Julie Su, a long-time lawyer and workers advocate, is in line to become the next secretary of labor pending confirmation by the Senate.
President Joe Biden reiterated his promise to be the “most pro-union President in presidential history” with his nomination of Su, whose resume is studded with cases investigating wage theft and workplace laws in California as secretary of the Labor and Workforce Development Agency under Gov. Gavin Newsom and as U.S. deputy labor secretary under the outgoing Marty Walsh.
“Julie knows in her bones ... the people who get up every morning and go to work and bust their necks just to make an honest living deserve something — someone to fight on their side to give them an even shot,” Biden said in remarks on March 1.
Democratic lawmakers and labor unions have expressed their support for Su, saying she is a “a fierce champion for unions” and her installation, if approved, would be “a huge victory for America’s Asian and Pacific Islander communities and working families,” tweeted New Mexico Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto.
Su is likely to, and has already, faced opposition by Republicans who have qualms about her continuing the Biden administration’s “weaponized bureaucracy at the Department of Labor,” as Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said in comments Tuesday. Su was confirmed in 2021 as deputy by a 50 to 47 vote, with no Republicans voting to approve her.
She came under fire during her nomination for her California AB5 law, which required companies that hire independent contractors to reclassify them as employees, and for her oversight of the state unemployment insurance system, which is being reamed by Congress for potentially billions of dollars in fraudulent payments.
“It is disappointing that the President welcomes this record of failure to his cabinet and seeks to promote such broken policies at the federal level that have resulted in disaster for workers and our economy,” said Rep. Michelle Steel of California in a statement.
Still, from an inside-the-cabinet perspective, her transition to secretary is likely to be smooth given the predictability of her nomination; she was second-in-command under Walsh, is already vetted and has been involved in policymaking thus far that’s likely to continue.
“I think for the administration, this move makes a lot of sense,” said Jim Plunkett, a partner at Ogletree Deakins and the former director for labor policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, in an interview. “A lot of people saw this coming as soon as that news broke about Secretary Walsh leaving for the NHL Players Association.”
“One, you know, politically, this administration likes to pat itself on the back for a diverse cabinet,” he added. “This is another win for them in that arena, but even more so, she’s been there for two years. Not only does she have this experience with the substantive legal and policy issues, but she knows how things work in the Francis Perkins building for the last two years under under this administration.”
Everett Kelley, president of the largest federal employee union, the American Federation for Government Employees, said Su is “preeminently qualified to lead the Department of Labor.”
In her current role, Su serves as the de-facto chief operating officer for the department, overseeing its workforce, managing its budget and executing priorities of the secretary.
Her influence is likely to be felt in the way she finishes policies that are still half-baked, Plunkett said.
One such area of pending regulation for the department is determination of employee or independent contractor classification under the Fair Labor Standards Act, which was open for feedback until December and is expected to be finalized in May, according to the agency’s regulatory agenda.
Plunkett said he expects a continuation of policy that’s already in the works under Su, at least initially, which the Biden administration is likely to benefit from in terms of a unified, continuous front on issues like independent contractors, overtime, paid time off and the Family and Medical Leave Act.
Su is also well-known for her strong litigation and enforcement of minimum wage and occupational safety standards during her tenure in California’s state government.
A May 2013 report of her leadership there as labor commissioner found that “the last two years of enforcement activity have been the most robust by almost every measure in the division’s history.’
Su developed a criminal investigation unit to go after unscrupulous labor practices and through various initiatives charted the highest number of civil penalties assessed in a decade. Her goal, she said was to increase compliance with labor laws, not indiscriminately target employers already following them.
Still, Republicans may be wary of Su flexing an enforcement arm in the department, especially after rumors circled about the IRS arming up its agents as law enforcers.
“To say that Su failed in her previous role as labor secretary in California is an extreme understatement,” said California Congressman Kevin Kiley, who chairs the Subcommittee on Workforce Protections. “The amount of suffering Su’s Labor Department inflicted on my constituents and millions of Californians should entirely disqualify Su from consideration.”
As agencies head into the budget process for fiscal 2024, if Su wants to put money where her priorities lie, she’ll be up against House Republicans who may want more answers about them, Plunkett said.
“The broader discussion about the state of the economy, people working from home, people wanting to work differently in non-traditional ways, that could be a line of inquiry from the Republicans, like, ‘Are your policy preferences right for employers and employees and workers in this economy at this time?’”
Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.