Typically, when a president-elect announces his selection for labor secretary, the nation barely takes notice. It’s just not as sexy as secretary of state, as divisive as the attorney general or come with as much firepower as secretary of defense.
But the head of the Labor Department is no less consequential. After a campaign in which jobs played such a prominent role, the selection of fast-food CEO Andrew Puzder raises questions about President-elect Donald Trump’s commitment to improving the lives of 150 million working people.
Puzder’s history of putting profits before people by opposing reasonable increases to the minimum wage and leading a company that violates labor standards should be a concern to us all.
For many voters, this election was about good jobs today and a promise of economic opportunity for their kids tomorrow. These kitchen-table economic concerns meant so much that many voters were willing to discount Donald Trump’s divisive and often hate-filled rhetoric because he promised to shake things up and bring real change for working people.
We saw how conflicted many low-wage workers were on Election Night. While many feared what a Trump presidency might bring to them and their families, millions celebrated the overwhelming electoral success of minimum wage and paid sick leave ballot measures in four states.
These workers believed, like we do, that voters made their economic priorities clear and established the terms on which the success of the president would be judged: How working families fare over the next four years.
Now that Mr. Trump will be our president, his economic promises mean more than late-night tweets. How will the president-elect create the more than 25 million jobs as he promised? How will he bring back manufacturing plants and restore economic opportunity in hard-hit communities across the nation’s heartland?
Which supposed “growth-stifling” regulations that protect workers’ wages or healthcare or safety will actually get cut? Will he deliver on paid maternity leave and expand it to family leave?
With few specifics laid out by President-elect Donald Trump, the next secretary of labor will be responsible for determining much of this ambitious agenda for America’s workers. As the president’s key adviser on everything from employment to fair working standards and even pensions, Puzder has plenty of challenges ahead and his track record isn’t great.
Americans are watching closely. A single mom in Maine worked over 18 hours a day, wearing a McDonald’s uniform over her Dunkin’ Donuts apron, and still had to choose between food on the table or rent. She headed to the polls in this last election to vote for better wages.
In Arizona, a cancer patient refused surgery for a dangerously long time because missing work meant missing meals for her kids. She took a stand and voted for paid sick leave. And in Colorado, a home health worker voted on better wages after living paycheck to paycheck for nearly two decades, caring for our elderly.
All of them pulled the lever on ballot initiatives to increase the minimum wage and provide paid sick policies—initiatives that won with huge margins in their home states. In fact, in Maine and Washington, more people voted on minimum wage ballot initiatives than on the presidential election line.
In Arizona, support for the minimum wage and paid sick leave ballot was nearly 10 points higher than for Trump. Workers wanted results, and they didn’t want to wait for Washington, D.C., to figure it out.
These state measures should be recognized as an economic mandate to the president-elect. If Trump fails to produce more sustainable jobs, improve wages or ensure that more families can take time to care for sick loved ones, he will have failed, and determined workers will once again look to ballot initiatives to enact sound economic policies.
When the nation’s top advocate for workers is a man who hasn’t shown interest in prioritizing working Americans, ballot initiatives will be more important than before. This form of direct democracy, where feasible, will be an important check and balance on economic policies produced in Washington, D.C., and felt in the rest of the nation.
But the same can’t be said for most the country. With nearly half of all workers earning less than $15 an hour, entire communities need a president and a labor secretary who’s on their side and committed to helping their families plan, save and survive in the future.
Trump’s incoming chief of staff Reince Priebus recently said, “[Trump’s] going to continue to be the champion of the American worker.” From what we know about Puzder, we have some serious doubts.
Jonathan Schleifer is executive director of The Fairness Project, a national organization working to address economic fairness through ballot initiatives. Christine Owens is executive director of the National Employment Law Project, a nonpartisan, not-for-profit organization that conducts research and advocates on issues affecting low-wage and unemployed workers.
Read the original op-ed at Newsweek.com.