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"When the people lead, the leaders will follow" are the oft-quoted words attributed to Gandhi. This week, massive grass-roots organizing helped defeat the nomination of Andrew Puzder, a multimillionaire fast-food CEO, as Donald Trump's secretary of labor. He was widely accused of running companies rife with wage theft and sexual harassment. His personal life was marred by accusations of hiring an undocumented immigrant, tax evasion and domestic violence. The push for his defeat was led by some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in our society, and serves as a lesson in the importance and power of movements.
Chaos and confusion have marked the first month of the Trump administration, Puzder's withdrawal came in the same week as the forced resignation of Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn as national security adviser. Leaks of classified intelligence revealed that Flynn had engaged in talks with the Russian ambassador to the United States during the transition period, while Barack Obama was still president. If Flynn was engaging in negotiations around the Russian sanctions with the ambassador, as is alleged, then his actions may well have been illegal. Flynn then reportedly lied about the conversations to Vice President Mike Pence. The Justice Department informed Trump in early January, but it was not until the media reported on Flynn's behavior that Trump forced him out.
Flynn is a well-known Islamophobe, who notoriously referred to Islam as "a cancer." As soon as he was named as the national security adviser, protests erupted. However, that position is one of those that the president can fill without Senate confirmation, so Flynn was in the Oval Office on Day One. While the media firestorm around his Russian intrigue was the instant reason for his ouster, we cannot discount the impact the ongoing, vigorous protests against his overt bigotry had on the decision to fire him.
For the past 16 years, Puzder has been the CEO of CKE Restaurants, which owns the fast-food chains Hardee's and Carl's Jr. As CEO, Puzder has campaigned against the very labor laws and regulations that he would be trusted to enforce as labor secretary. Under Puzder, CKE was a poster child of fast-food-restaurant labor-law violations, with workers regularly suffering wage theft and sexual harassment. Carl's Jr. advertisements employed hypersexualized imagery and the objectification of women, which many felt contributed to the persistent harassment at his restaurants.
Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC) conducted a survey of CKE employees immediately after Puzder's nomination in December. ROC was founded by restaurant workers in New York City following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The group fights for better wages and working conditions for restaurant employees, and has grown to 18,000 members in 15 states. The survey found: 66 percent of women at CKE Restaurants reported experiencing unwanted sexual behaviors at work, compared with 40 percent of women in the fast-food industry overall. Twenty-eight percent of respondents worked off the clock, and approximately one-third reported wage-theft violations, including not receiving required breaks and overtime pay. Seventy-nine percent of CKE Restaurants workers also reported that they have prepared or served food while sick, the highest rate that ROC has ever encountered.
Puzder is opposed to the minimum wage, the fight for $15/hour, paid sick leave and the Affordable Care Act. He told Business Insider almost a year ago that he favored replacing workers with robots: "They're always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there's never a slip-and-fall, or an age-, sex- or race-discrimination case."
Puzder also admitted to hiring an undocumented immigrant as a domestic worker in his home, and, further, didn't pay the required taxes while she was employed. This has been enough to torpedo Cabinet-level nominations in the past, most notably with President Bill Clinton's attorney-general nominees, Kimba Wood and Zoe Baird.
Puzder also was accused of domestic violence by his ex-wife. Lisa Fierstein appeared in disguise in a 1990 episode of "The Oprah Winfrey Show," describing the abuse she suffered. She said he told her: "I will see you in the gutter. This will never be over. You will pay for this." Fierstein later recanted her accusations. The video was provided to the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and was seen by other senators as well. By Wednesday, between four and 12 Republican senators indicated they would be unlikely to support Puzder, tanking his chances. Puzder then dropped out.
The mainstream media credits a Republican revolt with the defeat of Andrew Puzder as labor secretary. In the case of Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, the media says it was leaks from the intelligence community that took him down. But the engine driving both ousters are movements of thousands upon thousands of people across the country, saying "no" to hate, bigotry and injustice.