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By Ben Penn
Curtis Ellis, a Trump adviser who accused Democrats of plotting the “liquidation of white, blue-collar working families,” is a finalist to become the Labor Department’s top diplomat, sources briefed on the matter tell Bloomberg BNA.
Ellis—who has written for controversial conservative publications and is aligned with White House adviser Steve Bannon—has emerged as one of two contenders to run the DOL’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs (ILAB), said the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The little-known deputy undersecretary position at ILAB is considered an essential piece of the White House push to restore U.S. manufacturing jobs by cracking down on labor abuses overseas.
Ellis is currently part of the Labor Department’s beachhead team and is overseeing the department’s trade policy. He has already been attending ILAB meetings and representing the bureau to foreign governments as a temporary political appointee.
Ellis has a lengthy public record espousing protectionist and anti-Obama trade agenda views on WorldNetDaily, a website known for publishing stories questioning former President Barack Obama’s citizenship. A loyal media surrogate on the Donald Trump presidential campaign, Ellis wrote a column in 2015 titled, “legal immigration threatens our society.”
Sources told Bloomberg BNA that Ellis and former ILAB official Martha Newton are finalists for the deputy undersecretary for international affairs position. Ellis’s possible appointment is causing significant concern for some labor and human rights advocates, as well as Labor Department workers.
“It’s alarming to think our diplomatic counterparts could Google this guy and find these paranoid and xenophobic rantings,” a human rights nonprofit stakeholder told Bloomberg BNA. “It would immediately undermine him and place at risk the U.S. leadership on promoting labor rights as part of the global trade agenda.”
Greg Autry, who was a member of the American Jobs Alliance’s advisory board when Ellis was its executive director, said he isn’t familiar with Ellis’s current role at DOL. But Autry rebutted the notion that Ellis’s background may undermine workers’ interests. “Curtis strongly understands the importance of manufacturing to the U.S. economy and labor,” Autry, now an assistant professor at the University of Southern California, told Bloomberg BNA. “I believe Curtis is a friend to the American worker and by extension a friend to workers globally.”
Several sources spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak on the record or want to work with the White House on trade policy.
“Despite being with the department for four months, Ellis still does not seem to understand the most basic aspects of the work,” a senior DOL source told Bloomberg BNA. “There is widespread concern that if this is the person who represents the interests of the American workforce in international negotiations and other foreign affairs, other countries are going to eat our lunch. It won’t end well for American workers,” a senior DOL source told Bloomberg BNA.
A second DOL source independently corroborated the concerns.
A Labor Department spokeswoman was reached by phone yesterday, but as of this morning, the agency had not provided a comment.
Ellis didn’t respond to messages left on his government email and personal cell phone number.
Ellis’s current role at ILAB, and potential to head it permanently, is creating significant anxiety for a wide array of stakeholders interviewed by Bloomberg BNA. That includes representatives from labor, business, nonprofit and DOL (current and former) communities.
Other unions, business groups and former ILAB officials said they’d withhold judgment on Ellis, who they didn’t know well or at all. Some unions are more uneasy about whether the bureau will remain a priority at all, because of a steep budget cut proposed by the White House.
ProPublica first reported that Ellis arrived at DOL as member of the “beachhead team” with the title of “special assistant to the secretary.” Although he’s been focused on ILAB, his official role in the Labor Department still isn’t clear.
Ellis participated in an International Labor Organization governing body meeting in Geneva in March, Hans von Rohland, an ILO spokesman, confirmed to Bloomberg BNA. The conference lists him as an adviser to the DOL’s “Bureau of International Labor Relations.”
Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta interviewed Ellis several weeks ago to head the bureau, sources with knowledge of the process said.
The ILAB appointment doesn’t require Senate approval, and could be announced any day.
The other interviewee, Newton, was a high-ranking ILAB political official under President George W. Bush. She is considered the more mainstream candidate, based in part on her previous government service.
ILAB’s mission includes ensuring global workplaces don’t rely on child labor, forced labor or human trafficking. The bureau’s four offices research trade issues, participate in trade negotiations and work directly on enforcement efforts overseas.
Acosta, who had three Senate-confirmed roles in the Bush administration himself, is believed by some to be more likely to favor Newton. That’s based on his reputation as a traditional conservative, without any inside knowledge of his thinking.
The open question is whether the White House, already showing a proclivity to reward Trump loyalists, would insist Ellis gets named to the deputy undersecretary post that he covets, or another senior trade role.
“We have no personnel announcement at this time,” a White House official told Bloomberg BNA via email.
Many of the sources concerned about Ellis agreed that perhaps the bigger issue facing ILAB’s future is its funding. The White House’s March budget proposal called for a $60 million cut in annual ILAB spending, which would amount to a 75 percent reduction from fiscal year 2017.
Ellis has also written for Breitbart, the far-right news service that until recently was headed by Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist.
An Ellis WorldNetDaily column—accusing the “radical left” and its “social engineers” of “ethnic cleansing” through “the decimation of America’s middle class and industrial strength"—garnered the attention of Bannon, who interviewed Ellis on his Breitbart radio show to promote the piece.
Bannon referred to it on air as a “magnificent column.” That was after Ellis detailed his theory that liberals hatched a plan starting during the Vietnam War to “liquidate” white families. Ellis earned a more-frequent guest spot on the show after that debut segment. He was billed as a Trump adviser on television interviews during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Ellis has been engaging with unions since joining the Labor Department. He’s run at least one trade-focused transition meeting, shortly before Trump’s inauguration, between key labor officials. Last week, he sat in as an ILAB representative on a conference call between members of a labor advisory committee on upcoming trade negotiations.
Yet for some in organized labor, Ellis’s past views make him too tough to stomach, even if they agree with his desire to renegotiate trade deals for the betterment of U.S. workers.
“We may share concerns about trade but his racist views make it impossible for us to work with him,” a union advocate told Bloomberg BNA.
The issue for unions is unique from other groups. Some members of the labor movement grew familiar with Ellis in 2015, when he ran the nonprofit American Jobs Alliance. At that time, unions and Ellis operated parallel campaigns attempting to defeat the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership and related fast-track White House approval authority.
Several union advocates told Bloomberg BNA that if Ellis heads ILAB, they’ll be forced to work with someone whose views they’re uncomfortable with, even though they share goals on negotiating improved trade deals for U.S. workers.
Ellis has “a completely different frame from how we would talk about trade or globalization concerns,” a union advocate told Bloomberg BNA. “Our frame is always going to be about global solidarity and lifting up workers in all countries, as opposed to looking to create walls or barriers or differences between American workers and workers in other countries. It’s a problem.”
Other union sources invested in trade negotiation were more open-minded about Ellis’s reputation, indicating they didn’t know him well enough to write him off.
A representative for the AFL-CIO declined to comment.
Employer groups are also invested in ILAB’s work to improve global labor conditions to level the playing field for U.S. businesses.
“It’s odd to me to put someone heading this office whose foremost commitment is to American workers, not to foreign workers,” a business community source familiar with ILAB told Bloomberg BNA.
Other chief ILAB stakeholders, such as the U.S. Council for International Business, National Association for Manufacturers and U.S. Chamber of Commerce, declined to participate in this story.
For former Obama Deputy Labor Secretary Christopher Lu, Ellis’s past remarks should automatically disqualify him.
“ILAB has one of the most noble missions in the federal government, and plays a critical role in representing American values and interests around the world,” Lu, now a senior fellow at the University of Virginia Miller Center, told Bloomberg BNA via email, after being informed about Ellis’s potential appointment. “It would be a travesty for this agency to be led by someone who holds extreme right-wing views and has a history of making incendiary statements.”
ILAB works closely with the U.S. Trade Representative and State Department to ensure U.S. partner countries meet labor standards under existing trade frameworks. That partnership is intended to protect U.S. workers from being undercut by illegal labor practices, an ideal Ellis has supported.
“It’s dangerous to have somebody who writes about white nationalism representing the U.S. government on the international or national stage in any capacity,” a former Obama DOL official said. “That’s a calculation that this administration and this secretary of labor are going to have to make.”
ILAB heads from the Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations declined to comment on Ellis.
It should be clear within the coming months whether Ellis will be running the show at ILAB, and if lawmakers will go along with Trump’s plan to slash the bureau’s budget.
For now, some labor groups, trade specialists and DOL employees are on pins and needles.
To contact the reporter on this story: Ben Penn in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2017 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
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