Labor Secretary’s Initial Meetings Balance Industry, Unions

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By Ben Penn

Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta met with dozens of industry and union leaders during his initial weeks in office, according to a copy of his official calendar obtained by Bloomberg BNA.

Acosta talked in person and over the phone with the presidents of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Manufacturers, and National Retail Federation, among other business group executives. He also engaged a few times with the head of the North America’s Building Trades Unions and spoke with the presidents of the AFL-CIO, International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and United Auto Workers. The schedule was obtained July 19 through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Business representatives outpaced all other stakeholder groups in terms of meeting with Acosta, a Bloomberg BNA review of the calendar shows. Broken down by category, his calls and meetings cover 40 conversations with industry associations or companies, 27 talks with union officials, 17 chats with Republican lawmakers, seven with Democrats, and 21 discussions with White House staffers.

The meetings reflect an active agenda for a labor secretary confirmed in April, weeks later than expected, after President Donald Trump’s first choice for the job withdrew amid controversy. Acosta’s calendar discloses few conversation topic details but does showcase the voices possibly influencing him as he faces a slew of budgetary, regulatory, and policy decisions at the Labor Department.

The schedule spans Acosta’s April 28 swearing-in through June 23, the date Bloomberg BNA submitted the FOIA request. Many of the secretary’s daily meetings were redacted to keep them confidential, including interviews with personnel candidates.

Fellow Cabinet officials—including Education Secretary Betsy DeVos—and top White House advisers, including Ivanka Trump and Steve Bannon, all had Acosta’s ear. President Trump met with his labor secretary once, although separately the two have been seen together at a few events to promote the White House’s apprenticeship push.

Pro-Trump Unions

Acosta entered office with a reputation for keeping an open door to stakeholders from the business and labor communities. This dates back from his time serving in the George W. Bush presidency as a National Labor Relations Board member and Justice Department Civil Rights Division head.

The secretary set aside time for a range of union presidents, with a particular focus on some of the trade unions, such as NABTU, that have shown a greater willingness to work with President Trump this year. The three largest unions by membership—National Education Association; Service Employees International Union; and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees—are absent from Acosta’s official calendar.

Acosta’s labor movement meetings show an emphasis on unions poised to take advantage of Trump’s recent executive order to expand apprenticeships, which DOL is implementing. That includes dialogue with presidents of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters, Laborers’ International Union of North America, and the United Association of Plumbers, Fitters, Welders and Service Techs.

Business Sit-Downs

In a DOL that was already showing signs of becoming more employer-friendly, the schedule depicts the exact industries that have been competing with one another to get acquainted with the agency’s new top official. The business community criticized the Obama DOL for taking an aggressive approach to enforcing the laws and issuing regulations.

They’ve been eager to put their priorities, such as unwinding the overtime rule, in front of Acosta, whom they see as more inclined to act on their advice than previous Labor Secretary Thomas Perez. Acosta has said the department is rethinking the overtime rule, which was expected to make some 4 million workers newly eligible for time-and-a-half pay for all hours worked beyond 40 a week.

In addition to the Chamber, NAM, and NRF, the list of trade groups that met in person or chatted on the phone with Acosta includes the largest industry lobbies in Washington. Among these are the National Restaurant Association, International Franchise Association, American Hotel and Lodging Association, Associated Builders and Contractors, and the National Federation of Independent Business.

No Fiduciary Specifics

Perhaps the highest profile and most time-sensitive issue facing Acosta when he was sworn in, the DOL’s fiduciary rule, wasn’t mentioned specifically in the calendar.

Throughout the past few months, DOL officials have been revisiting the controversial 2016 regulation, which imposes conflict-of-interest restrictions on retirement investment advisers, and meeting with stakeholders.

At least in the non-redacted portions of his calendar, Acosta isn’t specified as taking an active role in that process. However, his conversations with Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Jay Clayton, UBS Americas, and the Chamber of Commerce, were all bound to touch on the rule, even though the schedule provided to Bloomberg BNA doesn’t delineate this topic.

The GOP members of the House and Senate who occupied Acosta’s time were also likely to have discussed the fiduciary rule with him, among other Obama-era regulations that Republicans have tried to block.

For instance, Acosta met with House Workforce Committee GOP members Virginia Foxx (N.C.), Tim Walberg (Mich.), and Bradley Byrne (Ala.), as well as Republican Senate labor panel members Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), Tim Scott (S.C.), and Johnny Isakson (Ga.).

To contact the reporter on this story: Ben Penn in Washington at bpenn@bna.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Peggy Aulino at maulino@bna.com; Terence Hyland at thyland@bna.com; Chris Opfer at copfer@bna.com

Copyright © 2017 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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