Introducing Alex Acosta, Trump’s slightly less terrible Labor pick

His management missteps elsewhere may overshadow Alex Acosta’s brief tenure on a federal labor board.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Jon Elswick
CREDIT: AP Photo/Jon Elswick

Despite an eight-month stint on America’s top ruling body for labor policy, President Donald Trump’s second pick to head the Department of Labor has a thin record on the policy issues he will face in the job.

Alex Acosta’s time as a National Labor Relations Board member under President George W. Bush has few major highlights, labor policy experts told ThinkProgress. A persnickety decision about the rules governing strikes in health care businesses is one of the few cases that labor experts regarded as notable.

Acosta’s relatively lightweight record in labor law — and Trump’s own choice to turn his announcement into a rambling 77-minute press conference about everything but the Department of Labor — suggest the White House isn’t keyed up about overhauling labor law. Now, former Acting Secretary of Labor Seth Harris said in an interview, “it looks like President Trump couldn’t care less about the Labor Department.”

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Alex Acosta is a very traditional, conservative, Federalist Society small-government Republican,” Harris said. “[H]e’s actually been pretty good on a few issues. He’s spoken out against discrimination against Muslims. He has been reasonably good on immigration within the context of the GOP. But it’s almost impossible to predict that he’s going to have any meaningful influence on the Trump administration in those areas.”

Multiple experts familiar with the board’s operations during the Bush years said Acosta earned a reputation as a deliberate thinker who generally took the Republican position.

“I found almost everything he wrote to be pretty moderate. When he sided with the Republicans, it was pretty predictable. Nothing that he wrote, to me, transcended the boundaries of the system of labor law,” University of Wyoming law professor and former NLRB attorney Michael Duff told ThinkProgress.

Duff, who was a field attorney for the board during Acosta’s stint, said he and his colleagues regarded Trump’s latest nominee as a reasonable person who would consider their work fairly. In a handful of cases, Acosta’s conduct even indicates he had an independent streak uncommon among Bush’s appointees to the board.

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In one case involving a building firm called Double D Construction, Duff said, Acosta rejected a judge’s decision to treat testimony from an undocumented immigrant as inherently unreliable. Duff called Acosta’s writing in the case “extremely perceptive” and “very sensitive” to the case’s implications for immigrants’ legal rights.

In another, where Acosta joined a majority decision invalidating a union election among some Comcast workers because the union had paid for them to travel to Chicago, Duff saw a willingness to put substance above partisan interest.

In a handful of other cases Duff and other experts flagged for ThinkProgress, Acosta sided with board Democrats against management-friendly fellow Republicans.

The moderation of Acosta’s brief career detour into labor law helps to explain the relatively warm welcome that American labor leaders have given his nomination. The failure of nominee Andy Puzder, a far sharper contrast to Obama-era enforcement and reform priorities at the department, also seems to have softened the ground for Acosta.

“[W]e’ve gone from a fast-food chain C.E.O. who routinely violates labor law to a public servant with experience enforcing it,” AFL-CIO head Rich Trumka said in a statement on Acosta’s nomination.

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Harris, the former Labor official, shares the view that Trump is retreating from a radical overhaul of the department by turning to Acosta. The Floridian’s resume suggests he is a continuity figure, he said.

“In the domestic agencies, Trump really wanted to install a bunch of radical disruptors,” said Harris. But Acosta “suggests Trump has surrendered on radical disruption at the Labor Department.”

The retreat also suggests Trump does not see the posting as an important part of his relationship with the voters who supported him in 2016, Harris said.

“If you had a charismatic out-front leader at the Labor Department who had a close relationship with the president, you could absolutely see the Labor Secretary being one of the most prominent members of the cabinet, talking to voters in Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania who put the president over the top in the election,” said Harris. “But that is not Alex Acosta.”

Absent the charisma of a blue-collar ambassador or the workplace policy chops of an aggressive disrupter, Acosta stands out in Trump’s putative cabinet as someone with actual public service experience. But a key part of that public résumé suggests Acosta could still be a useful overseer for efforts to undermine a bureaucracy, if Trump retains the ambitions he signaled in picking Puzder.

As the Justice Department official in charge of the Civil Rights Division in the early 2000s, Acosta was on duty when other Bush staffers willfully sabotaged the key DOJ unit by hiring people who opposed its core mission. Acosta was never directly linked to the sabotage, though an investigation later concluded he knew enough that he should have intervened.

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The dark episode leaves him in a classic manager’s dilemma: Either Acosta had no idea what was happening right under his nose, and looks incompetent, or he was an active participant in the malfeasance.

The management competency question raised by Acosta’s time at DOJ is at least as relevant to his qualifications to lead Labor as anything he’s done on actual worker-employer policy questions. Leading a cabinet-level federal agency is a gigantic task. The secretary’s success relies more on his or her skill at delegating work and tracking progress toward goals than on mastering all the wonky details.

“For those of us who believe that government can make a difference in people’s lives, and that by dramatically improving the performance of government organizations you can dramatically improve people’s lives, management really matters,” said Harris. Acosta’s service as one voice among several on a deliberative body is less relevant to the managerial character of his next job. Acosta’s other jobs, especially at DOJ, are richer material for interrogating his leadership chops.

“That’s something I really hope [Senate Democrats] explore, not as a ‘gotcha’ but to see if he’s learned his lesson.”

Bryce Covert contributed to the reporting of this article.