Patrick Pizzella, tapped by President Donald Trump on Friday to step in as acting Labor secretary, is a polarizing figure beloved by conservatives for his pro-business views and disliked by unions and Democrats for a history of opposing worker protections.
Pizzella, who has served as deputy secretary of Labor since April 2018, will take over following Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta’s resignation amid controversy over a plea deal that he brokered for wealthy sex offender Jeffrey Epstein as a prosecutor in Florida. Pizzella comes “highly recommended by Alex,” Trump told reporters Friday.
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But Pizzella’s ascendance to the top of the agency tasked with enforcing labor protections is something unions have long feared. He worked alongside disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff to shield the Northern Mariana Islands from federal labor laws in the 1990s, and generally has favored easing workplace regulations.
“If the president is serious about helping working people, selecting Patrick Pizzella wouldn’t be the way to demonstrate that,” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in a statement. “My dealings with Patrick have been limited, but his dubious track record, including his association with Jack Abramoff, doesn’t bode well.”
Pizzella’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The appointment is welcome news for business advocates, who had grown frustrated with Acosta’s tepid approach to deregulation.
“He’s more aligned with business, he’s more aligned with political [staff] in the department itself,” said a former administration official. “He’s liked by everyone there, he’s liked by the administration, he’s liked by the regulated communities.”
Pizzella is well-known in Washington labor circles, having served as a senior adviser in the Labor Department during the George W. Bush administration. He was a Republican member of the Federal Labor Relations Authority, the body that governs relations between federal unions and agencies, during the Obama administration and became chairman in 2017 when Trump took office.
As a lobbyist in the 1990s at Preston Gates Ellis & Rouvelas Meeds, Pizzella worked with Abramoff to help the Northern Mariana Islands push back against efforts to impose federal labor laws such as the minimum wage on its residents.
Abramoff was later convicted in a corruption scandal related to his work at the firm, but Pizzella was never implicated in any of the wrongdoing.
At Pizzella’s confirmation hearing in 2017, then-Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) read off a list of documented abuses of women workers on the islands — including forced abortion, prostitution and beatings — while Pizzella was lobbying there.
Pizzella responded that he was “not aware of any such thing,” but admitted he probably lobbied against a bill to prevent worker abuses in the Marianas.
“I don’t remember if we actually lobbied against that legislation,” Pizzella said. “But I’d assume we did.”
“He has not done enough to repudiate his past record of defending companies that routinely ignored these rights, and he has not given workers adequate reason to believe that he will defend their rights in the future,” the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights said in a statement opposing Pizzella’s nomination in 2017.
Unions — including the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest labor federation — refrained from calling on Acosta to resign even as the Epstein scandal reached its apex, worried that Pizzella would be far more hostile to their cause.
Still, on Friday, some unions publicly praised Acosta’s resignation.
“The facts that have emerged about Alex Acosta’s role in reducing Jeffrey Epstein’s sentence for his vile crimes have made it clear that he thinks there is one set of rules for the rich and powerful, and another set for everyone else,” the Communications Workers of America said in a statement. “This double standard has no role in the Labor Department or any other part of our government, and we welcome his resignation.”