Union Lobbyist Has Acosta’s Ear, to Employers’ Dismay

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By Ben Penn

Labor secretary nominee Alexander Acosta is receiving informal counsel from a lobbyist friend with union connections, creating unease in the business community, sources tell Bloomberg BNA.

Andrew Siff, who has lobbied Congress on behalf of both management and labor, is advising Acosta as he awaits confirmation, multiple sources with knowledge of the relationship confirmed.

“I have heard from a number of people who are concerned with his connections with the unions,” said a former Labor Department colleague of Siff’s under President George W. Bush. “Whether or not those concerns are backed by facts or are legit, they do have them.”

Industry advocates’ anxiety reflects a broader uncertainty about the White House’s relationship with unions. Their reaction also speaks to an employer-side sentiment that Trump’s initial choice for labor secretary would have been a more forceful champion for business interests than Acosta. Andrew Puzder, a fast-food executive, withdrew amid controversy, paving the way for Acosta, a former Republican National Labor Relations Board member.

It’s considered unlikely that Siff would return to work at the agency, where he was chief of staff for Bush’s labor secretary, Elaine Chao. But Siff’s ability to influence the agency as a trusted confidant to the presumed new secretary is causing consternation in certain employer circles. The Senate is expected to vote on and confirm Acosta, a law school dean at Florida International University, at some point in the next two weeks.

Siff’s clients have included a handful of the very labor unions that endorsed Acosta shortly after Trump tapped him in February. In the first three months of 2017, his firm Siff & Associates lobbied for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Koch Industries, and the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, according to a Bloomberg BNA review of lobbying disclosures.

Red Flags

At first glance, Siff—a former counselor to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)—is a traditional conservative attorney. He sits among distinguished Republican lawyers on the Federalist Society’s labor and employment practice group executive committee.

But Siff’s union clients raise red flags for some employer advocates who are eager for a new White House to unwind the Obama DOL agenda. Businesses have argued that the prior administration was inappropriately shaped by union interests.

“Siff has been helping out all along, but it’s unclear how much of a voice he’ll have when it comes to real policy,” a construction industry advocate told Bloomberg BNA. “He’s certainly a concern, though. Acosta is impressive, but if Siff is going to have a strong voice, it could cause problems.”

The employer groups’ issues with Siff are also related to disappointment over losing Geoff Burr, a well-connected and trusted voice for employers, who recently left the DOL beachhead team to become Chao’s chief of staff in her new role as transportation secretary. Burr was once expected to become Puzder’s chief of staff.

Siff didn’t respond to a voicemail and email. Acosta spokeswoman Sue Hensley declined to comment on personnel matters.

Uncertain Time for Unions

Advocates for both employers and employees still await clear signals nearly 100 days into Donald Trump’s presidency about the administration’s stance on labor relations. Trump, who received votes from many union members, has yet to overtly pick a battle with unions. But he’s also taken steps to unravel DOL policies that worker groups supported under President Barack Obama and the White House has supported right-to-work laws that the labor movement despises.

A business lobbyist who used to work alongside Siff at the Labor Department told Bloomberg BNA that Siff’s work with unions has been primarily to assist them with regulatory compliance and not to advocate for their legislative priorities.

“The fact that he would be advising Acosta on labor policy shouldn’t be surprising because of his deep knowledge of the issues,” the lobbyist said. “There’s also a simple fact that people have to recognize, which is that labor unions are stakeholders of the department. So the secretary is going to need to be able to talk to them.”

A worker advocacy source described Siff as someone with “ties on both sides of the aisle and labor/employment world” and “not a knee jerk ideologue, which seems very much in line with what I expect out of Acosta.”

The newly filed reports show Siff’s lobby shop hauled in $160,000 in the first quarter of 2017.

Notably, his advocacy for the Chamber’s Center for Capital Markets Competitiveness included outreach to the Senate, White House and DOL on two Obama-era retirement regulations: the fiduciary rule that tightened conflict-of-interest restrictions on retirement investment brokers; and a regulation that would have allowed cities to set up retirement programs for private-sector workers, which has since been nullified.

The reports don’t specify Siff’s position on those rules, but the Chamber has opposed them.

To Asheesh Agarwal, a labor and employment attorney who has known Siff for nearly 20 years, there is nothing inappropriate about him guiding Acosta.

“Andrew Siff is a very talented, thoughtful attorney who thoroughly understands the mission of the Department of Labor,” Agarwal, now general counsel for the Indiana Department of Revenue, told Bloomberg BNA. “I have every confidence that his counsel will help the department’s leadership as it assumes its new responsibilities.”

Siff’s Clients Endorsed Acosta

When Siff left the DOL in the 2000s to open a lobbying firm, he took on several of the leading trade unions as clients: the Laborers’ International Union of North America; North America’s Building Trades Unions; UBC; and the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, according to a Bloomberg BNA review of lobbying disclosures. He’s also represented the International Association of Fire Fighters.

With the exception of NABTU, all of those unions issued positive statements in response to Trump’s Feb. 15 selection of Acosta as his second labor secretary nominee. LIUNA, IAFF and UBC all endorsed Acosta, while the IUPAT had positive words that stopped slightly short of an endorsement.

Kevin O’Connor, an official for IAFF, the only one of those unions to respond to Bloomberg BNA’s request for comment, said his union’s endorsement of Acosta was “totally independent of his relationship with Andrew.”

When Acosta ran the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, “we were able to sit down with Alex and he listened to what we had to say, and I found him to be very accessible,” O’Connor, who heads government and public affairs at the firefighters’ union, told Bloomberg BNA.

The Associated Builders and Contractors didn’t provide Bloomberg BNA with a comment for this story. The Associated General Contractors, through spokesman Brian Turmail, said, “We look forward to working with Mr. Acosta” and “we fully expect that this administration will be far more willing to work with the employer community as honest partners than the prior one did.”

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; Christopher Opfer at copfer@bna.com

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

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