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Union Oversight Agency Adds Staff Entrenched in Labor Opposition

Feb. 4, 2020, 7:29 PM

The Labor Department’s union watchdog office has quietly added a pair of aides who have a history of advocating against organized labor.

Rusty Brown, a union-avoidance consultant, started Jan. 6 as a policy adviser in the department’s Office of Labor-Management Standards, a spokeswoman confirmed to Bloomberg Law. Trey Kovacs, formerly a labor policy analyst at the free market think tank Competitive Enterprise Institute, began Jan. 21 as a special assistant at OLMS, the spokeswoman said.

The office audits union financial disclosures and investigates officer corruption. The new arrivals come at a time when business groups and Republican lawmakers have pressed OLMS to conduct more rigorous oversight of the labor movement. That includes taking a closer look at worker centers, which have faced probes into whether they’re acting as de facto labor unions.

Brown was involved in a massive campaign to decertify a union representing 27,000 home care workers in Minnesota. He also pushed the department last year to investigate a prominent Texas worker center that has been a vocal critic of working conditions on construction projects.

Kovacs has publicly urged OLMS to treat more worker centers as labor unions, requiring them to file detailed financial statements and subjecting them to additional oversight. He has also accused the department of “dragging feet” on a pair of pending regulations to expand union financial disclosures.

The hires follow a relatively inactive three years at OLMS, which has seen few politically-appointed officials since the arrival of director Arthur Rosenfeld. The veteran Republican labor lawyer received a lukewarm response from union opponents like the National Right to Work Foundation, which sources said was concerned about how aggressive OLMS would be under Rosenfeld’s watch.

Brown will be “helping to develop, shape and implement OLMS’ policy, program, and legislative initiatives,” the DOL spokeswoman said via email. Kovacs “will be supporting the Director and helping draft research and policy,” she said.

Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia has yet to tip his hand on plans for OLMS in his first four months on the job. Scalia ran the Labor Department’s legal office for part of the George W. Bush administration, during which OLMS took a forceful approach to union oversight.

Former labor chief Alexander Acosta, Scalia’s predecessor, was known for a cautious philosophy on labor policy that frustrated some hard-line conservatives who felt he was afraid of angering unions.

Worker Center Scrutiny

Heightened scrutiny of worker centers would satisfy a longtime campaign from the business lobby to start categorizing the nonprofit groups as labor organizations required to submit financial filings to OLMS.

Worker centers is a catch-all phrase referring to an amorphous category of advocacy groups that have grown in popularity, as union membership declines nationwide. They often focus on securing protections for low-income, vulnerable workers, including immigrants.

Some of the groups have mounted pressure campaigns against specific employers. That means the DOL should classify them as unions, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business groups have said.

Brown prompted an investigation into the Texas Workers Defense Project last summer after lodging a complaint with OLMS. That probe was confirmed by Jared Rodriguez, president of the Alliance for Economic Freedom where Brown worked at the time. A DOL spokeswoman acknowledged a “complaint pending before the Department concerning the Workers Defense Project,” but didn’t elaborate on the status of any investigation.

Brown won’t participate in handling the complaint at the Labor Department, the spokeswoman said.

“Rusty is a good man. I know he’s done good work and should serve the department well,” said Rodriguez.

Worker centers and their supporters argue that the groups aren’t unions because they don’t engage in collective bargaining. The push to classify worker centers as unions is simply a ploy to drown the organizations in paperwork and distract them from aiding workers, advocates say.

“It’s no surprise that the Trump Administration continues to pack the Department of Labor with people who are hostile to workers, especially low-wage and immigrant workers—appointees who will try to deter workers from speaking up or organizing to remedy violations of baseline labor and employment protections,” said Charlotte Noss, the worker center program director at the National Employment Law Project, in an emailed statement.

The Labor Department in 2017 also opened a worker center investigation into the Minneapolis-based Centro de Trabajadores Unidos. The group has successfully forced Target and other retailers to hire unionized janitors.

The Workers Defense Project declined to comment.

SEIU Decertification

Brown, whose online bio states he “led the largest union decertification campaign in United States history,” has amassed numerous titles in recent years, including vice president of the union avoidance consultancy RWP Labor, a Washington-based group. He helped collect signatures to remove Service Employees International Union as the exclusive representative for some 27,000 Minnesota personal care attendants.

“He was a volunteer who worked extensively to help reach PCAs on the campaign for the decertification election,” said Doug Seaton, an attorney for the workers seeking to oust the union. “Rusty certainly was instrumental.”

A legal battle has left SEIU in place as the attendants union representative for now, Seaton said.

“Like anybody else, unions need their own watchdogs and their own checks and balances, and that very small section of the Labor Department is the one agency that provides that,” Seaton said of OLMS. “And I think this agency needs to be beefed up and I think Rusty brings some good background to that agency.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Ben Penn in Washington at bpenn@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Terence Hyland at thyland@bloomberglaw.com; Chris Opfer at copfer@bloomberglaw.com

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