as a common-sense businessman who can use the bully pulpit to push the doctrine that the best labor policy is job creation.

The Economic Policy Institute, a group supported by labor unions, that has attacked Puzder as a greedy CEO who opposes raising the minimum wage and who wants to roll back safety and overtime protections put into place by former President Barack Obama.

In the middle is Puzder, 66, a media-savvy businessman with deep St. Louis roots, a reputation as a brash and energetic CEO with a propensity to answer fire with fire. He’ll face questions ranging from his true position on raising the minimum wage to allegations that he abused his ex-wife — accusations that his former spouse, Lisa, has retracted.

Puzder, a 1978 Washington University law graduate, was a trial lawyer and anti-abortion activist in St. Louis until 1991, before moving on to CKE, where he used aggressive marketing and advertising to save the burger companies from going out of business.

Puzder is a prolific blogger and speech-giver, and he sometimes says controversial things. But uncharacteristically, he has remained largely silent since Trump announced his nomination almost two months ago, while opposing forces have hurled accusations back and forth.

The Service Employees International Union called Puzder “grossly out of touch with what working America needs.”

The Labor Department’s “mission is to improve the wages and working conditions of job holders, job seekers, retirees,” said Heidi Shierholz, the former chief economist at Obama’s Department of Labor, who just recently joined the Economic Policy Institute. “There is nothing in his record or any of the public statements that (indicate) he would lead in developing policies to further that mission.”

But former McDonald’s CEO Ed Rensi said Puzder typifies the “business of America is business” attitude of the Trump administration that will be good for business and workers.

“Once he is appointed I think you are going to see a man who is very practical, very straightforward, and he is going to be just like Donald Trump,” Rensi said. “(Puzder will ask) What’s the deal? What’s the business? Is this fair? Are people able to make a wage that is commensurate with their skill set? … Are there going to be these insane regulations?”

Former U.S. Sen. Jim Talent, a longtime friend, has helped Puzder prepare for the hearing. He said Puzder’s upbringing in a working-class Cleveland family and the fact that he worked his way through college has given Puzder insight into both ends of the economic ladder.

“Andy really did live what millions and millions of Americans are working today,” Talent said. “He regularly juggled money at the end of the month. He knows both and appreciates that experience for what it eventually allowed him to do. It was a ladder for him and he believes in it passionately, but he also knows the struggles of it.”

Talent added: “As a CEO he saw how government actions can initially hurt the options and the jobs of workers. It frustrated him. Now, Andy believes very strongly in government protection for workers. But he also believes it can be done in a way that does not hurt their opportunity.”

Obama’s Labor Secretary Tom Perez actively stumped for a higher minimum wage and helped push through regulations on worker safety, and a doubling of the income threshold of workers eligible for overtime.

His backers say Puzder is likely to be just as active, but from the opposite direction.

“The last eight years … the Labor Department has focused on boosting labor unions as opposed to boosting the labor market,” said Michael Saltsman, research director for the Employment Policies Institute. “And when you have someone like Perez, who traveled the country to promote policies like a $15-an-hour minimum wage — that is just tremendously damaging to small business. I think that someone like Puzder is uniquely qualified to carry out the (Labor Department’s) mission, which is to advance profitable employment.”

But Bill Samuel, director of government affairs for the AFL-CIO, said that Puzder “seems to have this knee-jerk reaction against any kind of regulation, despite the fact that the reason we have a labor department is to protect workers’ pay and benefits” and their “physical health and safety.”

Samuel said that the Labor Department under the previous Republican secretary, Elaine Chao, “kind of went into hibernation.”

“Puzder could be more ideologically opposed to the mission than Elaine Chao. He has been very outspoken,” Samuel said. “He can be more dangerous because I think he is skillful and articulate. And he can really turn back the clock in very real ways as opposed to just ignoring his job.”

Before Trump nominated him, Puzder was a Trump campaign surrogate and a frequent critic of Obamacare, which Trump and Republicans in Congress have said they’ll repeal and replace.

Puzder told Franchise Times that the restaurant industry was “the canary in the coal mine” warning of what Obamacare and more regulation and higher minimum wages could do.

“If employers are competing for the best employees, they will pay more,” Puzder said then. “You can’t order businesses to be profitable, or place restrictions on them and expect them to grow.”

Former rival Rensi, the ex-McDonald’s CEO, said Puzder believes, like him, that entry-level jobs at their restaurants are steppingstones for people just getting into the workforce.

Since 2009, the federal minimum wage has been $7.25 an hour, although many states have higher.

“Andy and I have exactly the same point of view,” Rensi said. “Have a minimum wage so that employees don’t get prostituted, but they are entry-level jobs for people with very low skill sets. The goal should be to get them on board, and initially they are making minimum wage today. And have training programs … that they can take and end up being a CEO in 35 years.”

Easy thing for a CEO to say, said the SEIU’s Mary Kay Henry, who pointed out that in 2012, Puzder’s $4.4 million compensation was 291 times higher than his average worker’s.

Feminist and labor groups have criticized Hardee’s ads showing bikini-clad women eating hamburgers as sexist and demeaning. When Puzder defended the ads as being “very American,” that only ratcheted up the criticism.

The AFL-CIO’s Samuel said Democrats should fully explore “his statements about how he views women (and) obviously his reaction to criticism of the advertising.”

Democrats have already solicited testimony from female employees of CKE who alleged they were mistreated because they were women.

Samuel said he also expects the abuse allegations to be raised because, although now denied by the former wife, “it goes to character.”

Rensi said the attacks on Puzder’s company’s advertising was unions offering “every nitwit idea they can find to say that Andy is unqualified, and that is just not true.”

“You tell me what corporation in America that advertises that doesn’t use good-looking people to endorse their product,” Rensi said.

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Chuck Raasch is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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