Senate Democrats grilled now acting Labor Secretary Patrick Pizzella during his 2017 confirmation hearing for the No. 2 spot at the department.

Senate Democrats grilled now acting Labor Secretary Patrick Pizzella during his 2017 confirmation hearing for the No. 2 spot at the department. U.S. Senate via YouTube

Acting Labor Secretary Has a Long Paper Trail

Patrick Pizzella spelled out his positions on performance management, official time and accountability in a series of op-eds for Government Executive years ago.

For Labor Department employees looking for clues to how acting Labor Secretary Patrick Pizzella may lead the department in the interim before the Senate approves a permanent secretary, the long-time executive has a considerable paper trail revealing his views on federal employee unions, management and leadership. 

In op-eds for Government Executive magazine over the last 14 years, the former chief human capital officer and senior management executive at Labor during the George W. Bush administration and sole Republican member of the Federal Labor Relations Authority during the Obama administration described his efforts to push for stronger performance management, curb the amount of time workers could spend on union business and strengthen efforts to hold officials accountable for their actions.  

Under Bush, Pizzella initiated cost-savings strategies, pushed for greater transparency as a way to improve performance and worked to decrease the number of grievances federal employee unions filed, in part by crafting clearer collective bargaining agreements with them. At the Federal Labor Relations Authority, while his Democratic counterparts ruled in favor of unions, Pizzella wrote many dissents in support of management and supported a court ruling that found collective bargaining is antithetical to inspector general independence. 

Tenure at Labor

“The foundation of effective performance management is commitment by the chief executive to honest, fair and accurate self-assessment,” Pizzella wrote in 2005 when he was Labor’s chief human capital officer. By reducing the number of performance goals and making sure the remaining ones were outcome oriented, he said, the department improved performance and accountability, as measured by George Mason University’s Mercatus Center annual scorecard of agency reports.

Pizzella said transparency was key: “When those accountable for producing results also are accountable for setting goals and reporting progress—and that report is under a bright light—other pieces fall in place.” 

As chief human capital officer, Pizzella implemented several cost-saving strategies to drastically reduce official time, the amount of time union members can spend on union business while at work. As he described in a 2008 op-ed, Labor updated an automated system so managers could monitor their employees’ time use. “This access reduces the misuse of official time by allowing managers to track whether a particular agency, office or employee is using more than a reasonable amount,” he wrote. 

“Since 2004, Labor has reduced official time usage by 37,000 hours, or 40 percent, an average of three hours per bargaining unit employee. The department has been at the vanguard of official time management,” Pizzella wrote in 2008, which saved $1.1 million over the span of about four years.

Next, the department clarified contract ambiguities. “Labor negotiated collective bargaining agreements with its national and field unions to clarify contractual ambiguities and increase flexibility for managers. The new agreements have decreased the number of grievances filed and referred to arbitration. Accordingly, official time usage has been significantly diminished.” Pizzella said.

Lastly, the department developed an alternative dispute resolution program in which they resolved conflicts at the early stages to avoid litigation. 

At the Federal Labor Relations Authority

After the Bush administration, Pizzella returned to the private sector before President Obama tapped him in 2013 to serve as one of three members on the Federal Labor Relations Authority, an independent agency that governs relations between the federal government and its employees, where he stayed until 2017. As mandated by law, all three members cannot be from the same political party, so Pizella was the Republican representative. Not surprisingly, he often dissented from the majority’s decisions. 

In a 2015 case involving an employee’s time request to a supervisor who was not supposed to receive it he wrote, “I do not agree with my colleagues that union representatives should be treated differently than other employees when they engage in routine and ministerial acts simply because they carry a union title.” 

A year later, in a case regarding the Defense Department’s relocation of a union office, he said, “This case once again raises the ‘question’ of ‘whether, and to what extent, collective bargaining is appropriate, or statutorily mandated, when it directly impacts’ the ability of the military and its components to fulfill the mission for which those components exist.” 

Pizzella applauded a court decision that overturned a prior FLRA ruling that allowed agencies and unions to bargain over proposals related to inspector general investigations. He wrote in Government Executive in 2014 about the importance of inspector general investigations and their independence. “The court determined that collective bargaining is ‘antithetical’ to IG independence as established by the IG Act. Despite being a member of the FLRA, I believe that the D.C. Circuit got it right in this case. The cause of good government and the interest of the taxpayer will be well-served by this decision,” he said.

Professor of Political Science at The George Washington University Robert Stoker told Government Executive, “One might misread this history to reflect that Pizzella is a bipartisan, career professional. However, he should not be seen as an apolitical choice. During the Obama administration, he held a seat on the Federal Labor Relations Authority that is set aside for a Republican appointee. The context of his participation in the Obama administration is a crucial detail.” 

Democratic Opposition

Many congressional Democrats opposed Pizzella for the deputy secretary position due to his efforts to curb the influence of unions and his support for scaling back regulations that govern worker protections. He won Senate confirmation on a party-line vote of 50-48. No Democrats supported him. 

“It would be irresponsible to put a man with such a strong track record of anti-worker convictions a tweet away from leading the Department of Labor,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wis., prior to the Senate vote. “It is unconscionable that someone with Mr. Pizzella’s background would be the number two leader at the Department of Labor. It is unacceptable that he could be in line to serve as Acting Secretary should Secretary Acosta leave the Department.”

Earlier in July, when former Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta announced he was stepping down, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., tweeted, “After Patrick Pizzella lobbied against labor laws in the Northern Mariana Islands so that companies could run sweatshops, I opposed his nomination for Deputy Secretary of Labor. Picking him as Acting @USDOL Secretary is yet another slap in the face to American workers.” 

Warren was referring to Pizzella’s work as a lobbyist in the mid-1990s at the law firm Preston Gates and Ellis, where he worked to defeat legislation that would have improved working conditions on the Northern Mariana Islands, where goods could be labeled “Made in USA,” even though the location was exempt from U.S. minimum wage and immgiration laws, The New York Times reported.

Where former Labor Secretary Acosta was viewed by many in the Trump administration as moving too slowly on the White House agenda, which includes weakening collective bargaining rights and protections for federal workers, Pizzella is seen as a stronger advocate for the administration’s goals. “I think it’s fair to say that while he will be focused on issues of workplace safety, he will also work to ensure that the workplace is not overly burdened with regulations,” Marc Short, chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence, told the New York Times.

On July 19, President Trump announced that he intends to nominate Eugene Scalia, son of the late Supreme Court Justice, Antonin Scalia, to become the next Labor secretary, although the White House has not yet submitted a formal nomination to the Senate. 

Randy Johnson, a partner at the law firm Seyfarth Shaw LLP, where he leads the government relations practice, has known Pizzella for about 20 years. He told Government Executive Pizzella is a “substantive guy” who “knows the department inside and out.” Johnson said Pizzella will be motivated to accomplish a lot while he holds the position on an acting basis.