It was a photo finish, but Andrew Puzder is the second major casualty of President Trump's administration. Beaten out by Michael Flynn's resignation earlier in the week, on Wednesday Puzder withdrew as the nominee for Secretary of Labor.
Where Flynn was undone by dealings fit for a John le Carre novel, Puzder's was a more pedantic story. He was simply an embarrassment of a nominee, and his withdrawal is a win for workers across the country. Of course, the relief may be short lived.
Puzder is the CEO of CKE Restaurants, a chain that runs the fast food chains Hardee's and Carl Jr.'s. His nomination came under almost immediate fire from the left given CKE's history of labor violations, as well as the notorious Carl Jr.'s ads featuring bikini-clad models.
"I like beautiful women eating burgers in bikinis," he once said when challenged on the ads. "I think it's very American."
This was a nomination almost tailor-made to anger the growing fast-food labor movement as well as women's rights activists. Given Trump's temperament and well-known vindictive streak, it may very well have been an intentional gesture toward those opposition groups.
As a businessman, Puzder has been aggressively anti-labor and the smart money says that Trump's new appointee will share that ideology. Yet this is still good news for workers across America for one simple reason: Trump's next pick might or might not be better, but he or she almost certainly can't be worse.
This is a particularly big deal, because the Secretary of Labor plays an unusually big role in people's day-to-day lives.
It's no secret that when Republicans take office they try to backdoor-abolish departments whose mission they disagree with. Since dissolving the Environmental Protection Agency or the Department of Education might be a bridge too far, far-Right administrations tend to install heads who disagree with the fundamental mission they're tasked to oversee.
For most agencies, in the long run, that's not such a big deal. American government is lumbering and complex, and changing large scale policy like environmental regulation takes a long time. The scope of damage that a single administration can do is, in fact, relatively limited.
The Department of Labor is different. This agency is tasked with representing the rights and interests of workers nationwide, both in policymaking and individual enforcement. Its mandate covers every worker in the country, and whether the Secretary of Labor takes that seriously can make a huge difference on matters from the minimum wage to overtime and even basic issues of personal dignity.
(It's important to note that the National Labor Relations Board also plays an important role in overseeing worker's rights, and is a separate agency independent of the DOL.)
As a CEO, Puzder hasn't just disagreed with all of that. He has flagrantly tried to break almost every law he would have been tasked with enforcing.
In fact, on the same day he announced his withdrawal, the labor union Restaurant Opportunities Centers United announced a sexual harassment lawsuit against CKE.
"The nomination was a big deal," said Ken Jacobs, chair of the UC Berkeley Labor Center. "The Labor Secretary oversees enforcement and sets the regulations of labor standards laws like the minimum wage, overtime and occupational health and safety. Who is in this position can have a big impact on how well wage theft and health and safety violations are investigated, and whether or not workers receive what is due them. This is a big deal."
As Secretary of Labor, Puzder would have had an enormous amount of control and discretion when it comes to enforcing labor standards. A see-no-evil approach would have prejudiced millions of workers across the country who depend on the Department to enforce the law before it becomes a lawsuit.
It would even have hurt businesses that, by losing access to inexpensive preemptive oversight, would have found themselves on the other side of expensive lawsuits.
Yet what made Puzder truly noteworthy was his seeming contempt for labor laws at all.
Puzder and a Hardee's spokeswoman
In his role as CEO, Puzder has been a vocal opponent of the minimum wage and an advocate of increased automation in the workplace. He has argued in favor of immigration, because he believes those workers are easier to exploit, and investigations have found overtime violations, wage theft and child labor at Hardee's locations.
This isn't just a man who disagrees with certain regulations. This is someone who has long demonstrated an open belief that he should be above such things as labor laws and a livable wage.
It isn't a stretch to believe that Puzder would have writ this attitude large.
Calling it "welcome news for working people," the Economic Policy Institute's Heidi Shierholz wrote that "it was abundantly clear from Mr. Puzder's rhetoric opposing basic labor laws and regulations that protect worker' rights and wages, as well as his record of violating those laws as an employer, that he was ill-suited for the role of chief advocate for working people."
"The primary mission of the Labor Secretary is to enforce laws protecting workers," agreed Jacobs. "Puzder's company CKE has been charged with multiple violations of those same laws, and he has been a vocal opponent of the country's labor standards policies… His withdrawal is clearly a win for the many fast food workers and other workers who stood up and opposed his nomination."
Of course, the left shouldn't celebrate too much, because it's almost inevitable that Trump will replace Puzder with someone almost as bad.
According to early reports, Puzder's nomination was not sunk by congressmen suddenly discovering their concern for workers. Instead, he was undone by a series of issues in his personal life.
Most notable was his position on immigration. Caught having hired an undocumented domestic worker, an employee he did not report on his taxes, Puzder's relative support for more open immigration policies came under fire from the Republican Party. By all accounts it was this, and not his opposition to overtime pay, which ultimately sunk his nomination.
And that's a problem, because America needs someone representing its workers.
Many on the Right are increasingly returning to an old fiction that workers and employers should have total freedom of contract. This philosophy, known in the law as the Lochner Era, precludes government interference in the employer/employee relationship through labor laws, instead believing that it's up to the worker to bargain harder or walk away.
It's a farcical idea that died out in the 1930s.
True freedom of contract depends on a bargain between two equals, but employers and individual employees are not equals at the bargaining table. Their potential for loss is too disproportionate. An employer who walks away will have to spend a little more time with an understaffed workforce. An employee risks destitution.
To look at an average American worker and believe that they have freedom of contract is to deeply and arrogantly misunderstand how getting a job works.
It's a problem that unions were meant to solve through collective bargaining (a system not without its own flaws), but with those on the wane the only force left is the government. Ideology aside, employers have a vast amount of power. Workers deserve to have someone in their corner pushing back.
Whatever voice they get from the Trump administration will probably be small.
But the new secretary of labor will still probably be better than Andrew Puzder.