President Trump this week formally announced his intention to nominate Eugene Scalia as Labor secretary, with the White House saying he has both legal expertise and hands-on experience at the department.
But Democrats are threatening to oppose the nomination, fearing a pick who could become a powerful deregulator.
"Eugene Scalia is the president's pick to lead the Department of Labor because of his deep expertise and ability to defend the American worker,” White House Deputy Press Secretary Judd Deere told Fox News. “He is one of the most respected labor and employment lawyers in the country, and we expect the Senate to act quickly on his nomination.”
Scalia, a son of the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, brings a wealth of experience to the role as a longtime labor, employment and regulatory lawyer, and a former solicitor in the Labor Department during the George W. Bush administration.
He is also a senior fellow of the Administrative Conference of the United States — an agency that recommends to Congress and the executive branch ways to improve agency procedures. Trump described Scalia as having led “a life of great success in the legal and labor field.”
But Democrats are pointing to Scalia's record as well, claiming the nominee would turn the department in a pro-corporation direction and aggressively seek to cut regulations protecting workers.
“President Trump is missing an opportunity to nominate a fighter for workers, like a union member, to be America’s next Labor Secretary,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said in July. “Instead, President Trump has again chosen someone who has proven to put corporate interests over those of worker rights. Workers and union members who believed candidate Trump when he campaigned as pro-worker should feel betrayed.”
“Eugene Scalia spent his career putting giant corporations over American workers,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said when his nomination was first announced. “This should concern anyone who believes that the Department of Labor should protect workers’ rights – not corporate interests. The Senate must reject his nomination for Secretary of Labor.”
Scalia spent much of the Obama years opposing government regulations on behalf of businesses – putting him in line with the broad philosophical brushstrokes of the Trump administration, which has sought to slash regulation across multiple cabinet departments.
During Scalia's confirmation to the Labor Department in 2001, Democrats expressed similar concerns then, focusing on his opposition to a Clinton-era rule to protect workers from repetitive stress injuries – known as the ergonomics rule.
The Wall Street Journal reports that as a partner of the corporate law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, he spent much of his time representing the financial-services industry in challenging regulations associated with the Obama-era Dodd-Frank law – he has called the 2010 law an important statute but added that “when the government believes it’s handling a particularly important issue, there can be a tendency to overreach.”
But a source familiar with the nomination told Fox News that Scalia’s record was “pro-worker and entirely even-handed when it came to labor unions,” saying he “has never been a business lawyer out to defeat the union movement" and has shown respect for a workers’ right to unionize.
The source listed examples in which Scalia had fought for workers when he was part of the department he now seeks to lead. One notable case was settled in 2002, when the Labor Department won a $10 million settlement with a poultry factory after the company refused to pay workers for time spent putting on and taking off safety gear – a process known as “donning and doffing.”
While the Clinton administration began the action, it was settled during the Bush administration, with Scalia authorizing the litigation. A New York Times story at the time quoted Scalia as estimating that workers spent eight minutes a day dressing and undressing – approximately $500 a year in unpaid work. The settlement found that the company should pay workers for the dressing and undressing and it won affected workers $1,000 each in back pay.
The United Food and Commercial Workers union called the settlement “a step in the right direction for fair pay for some of the nation’s most underpaid workers.”
Similarly, the source pointed to Scalia’s role in ending a West Coast ports dispute the same year between the companies that owned the ports and unions. The source said Scalia gained a reputation during that fight for “not playing favorites, not coming in blaming the company, not coming in and blaming the union, but just trying to get a resolution."
The New York Times reported that union leaders praised Scalia's approach of proposing a contract extension “because it showed that the administration was seeking to heed union concerns and avoid invoking the Taft-Hartley Act.” President Bush did eventually invoke the act after companies rejected the extension.
When his confirmation hearing is held in coming months, Scalia is likely to face questions from Democrats on his work as a private lawyer, particularly in undoing an Obama rule to put tougher requirements on professionals advising retirement savers and defending companies such as Boeing, SeaWorld and Wal-Mart.
However, with a firm Republican hold on the Senate and no visible GOP opposition to his nomination, Scalia's chances for confirmation seem solid. While Democrats may fear whether Scalia will push for greater deregulation, for many Republicans that is a plus.
“Gene Scalia is an outstanding lawyer who has vigorously defended the Constitution over a long career in government and private practice,” Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., said in a statement when the pick was announced. “I’m confident he’ll be a champion for working Americans against red tape and burdensome regulation as Labor Secretary.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.